Summer can be a great time to set some goals. Perhaps you’ll have more flexibility to invest in your side projects, improve your habits, and cultivate your relationships. Better yet, July also happens to be the beginning of the third quarter, making it the perfect time to set quarterly goals.
Back in 2011, I shared a long post about annual goal setting, but since then I’ve refined my process substantially. Today I’ve wholeheartedly adopted Google’s “Objectives and Key Results” (or “OKRs”) and Snippets systems in my personal life. I’ve found this practice helps me complete larger projects, focus on what’s important, and live more intentionally.
In this article I’ll explain step-by-step how you can set and evaluate your own quarterly goals the Google way.
Full disclosure: OKRs were actually invented at Intel and today are used by many companies including Google, LinkedIn, Twitter and Uber. This article only includes publicly available information about the processes used by these companies…with my own personal tweaks.
Here you’ll find an OKRs template. For my own privacy, I’m using fictional examples for a fictional person, “Jane,” but the document is accurate to my current process. Throughout this article, I’ll refer back to the examples in the template. Feel free to create an editable copy and make it your own. Key notes:
- Table of Contents – The template uses an automatic table of contents. It updates dynamically based on the style hierarchy of your document.
- Q3 Goals – This section shows an example of how my quarterly goals appear when I write them at the beginning of each quarter.
- Q2 Review – This section shows an example of how my goals turn into a “quarterly review” at the end of each quarter.
In addition to the OKRs template, later I’ll introduce the concept of weekly snippets. Weekly snippets are a way to set and keep track of weekly goals. I’ve prepared a weekly snippets template for Jane as well.
Step 1: Define Your Objectives
The “O” in “OKRs” stands for “Objectives.” These are the broader goals you’ll set for the quarter, as opposed to the specific steps you’ll take to achieve them. Looking at Jane’s goals from the template, you’ll find “Get Promoted, Put on Ten Pounds of Muscle, and Nurture Budding Relationship with John…” etc. Here’s some guidance for how to write strong objectives:
a) Write 5-10 total objectives
It’s really important to set the right number of broader goals. In general, I’ve found that about 5-10 total objectives is plenty. More than that and you’ll feel overwhelmed and lose track of the big picture. Limiting the number of objectives will push you to focus on what’s really important. With 5-10 objectives, it’s also easier to remember your overall intentions. Even your short term memory can hold about seven items, so it’s pretty quick and easy to memorize the plan.
I wouldn’t recommend having fewer than five objectives. First, having at least five objectives will encourage you to set diverse intentions for the quarter. With just two objectives, you’ll be left deciding whether to prioritize your family or your career or your hobbies.
With at least five objectives, you’ll have room for all the important things. This will help you become a well-rounded person, while also avoiding the risks of putting “all your eggs in one basket.”
b) Every objective should be “big”
With only 5-10 objectives guiding your quarter, each should consume roughly 1-2 weeks of your time. “Get promoted” is a great objective because it will take many steps and a significant time commitment. “Call grandma” isn’t a great objective because it’s too small. Objectives should be broad enough that they can be broken into smaller steps or sub-tasks. A better objective might be, “Foster deeper relationship with grandparents.” This objective could include KRs like, “Call grandma once every two weeks,” “Visit grandpa twice,” “Ask grandpa about his childhood” etc.
c) Label categories and ensure balance
I’ve found it extremely helpful to categorize my objectives. When I first began getting serious about goal-setting, categorizing really helped me see how imbalanced I’d become. I had lots of “career” objectives, but few personal objectives. In the template, Jane has categorized her objectives into career, fitness, spirituality, relationship, social and other. These categories make it really easy to see how she is prioritizing the different aspects of her life.
Take a moment and think about what categories are important to you. This can be a valuable step on its own, even if you stop right there.
d) Order based on your priorities
Think hard about which objectives are really the most important to you this quarter, and put those at the top. In the example, Jane’s top priorities in Q2 were her relationship goals and deciding grad school plans, while in Q3 her top priorities were to get promoted and to complete grad school applications.
By the end of Q2 Jane was much happier with her romantic life, so the relationship objective needed less of her attention. Meanwhile, getting a promotion became a real possibility in Q3, so she chose to make that a top priority.
e) Make objectives measurable where appropriate
Some objectives have natural milestones and metrics. For example, “get promoted” is a really nice milestone for Jane’s broader efforts to perform well at work in Q3. It’s clear, it’s measurable, it’s exciting, it’s important, and it does a great job encapsulating Jane’s broader professional efforts. Similarly, “put on ten pounds of muscle” is a great unifying metric for Jane’s fitness goals. Ultimately, this is the metric she cares about because she has a vision of herself becoming more muscular and fit, and it’s appropriate for her to focus her efforts around that metric. I especially like to define measurable objectives when there is a single metric or milestone that is clearly most important to me.
In other cases, a broader thematic objective is more appropriate, even if it’s not measurable. For example, Jane’s social goal in Q3 is, “Become the hostess with the most-est.” Here she knows she wants to invest in hosting social gatherings, but there isn’t a single milestone or metric that unifies her intended efforts. She wants to have people over more often, she wants to cook new meals for her guests, she wants to host a big party, and she wants to plan a trip. It’s hard to fold these disparate efforts under a single metric or milestone. Instead, she chooses a fun thematic objective while relying on measurable “Key Results.”
Step 2: Set Key Results
The “KR” in “OKRs” stands for “Key Results.” “Key Results” are the specific, measurable milestones and metrics that demonstrate progress towards achieving the broader objective. For every objective, you’ll want to think about what smaller steps will demonstrate progress. For example, Jane’s objective to complete her grad school application has the following key results:
KR: Create portfolio website for Made-up Design School
KR: Secure three letters of reference
KR: Write personal essay
KR: Fill out and submit application to Made-up Design School
Each of these key results is a measurable step Jane can take that will bring her closer towards completing her grad school application. Here’s some guidance for how to write strong KRs:
a) Write 3-10 KRs for each objective
Key results should be detailed enough to make your objectives feel more concrete and achievable. For example, Jane’s Q3 objective to complete her grad school application really has many distinct parts. She needs to create her portfolio website, get some letters of reference, writer a personal essay, etc. Listing out these “key results” helps her know what majors steps she must take to achieve the broader objective.
b) KRs can be like steps, metrics or sub-projects
Wikipedia describes KRs as “quantitative metrics used to measure if the objective has been met,” but I actually disagree. In my experience, KRs actually can be like steps, metrics or sub-projects. All are measurable, but they aren’t always “metrics.”
The point is to detail how you plan to achieve and measure your broader objective. For example, Jane’s grad school application KRs are really like “sub-projects.” Each KR in that case is its own separable task contributing towards the broader achievement of the objective. On the other hand, the final KR in that section (“…submit applications”) is more like the final “step” in a series. She cannot submit her application to design school until she completes the other steps in the process.
Other KRs read more like metrics that specify the broader objective. For example, “Cook for 2+ friends 4x” helps to define what Jane means by the objective “Become the Hostess with the Most-est.” All these different kinds of KRs have their place and are good ways to specify your intentions. The important thing is to get a clear, measurable picture of what “success” looks like at the end of the quarter.
c) KRs should be measurable
While KRs aren’t necessarily “metrics,” they *should* be measurable. For example, Jane’s fitness KR is to “lift for 60mins 3x/week.” She can keep track of how often she lifts and for what duration, and she can measure how close she was to achieving that result. Sometimes a measurable KR is just a specific milestone, such as “host a party with 15+ attendees.” There’s no complex math needed here, but Jane can look at that KR and assess how close she was to achieving that result.
Sometimes KRs are a little fuzzier, such as “Do something special for John’s bday,” and that can be okay too as long as you know what you mean. In this example, Jane probably knows that a quick text message to say “happy bday” won’t count as “special.” Special might mean a novel activity, gift or a handmade notecard. She could specify that, but it’s probably not necessary for personal OKRs.
Step 3: Set Ambitious Targets and Goals
The purpose of setting goals is to modify your behavior. If setting goals won’t change your behavior, why bother at all? That’s why companies like Google always want you to set goals that are “uncomfortable.”
Goals aren’t simply a description of what you’d do anyway, they are a declaration of an intention to push yourself in a new direction. As you write your OKRs, make sure you’re pushing yourself. Here are a few specific tips:
a) Set ambitious targets
At the end of the quarter, you’ll score your OKRs on a 0.0 to 1.0 scale, where 1.0 means you 100% completed the objective or key result. Companies like Google advise you to set OKRs so that you expect to get 0.7 overall. This way your OKRs will push you to grow and achieve beyond your usual behavior.
For example, in Q2 Jane set a goal to fix 10 user interface bugs, but she ended up fixing 14 user interface bugs without any special effort. With hindsight, she decides this wasn’t a very good KR because it didn’t change her behavior or push her towards greater success. When she looked at her OKRs throughout the quarter, she knew she was on-track and there was no need to try harder. In Q3, she sets the KR to fix 20 user interface bugs, because she wants to have a more challenging target.
b) Include exciting, surprising goals
Setting goals is an opportunity to push yourself to grow and change, and part of that means deciding to do something really new and surprising. For example, in Q2, Jane decides to set the KR to “go skydiving!” It’s something she’s never considered before, but somehow she’s excited about it and she wants to see if she can get up the courage.
There’s something wonderfully empowering about setting a bold intention and seeing yourself follow through. Be sure to include at least a couple specific goals that are a little “uncomfortable.”
c) Include experimental “stretch” goals
Sometimes you have an idea for a goal, but you aren’t really sure if you’re committed to it. In my experience, it’s okay to include a few experimental goals and mark them as “stretch” (this was the nomenclature at Google). This way you’ll have them down in your notes, but they won’t taint your OKRs with the whiff of noncommittment.
For example, Jane knows she wants to gain weight and she might want to hire a personal trainer, but she doesn’t feel sure about it. She writes down “(stretch) Do 3 personal trainer sessions.” This way she has documented the idea, but it’s in a different “experimental” category. When it comes time to review her performance for the quarter, it turns out she didn’t hire a personal trainer, but she doesn’t deduct as many points because she was less committed to that specific KR.
Step 4: Write a Short Narrative Summary
The product OKR documents at Google would generally stop here… but in my personal OKRs, I always like to take the time to write a short narrative summary. This is the proverbial “elevator pitch” of your quarter. For example, in Q3 Jane writes the following:
“This quarter the two most important things are to get my (1) promotion and complete my application to (2) grad school. This will take up most of my time, but outside that I want to prioritize finally (3) gaining some weight, finding a (4) church I like, and nurturing my budding (5) relationship with John.”
This summary is really just recapitulating the main objectives she’s listed below, but in a simple, digestible format. She numbers the key objectives to further emphasize her top priorities. I’ve found that a narrative summary like this is great to look at throughout the quarter to better digest your own broader intentions.
Step 5: Follow and Track Your Progress
Writing OKRs is only half the battle. The second half is to put them to work.
OKRs buried in your documents folder aren’t much better than New Year’s Resolutions lost under confetti and champagne bottles.
a) Set weekly goals based on quarterly goals
A favorite mentor likes to say, “Repetition doesn’t spoil the prayer.” The same goes for OKRs. The more your repeat your OKRs, the more likely it is they will become the guiding mantra for your life. In the past I’ve set my OKRs to be my browser startup page, posted little labels with the key objectives on my bathroom mirror, and tacked my OKRs up on my bulletin board. These approaches are a bit passive, but you may find them helpful.
Personally, I like to make my OKRs a more active part of my weekly planning. Every Monday morning I refer back to my OKRs and write 5-10 measurable weekly goals (or “snippets” from the Google lingo). As I complete these goals, I move them down into a completed section, and by the end of the week, my 5-10 goals have become a record of 5-10 accomplishments. The next Monday morning when I write new snippets for the week, I also spend just a couple minutes reflecting on the past week and give myself a little letter grade (A,B,C,D,F) with a sentence of feedback.
I’ve created a sample snippets document template for Jane to illustrate. In the template you’ll find an example week in progress (10 July – 16 July) and an example completed week (3 July – 9 July). I’ll likely dive into this in greater depth in a future blog post.
b) Track daily goals on a calendar or app
Some of your KRs will be things you should track daily. For example, Jane has goals to drink a protein shake everyday and eat zero potato chips. I highly recommend downloading a simple habit tracker app for your phone in order to keep track of this kind of goal. My favorite for Android is called “Goal Tracker & Habit List.” It provides a simple list of your habits to update daily. Using this app, Jane will see rows for potato chips and protein shakes, and every day she’ll write down a checkmark or an “X.”
Daily habits are a big enough topic for their own post, but for now I’d like to give you two bits of advice. First, don’t set more than five daily goals (fewer is okay too). More than five daily goals starts to get overwhelming and it feels like a burden to keep track. Second, it’s better to set a goal you must achieve each and every day (as opposed to “a few times per week”). Jerry Seinfeld explains it this way:
“For each day that you do your task, put a big mark over that day. After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain. Don’t break the chain.”
– Jerry Seinfeld
Daily habits allow you to create the kind of addictive “chain” Seinfeld is talking about. Your chain or streak becomes a point of pride and it becomes easier to sustain it than to start anew. In addition, true daily goals leave no ambiguity in your daily decision.
c) Update milestones right in your OKRs doc
In addition to weekly snippets and daily habit tracking, go ahead and update your OKRs doc as you achieve your goals. For example, in Q2 the moment Jane creates her OKCupid and Tinder accounts, she gets to give herself a perfect “1.0” for that KR and mark it green (more on scoring later in the post). Marking a KR as “complete” early in the quarter is really satisfying. It creates a subtle self-esteem boost, a feeling of “I can do this” that will help empower you to take on tougher KRs in the list.
As you update progress in your OKRs document, I’d recommend you treat the OKRs themselves as sacrosanct (don’t change them). In other words, go ahead and mark it down when you complete a milestone, but don’t move the milestone. This will give your goals greater weight and influence in your choices.
Step 6: Turn Your “Goals” into a “Review”
Following the steps above, at the end of the quarter you’ll have plenty of data to work with. You’ll have weekly snippets, notes on progress in your OKRs doc and data in your daily habit tracker app. As the quarter wraps up, it’s time to turn your goals into a “Review.” Start out by actually changing the title of your OKRs from “Q3 OKRs” to “Q3 Review.”
a) Score every KR with notes
The first step is to go through each and every KR and give yourself a score. Include notes to justify the scores for future reference and to keep yourself honest. For this stage, I like to use incomplete sentences and shorthand (see Q2 in the template doc for examples).
If you score 0.7 or above, color the KR green; if you score 0.3-0.7, color the KR yellow; and if you score below 0.3, color the KR red. This will make it really easy to skim and see your strong and weak areas. For each objective, give an overall score based roughly on the average of the KRs for that objective.
b) Summarize highlights, midlights and lowlights
Once you’ve scored your OKRs, it’s time to reflect and summarize. I really like to create a section for “highlights, midlights, and lowlights” right above the “plan narrative” from the OKRs. “Highlights” are the few bullet points that best summarize your biggest accomplishments from the quarter. For example, in Q2 Jane writes, “Great follow through dating + met John!; Took GRE and got great score…” “Lowlights” are the few bullet points that best summarize your biggest failings from the quarter.
“Midlights” are other significant areas where you made some progress, but don’t really feel proud of your achievements for whatever reason. For example, Jane writes, “Followed through on Maid of Honor duties” — this was a significant time commitment in the quarter, but she doesn’t really feel excited or proud of the achievement. She includes it because it helps her remember and assess the overall activities of her quarter.
Also include major achievements and failings that may not have been included in your original OKRs. For example, in Q2 Jane writes, “Dropped everything and flew to Virginia to be with grandma in Hospice.” This wasn’t in her goals because it was a total surprise, but she’s proud she made time to be with her grandma. She wants to give herself credit for doing the right thing, rather than implicitly punishing herself for adapting to changing circumstances throughout the quarter.
c) Write a narrative summary and total score
Once you’ve written the summary bullets, it’s time to move on to a final narrative summary. Look at your original narrative summary of your OKRs from when the quarter first started and consider if you lived up to your vision. Roughly average your OKR scores for an overall “score” (will discuss in following section). Here’s what Jane writes for Q2:
“Summary: 0.6 – Overall I’m very happy with the quarter — great follow through on dating, GRE, work projects, bachelorette party (+skydiving!), and dropped everything to be with grandma. Gym habit was slower than planned, spending a little higher, didn’t follow through on counseling or really deciding future direction re: grad school. Need better tracking for daily habits next quarter.”
This summary is short enough to digest but detailed enough to be meaningful. When Jane reads this she feels satisfaction about the major accomplishments of the quarter, but also sees some indication of how she wants to do better next quarter.
Step 7: Learn and Adjust
If you pay attention and care about the OKR process, every time you write goals will be better than the last. After you score your OKRs, take a moment to reflect on how to write better OKRs next time.
a) Are your targets too aggressive, or not aggressive enough?
Your OKR scores usually say more about your predictive powers than your effort.
If you score a perfect 1.0 on all your OKRs, this doesn’t mean you “kicked ass” — it probably means you didn’t set aggressive enough goals. On the other hand, if you score a 0.1, this doesn’t mean you are lazy and horrible — it probably means you were overly optimistic about what you could achieve in the quarter.
At a company like Google, a big part of the OKR process is reviewing the draft OKRs and getting feedback to make sure leadership feels your goals are appropriately aggressive (but also realistic). When it comes to personal OKRs, you need to be your own supervision. As a rule of thumb, if your overall average for OKRs is higher than 0.7, you should set more aggressive targets. If your overall average is lower than 0.7, you should set more modest targets. For example, in Q2 Jane’s overall OKR score is 0.6. This is a really good sign that she set appropriately ambitious goals.
b) Should you be specifying further?
One really common mistake is to write OKRs that are too vague and difficult to measure. For example, in Q2 Jane writes the KR, “Prepare list of grad schools.” The goal is left pretty vague… it could be accomplished by a post-it note with three grad schools on it… or an in-depth spreadsheet with twenty columns and fifty entries. By the end of the quarter, she has technically “completed” the KR as written, but she realizes the list should be “longer and clearer” so she only gives herself a 0.5.
In general, most people will benefit by writing goals that are more specific and easier to measure. It’s possible to error on the side of over-specifying — but the cost here is relatively low. The main drawback to over-specifying is you might end up with a long document, and you might spend a little too long writing and evaluating your performance. More about that in a future blog post.
c) Get fancy and curve your grading scale
One thing I’ve started doing with my own OKRs is to “curve” my grading scale in advance. For example, in Jane’s OKRs she wrote the KR “No smoking all quarter.” This one is kind of tough because how will you score it later? If she smokes once, does that mean she gets a 0.98 at the end of the quarter (1x/92days)? Or does she get a “0.0” because the KR is strictly “false”?
What I recommend in these situations is to go ahead and curve your grading scale in advance. In other words, specify what score you’ll give yourself based on different performance levels. In this case, Jane writes, “No smoking all quarter (1x all quarter = 0.7, 1x/month = 0.5, 1x/week = 0.1).” This way, before the quarter even starts, she knows that smoking just one time drops her all the way down to 0.7.
Goal-setting may seem simple, but there’s a long learning curve. As you get more refined in your practices, you’ll become more and more efficient. Ideally, every bit of time you spend setting goals and tracking progress with pay significant dividends towards making you a better person, living in greater alignment with your highest ideals. I’ve gotten a tremendous sense comfort from refining my own practices, and I hope some of this is useful to you.
Please do let me know if you have any thoughts or questions. I’d be honored to hear from you 🙂