Goal Orientation and Process Orientation

A number of years ago, I heard a speaker at a workshop talk about how some people are goal-oriented and some people are process-oriented.

Goal-oriented people work steadily until they achieve their goal. Their motivation is the finished product. Their sense of satisfaction lies in a well-done, finished product. Goal-oriented people tend to work quickly, sometimes to the detriment of the finished product.

Process-oriented people are motivated by the process of a project. They are interested in the planning and development. They receive their satisfaction in the work itself, and the completed process is secondary to the process. Process-oriented people sometimes have trouble finishing a project. By the time they near the end, the process is winding down, and their motivation and interest are lost.

I learned this in terms of teaching. Most academics are process-oriented people (hence the reason so many take so long to finish their PhDs). Unfortunately, most students are goal-oriented people (hence the reason they ask questions like “Will this be on the test?”) . Understanding and working with these differing orientations can help lower frustration for both teachers and students.

Although I teach at a university, I am a goal-oriented person. I like to finish things. As a writer, I work toward that completed manuscript. If I spend a day writing and I don’t have anything to show for it, I’m terribly frustrated. If I finish a scene or a chapter, I feel exhilarated.

There are many goal-oriented writers: you know the ones. They write a book a year for thirty years: Stephen King. Agatha Christie. You can name some of your own, I’m sure.

There are a lot of process-oriented writers too. A former colleague of mine wrote a fantasy trilogy over about a twelve year time period. He sent it off to agents and publishers for several years and finally it was accepted for publication. The first book came out and was an enormous success. The second book in the trilogy is about to come out, four years after the publication of the first. It took him four years to finish something that was already “finished.” I don’t know him very well personally, but I’m guessing he’s a process guy.

That last paragraph made it seem like I think it is better to be goal-oriented. Not at all. A lot of the time, I wish I were process-oriented. I wish I could be satisfied and fascinated by the process. Being goal-oriented, I sometimes go too fast, push things too hard, give up because the road to the finished product seems too long.

I started thinking about all this last week because of a parenting situation. My husband is process-oriented, and he sometimes handled our children in ways that I found unfathomable. For example, when they were little he would sometimes argue and get a tired child all emotional just before bed, when the goal should have been to get the child to calm down and fall asleep. Last week, I realized that he wasn’t looking at the goal, he was looking at the bedtime process and trying to make it a logical, efficient one. The unfathomable became fathomable. It was an epiphany for me.

I think our differing orientations are fortunate for our family. My husband and I have different strengths, and we are adept at learning from each other.

As for writing…. if I could sell a book and afford to work full-time as a writer, I think I could be one of those people popping out a book every year. Doesn’t that seem enticing to you publishers????