Setting more impactful goals
How reflection and planning can help you get ahead of what you want to accomplish this year
At both Google and Amazon, we do annual planning to prepare for the upcoming year, map our charter to work streams, anticipate headwinds, and create a durable strategy to meet the goals of our organization. A good plan creates clarity, whereas a lousy plan (or a lack of planning) drives uncertainty and loss of momentum. This planning process is critical for the success of the business.
Individual goal setting is equally essential for our non-work success. We cannot expect to thrive at work or in our personal life if we aren’t defining goals and a plan to achieve those goals. We must set goals to strive, to thrive.
Goals need a strategy to achieve them. Like organizational planning and strategy, this process takes some time. If we decide in December that we want to lose weight, it’s not enough to just set a goal to lose weight. There is an amount of evaluation that is needed to consider questions like:
What is my motivation for losing weight?
What caused me to be overweight in the first place?
What factors contribute to me gaining or losing weight?
What lifestyle changes are necessary to lose weight?
How will I hold myself accountable for losing weight?
How much weight do I want to lose? What trajectory do I foresee so I can set SMART goals around weight loss?
And so forth. Reflection and often some research are required to create a strategy for how we’d go about losing weight. Similarly, reflection and planning are necessary to excel in new areas of our lives.
Getting yourself unstuck and moving ahead
During mentoring conversations, I often hear remarks like “I’m not growing in my career” or “I feel stuck.” People usually reach this point when they’ve gotten comfortable in their current role and level. But as the common saying goes, “what got you here won’t get you there.” You can’t expect to progress in your career while doing the same thin you’ve been doing. You’ll have to change something about how you work to move ahead.
This state of “stuckness” sucks. But as with organizational planning, unstucking yourself requires time to reflect, plan, and develop a strategy. You will never get unstuck by whining or by doing nothing. Identify what you want to achieve (i.e., a goal) and then put time into reflecting on this. Write it down. Sketch a storyboard. Make a slide deck. Use whatever tools you want to use to contemplate. Produce something that helps you iterate through your thinking. Consider what is holding you back and what you need to do to move forward. Decide the best approach you want to take. Then set milestones as you execute the plan.
Depending on the size of your goal and how far behind you are (e.g., how overweight you are; how close you are to a promotion) will depend on how much time you need to spend reflecting and planning. Last year a friend shared their goal to learn how to crack an egg with one hand, so I decided to do the same. This goal required a bit of research but relatively little reflection— just practice. If you want to read more this year, you'll want to consider what holds you back from reading more in the past and how you'll change this. The bigger the goal, the more thoughtful your approach needs to be.
The next time you feel stuck, take a moment to write down your thoughts and feelings. Here’s some tips I use to reflect:
Use questions: Ask yourself questions to move the conversation with yourself forward. The exchange may be as simple as “How do I feel right now,” “What led me to feel this way,” “What changes are needed for me to feel better,” and then “What are the next steps I want to take.”
Assess your current situation: Take stock of where you are in your career and life, including your job, relationships, health, and overall satisfaction.
Identify what's important to you: Consider what values, interests, and passions drive you, and think about how they align with your current situation.
Reflect on your past: Think about past experiences, successes, and failures and how they have shaped you.
Look to the future: Imagine where you want to be in the future, both personally and professionally.
Look to role models: Think about someone who you look up to and admire. Consider what skills and behaviors they emulate that you also want.
You should only achieve 70% of your goals.
If you meet every goal, are you dreaming big enough about your life and what you can do?
At Google, we use the OKR process to write goals. It involves identifying Objectives and then Key Results to measure the delivery of those objectives. If you haven’t read about OKRs before, look at this OKR guide. It’s a pretty exciting process.
A key aspect of OKRs is how you tally completion. The general rule is that you should only meet 70% of your OKRs. The intent is that your goals should stretch you to more than you can actually accomplish. Rather than feeling deflated by not achieving everything, you can be glad for the 70% you did achieve and reflect on what caused you to miss the 30%.
I use this similar perspective when I write my annual goals. I usually write about 15-20 goals for myself every year. I don’t just focus on one area I want to grow but look for opportunities in many corners of my life. This year was the first time I took a moment to reflect on the goals I achieved and those I didn’t.
When I looked at the goals I didn’t achieve, it made me consider what happened in my life in 2022, which made me miss specific goals. I had a lot of new experiences last year through travel and trying new hobbies, which weren’t related to my goals but took time from the goals I set. Looking back, I wouldn’t change how my year last year went. I'm grateful for the new experiences even if I missed a few goals. The time I took to pause helped clarify how I wanted to set goals for 2023.
Use themes to structure your goals.
For the last 6 or 7 years, I’ve set goals for myself every January across several themes. I write about 2-5 goals per category. This year, the themes I chose are:
Emotional: Areas of emotional well-being, self-care, and emotional intelligence. Example goal this year: Take a mental health day for me every month.
Physical: Investments in my body and physical well-being. Example goal this year: Run a half marathon by July
Mental: Areas I invest in my brain, such as learning or my attention. Example goal this year: Stop browsing reels on my phone 😅
Career: Areas around my work-related interests and ambitions. Example goal this year: Grow newsletter to 10,000 subscribers.
Relationships: Growing relationships with friends and family. Example goal this year: dinner once a month with friends.
New skills: Areas I want to improve or gain new skills. Example goal this year: Take ski lessons to become comfortable skiing fast on variable snow conditions.
The categories help organize my perspective around where I’m investing in myself to be balanced. Over the years, the categories have evolved as my understanding of myself and where I’m growing has become more nuanced.
This same approach can work when creating goals for yourself at work. Your categories will look different, like “Impact delivered,” but may still include ones like “Relationships” (i.e., how you invest in your coworkers) or “New skills” (i.e., hard or soft skills you want to focus on this year).
As you consider your goals, also consider "reverse goals" that focus on what you want to avoid or eliminate, rather than what you want to achieve. For example, instead of setting a goal to "lose weight," your goal may be to "eliminate processed foods from my diet." What we avoid can be equally as impactful as what we do.
Questions to reflect
Of course, reflections can happen anytime, not just at the start of the year. If you haven't already, consider blocking an hour on your calendar this next week to reflect and plan. How do you want to work or live differently in 2023? Who do you hope to be by the end of this year?
As I mentioned earlier, questions help narrate a conversation with ourselves. In these conversations, be as honest with yourself as possible. The reflection is only for ourselves – to learn from our experiences and decide where we want to go next. There are many lists of questions out there, but I’ll share with you some of my favorites to help you get started:
What am I grateful for this year?
If I could go back in time and give myself one piece of advice at the beginning of this year, what would it be?
What is the most important goal I achieved this year?
What was the most challenging part of this year for me?
What do I want to be known for at this end of this year?
How do I want to be remembered for in my career?
What are my career accomplishments that I am most proud of? Why are those significant to me?
Who do I know who is exceptional in an area of expertise that I admire? What does their day-to-day look like? What skills, competencies, behavioral traits would I need to improve or acquire to travel that career trajectory?
What competencies do I need to learn to be successful in my career in the next 1, 2, and 5 years?
What's my anti-goal? What do I not want to be doing?
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That’s all I have for today. Thanks for taking the time to read. I’d love to hear from you: What are your tips for planning and strategizing around your goals? You can comment publicly or reply directly to this email. If there’s a topic you’d like to read, drop me an email. If you’re finding this newsletter helpful, I’d be grateful if you share this with friends.