I now write on Medium here. You can find some of my old essays below.

How I Set Personal Goals

When we were a twenty-person company in 2011, General Assembly embraced Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) to align everyone's goals and increase transparency. Formulated at Intel and Google, OKRs are a useful management framework popular at growing tech companies. As some of you may know, I like finding ways to apply management techniques to my personal life. It's a useful quirk. For instance, our quarterly planning sessions with my wife Amanda - think of it as board meetings for our relationship - have moved conversations about potentially stressful topics like personal finance from the dinner table to a structured, dedicated session.

But lately I've gone a step further, using OKRs to set and monitor my personal goals. And it's awesome. The combination of high-level, qualitative Objectives with measurable, quantitative Key Results balances the inspirational with the tactical. Here's an example of one of my personal OKRs for this quarter:

Objective: Be healthier than I've ever been Key results:

  • Go to the gym 3x per week (30 total visits in the quarter)
  • Fewer than three fast food meals in the quarter
  • Resting heart rate under 75 bpm by EOQ

As you can see, each high-level objective is tied to multiple measurable key results. A good set of OKRs generally has 2-4 Objectives and 2-4 Key Results per Objective.

When writing good OKRs, nuance is key. Here are four guidelines I've found useful:

Key Results are Not a Task List. It's natural for us to make lists of things we need to accomplish - mow the lawn, take out the trash, get groceries. Those aren't Key Results. Key Results are how we measure the success or failure of what we set out to do. Avoid key results that seem like tasks rather than measurements of accomplishment.

Write inspiring objectives. Objectives don't have to be measurable, but they should inspire you - or your team - to drive for a common goal. "Be healthier than I've ever been" is a strong, clear objective.

Write measurable and indisputable key results. Key results are how you measure progress against your Objective. They should be quantitative and not open to interpretation. In this case, if I achieve all three key results -- 30 visits the the gym, fewer than three fast food meals, and a resting heart rate under 75bpm -- I will consider my Objective achieved.

Set Stretch Goals. Many veterans of OKRs say that you should be pleased to accomplish 70% of your Key Results. If you do better than that, you're either a master of management or you should set more aggressive goals. Hitting fewer than 50% of your Key Results should be a warning sign. So why does this work? Humans long for the ability to claim success and celebrate accomplishment. Without clear goals, it's never going to be clear whether you've achieved what you set out to accomplish. OKRs are a way to frame and define accomplishment.

I set personal Objectives and Key Results on a quarterly basis. The time period is really a matter of taste. I've found yearly objectives to be too long -- too much changes in a year, and it's disheartening to find that your goals are no longer relevant -- and monthly objectives to be too short to make meaningful impacts on your life.

This is one system of many. Regardless of the framework you use, set goals. You can't decide on a path until you know where you're going.