Input Goals vs Output Goals
In 1981, a consultant named George Doran published a paper called: “S.M.A.R.T. Way to Write Management’s Goals and Objectives.”
Since then, SMART has become a common strategy in goal setting.
So why do we constantly forget about it, especially when it comes to personal goals? Ask people about their New Year’s Resolutions and you’ll get responses like:
- “Get in shape this year.”
- “Learn how to code.”
- “Find a girlfriend.”
We continue to create nice-sounding, but vague goals that get us nowhere.
My half-baked hypothesis for why this happen is because no one remembers the SMART acronym.
Instead, I use a goal setting framework that’s much easier for me to remember to act upon.
It’s the idea of focusing on input goals rather than output goals.
(That’s only 2 things to remember vs 5, math win!)
If you’re already familiar with SMART goals, then this concept will feel even more intuitive to you.
Let’s define things first.
Output Goal: a goal defined by its desired output, or result. This is the typical way that 90% of people think of, and approach goals.
Some examples of output goals:
- “Get six pack abs.”
- “Become a millionaire.”
- “Run a marathon.”
Because these are largely external to one’s realm of control, I’ll proceed to make an entire case against output goals, but read ’til the end to find out how to leverage output goals for benefit.
Input Goal: a goal defined by input, or the effort that someone puts in. This is more actionable, as you’ll see in the following examples in which I convert output goals into input goals:
“Get six pack abs.” > “Work out 3 times a week.”
“Become a millionaire.” > “Spend 4 hours a day on my side hustle.”
“Run a marathon.” > “Run for half an hour daily.”
Even at the definition-level alone, it’s easy to intuit why input goals are often vastly more effective than output goals.
Input goals place goals directly within your realm of control.
Instead of clawing towards a shapeless destination, input goals are easier to track.
While output goals are “one and done,” input goals are easier to measure progress over time.
It’s easier to write an hour a day than to write a novel.
It’s easier to do 50 pushups a day than wake up with abs on your stomach.
Input goals force you to focus on the core actions that matter. Starting with smaller steps builds momentum, which then increases the likelihood of sustaining progress.
How to Develop Input Goals
Input goals are often hidden in plain sight, within output goals:
With a goal like “write a bestselling book,” it’s something external — the marketplace — that decides whether a book is a bestseller or not.
But what do you absolutely have to do?
You have to write. It focuses on the action.
What is the unavoidable action required for this to happen?
Another common output goal is “travel the world.”
What is required to travel? Usually money and free time.
So an input goal can be “Save $4000 to visit 3 countries.”
A time for output goals
I seemingly spent this entire essay convincing you against using output goals. But there’s still a time and place for them.
Let’s compare input & output goals against the SMART goal framework: Specific, measurable, achievable, results-focused, time-bound.
Since output goals are so results-focused, they can provide a huge motivational boost.
Think of the type of goals that, when said them out loud, stir your loins and speak to you at an emotional level:
- Start a podcast
- Do a spartan-race
- Go skydiving
As you might have suspected, there’s a time and place for both output goals and input goals. They’re not mutually exclusive.
Output goals can be especially good for “one-off” goals that
Perhaps the motivational value behind an output goal outweighs its measurability.
And if an output goal ever becomes out of reach, then consider converting it to a more actionable input goal.
Goal setting is a meta skill
Goal setting and habit development are “meta” skills that, when learned, can lead to mastery of multiple other skills.
Leveraging the concept of “inputs” vs “outputs” has made goal setting not only easier, but also more fun.
It’s because input goals place the focus on process over results.
If you’re process oriented, you’re more likely to get into the flow of work and enjoy the activity itself, which makes all future work easier and more sustainable.
Imagine what a difference it’d be if you found the hard things in life (homework? projects?) enjoyable rather than dreadful.
By utilizing input and output goals, you can create a virtuous cycle of action and achieve your goals much faster.