Goal setting: How to set and achieve goals

Goal setting: How to set and achieve goals

Courtesy of Paul Barbara

by Sam Prince


Published on 10.31.2019

We set goals every day without thinking much about them. From the minute we wake up to an alarm clock to the time we try to be in bed by, we are participating in a goal-setting process. The problem is, we don't really think of minute things like that as goals. It's all too easy to hit the snooze button for five more minutes of sleep or to binge just one more episode of that addicting Netflix show. And when there's no real price to pay, it's easy to slip into a pattern of bad habits. The dilemma is when we repeatedly hit snooze or stay up too late, we are forming habits.

In a larger sense, the habits we bring to our personal goals affect our work goals, too. As Alexis Gonzales-Black, an organizational-design leader at management consulting firm August Public puts it, "I had been creating goals without any rigor for many, many years, and then when I came to August, we also struggled with setting meaningful goals."

Many organizations and individuals struggle to find an effective goal-setting method. And even those who succeed, like Apartment Therapy founder Maxwell Ryan find themselves asking, "What are we doing next?"

Every step of the way, you need to have a plan—and not just a to-do list, but meaningful goals that can be measured for the long term. But what is a "meaningful goal?" And once you've weighed its worth, how do you measure it?

Tie goals to a purpose

Meaningful goals don't just appear overnight. They should be tied to something more important, more unwavering, and more guiding, like a “North Star.” A North Star is a purpose, and everyone should take the time to not only figure out what it is but write it out, too.

For example, John Doerr, author of "Measure What Matters", knew at a young age that his purpose was to be an entrepreneur like his dad. Through hard work and perseverance, he set his life on that trajectory. Ultimately becoming the Chairman of Kleiner Perkins, a venture capital firm behind companies such as Amazon, Google,and Twitter. (You can read more about his Doerr's personal journey here.)

Companies should also take the time to figure out their purpose so they can publish a mission statement, too. For example, Kleiner Perkins' mission is "to be the first call for founders who want to make history and to partner with them as company builders in pursuit of that goal." Twitter's mission statement "is to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly without barriers."

Once you have a mission statement, you have a light to always look to when setting a new goal. All goals should be illuminated ignited by a purpose, whether they are short term or long term goals.

Make goals measurable

The textbook definition of a goal is: "the result or achievement toward which effort is directed." So let's call that an "Objective" since it's the desired direction. How do you measure advancement in that direction? Milestones—or Key Results—make progress measurable.

The relationship between a mission-aligned objective and tracking progress towards specific milestones is the key idea behind the super simple goal-setting structure "Objectives and Key Results," also-known-as "OKRs." Because while lots of people and companies set goals, many don't make them measurable. And the reverse is also true: while many companies have performance metrics, without putting them into the context of a mission, metrics can come across as “soulless”.

Like Andy Grove says, with OKRs, with whatever goal you set, in the end, you can look at and say, "Did I do that or did I not do it?" Yes or no. No arguments.

This setting and practice makes the OKR process unique: it informs the conversations for meeting a goal. So often we grade our success on completing specific goals alone instead of clearly articulating what success looks like and continuously exchanging knowledge and ideas about how to get there.

Even discussing adopting OKRs at your company can be a measurable goal. Doerr often uses this one at kickoff meetings:

Objective: Meaningfully improve your operating excellence in the next hour, as measured by:

  • Key Result 1: Finishing the session on time.
  • Key Result 2: Getting a 4+ quality rating from our first draft of team OKRs.
  • Key Result 3: 100% commitment to trying OKRs.

See how all the KRs can be graded by a "yes" or "no?"

Let's imagine that the meeting went over by 20 minutes. You'd know that the goal was not met, causing you to reflect on different ways you could improve next time. As our own Coach Ryan says, “I find the more rewarding part of the OKR process is reflecting. It lets you get into a conversation that might otherwise take a year before you get to talking about it.”

Because of simplicity, objectivity, and measurability, OKRs are used by many influential people and leading organizations. U2 frontman Bono uses OKRs for his advocacy foundation the ONE Campaign. Google was founded on OKRs and continues to use them. Code for America uses them to aid American democracy. And the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation uses them for their mission to ensure everyone has a healthy and productive life.

If you're looking to change how to make defined goals, stay committed to goals, and review your goals, OKRs are a good solution for you.

Write your goals

While the above example of a successful company meeting about adopting OKRs was for a single hour, OKRs are typically long-term goals broken down into annual, quarterly or monthly objectives, called an "OKR cycle."

An OKR cycle is a timeline that guides your organization, team, and individual contributors through the OKR process. There’s a cadence to set, check-in, grade, and reflect on OKRs so that goals don’t become the ever-ephemeral New Year's resolution.

To help track OKRs, we recommend a specific formula. Write Objectives as goals and intents, with Key Results that are time-bound and measurable milestones. OKRs are not a complete list of everything you have to do. They are the most important. For any organization, we recommend no more than seven “bite-sized” objectives. Ideally, each objective is stated so simply it fits on one line. Five key results is plenty for each objective.

Here's an example of an annual OKR for a personal goal by Jordan Skole, Editor of Benchmark Bugle, Ventures & Adventures, and Remake Detroit:

O (Objective): Financial Security Against Uncertainty

  • Key Result 1: $6k slush fund
  • KR2: $1 family net worth
  • KR3: $0 high-interest debt (12% or higher)
  • KR4: 25 pt bump in credit score
  • KR5: 100 pt bump in family credit score

For all these KRs, Skole can say "yes" or "no" for the year. If he says "no" to any of them, he did not meet his goal.

Here's an example of an OKR by Google as it expands on its sustainability initiative in its hardware:

O: Make technology that puts people first and expand access to the benefits of technology.

  • KR1: 100% of flagship products launching in 2020 and beyond will have published product environmental reports.
  • KR2: By 2023, Google Nest is committed to installing one million energy and money-saving thermostats in homes that need them most.

Because Google is a large company, each of these higher-level OKRs will be broken down into more specific OKRs within each layer of organization. To learn more about how OKRs can cascade or be bottom-up, click here or here.

If you want more help with OKR examples and how to write them, check this out.

Your first OKR

Writing the first OKR can seem daunting. You may be unsure if it’s good enough. As John Doerr says, “It won’t be perfect the first time.” Like all things in life, it will take trial and error. But you have to keep trying. At first you may tag too many or be zoomed out too much.

You'll get better after the first cycle.

An important thing to remember is that you shouldn’t expect to do OKRs alone. Work together to make them better. And, of course, share them. Put them in a tool where you can all see them, and put dates on the calendar when you'll track your progress. The combo of writing, sharing and tracking is part of the magic of OKRs.

To help with sharing, we recommend these free OKR-tracking tools for smaller organizations, teams, and individuals.

If you're looking for ways to share scaled OKR adoption and usage across a larger company, we recommend these paid tools.

Where can I get more information?

If you want to learn more about the OKR goal-setting process on how to successfully set and achieve goals, we recommend picking up a copy of "Measure What Matters." The #1 New York Times bestseller provides valuable insight into why OKRs are so great for achieving goals.

Or, if you are looking for an OKR coach, check this out.

In the meanwhile, WhatMatters.com is here to help. This piece can guide you through a deeper definition of OKRs with more examples. We also have other FAQS, Resources, Stories, and a direct line of communication available to you. Email us here with any and all goal-setting questions!

Sam Prince (@samprincetweets) is a journalist, storyteller, and the content strategist of WhatMatters.com. 


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Looking for some good examples of customer service or support OKRs? Check out these real-world examples to be inspired to be proactive with customer success.

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Inputs are the tasks needed to be done to reach your goal. Outputs are the outcomes needed. Learn more about inputs vs. outputs here to write more powerful goals with OKRs.

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Common OKR mistakes are all litmus tests to decide: Are you really measuring what matters? Check and see with these common OKR mistakes taken from Google’s OKR playbook.

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What is a good number of OKRs to have? When it comes to objectives and key results, what to focus on can seem like an objective itself. Here’s the answer.

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Why use OKRs? Because OKRs are about way more than just having goals. Objectives and key results help you articulate how you're going to achieve them.

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Are you looking for an OKR coach, speaker, or author? Let John Doerr and the "Measure What Matters" team guide you through OKRs with FAQs, Resources, and Stories.

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If you’re looking for paid ways to scale OKR adoption and usage across a company these tools might be something to look into.

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Organizations that are mission-based can be rewarding but it can be easy to drift from the original mission. Learn how OKRs are great for keeping nonprofits on-track.

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OKRs are great for software engineers because they prioritize ideas and assign metrics to completion. Get inspired by these real-world software engineering OKR examples here.

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A well-defined company purpose provides a clear vision and inspiration for your team. Learn how to find your company's mission with these strategies.

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The 5 key benefits of OKRs include focus, alignment, commitment, tracking, and stretching. Learn more about each of them and how they work here.

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“OKRs” stands for Objectives and Key Results. They are a tool used by individuals, teams, and companies like Google for setting ambitious goals.

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OKRs can be used for office administration to help improve productivity and efficiency across your entire operation. Learn how with these examples.

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OKRs can be used for office administration to help improve productivity and efficiency across your entire operation. Learn how with these examples.

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OKRs are great for setting personal goals outside of the office. Learn how to use them to think through unambiguous life goals.

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Cascading OKRs will help align the various teams and individuals across your company toward the same overall goals. Here are some examples.

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Get exclusive guidance from John, Ryan, and the What Matters team by signing up for our weekly newsletter, Audacious. You’ll learn week-by-week how to sharpen your OKRs and stay on track to reach your goals.