I’ve been using a system of setting and tracking personal goals for the last 3 years. For me, this way has worked out well, so I’m sharing it here. This is not meant to be prescriptive (“do this”), it’s descriptive (“this worked for me”). Here is my 2019 master goaling doc, shown inline at the bottom of the page.
The meta-goal of goaling
The meta-goal of goaling is to stretch yourself to achieve more, and to feel good about what you’ve achieved. Whatever happened this year, it’s always possible to achieve a lot more and feel better about yourself next year. To hijack a Feynman quote, there is plenty of room at the top.
More is better
I find that having lots of goals is fun. Life has multiple arenas: family, fitness, savings, projects, work, traveling, reading, writing, etc. I try to write down multiple goals for each arena, usually about 5 each. In the end, my complete list of goals is usually 2 pages of bullets and sub-bullets in a Google Doc.
This is something I learned while working at Facebook. There the philosophy was that goaling should be aggressive; on average you should hit 50% of your goals (or, 50% of teams should hit their goals). When I set my goals at the beginning of the year, I usually think “I’d be happy to hit 50% of these”, but then I usually end up hitting a bit more, like 60-70%. This always reminds me that there is so much more room to stretch and do more. Very few people are near their capacity, I am definitely not.
I use a Google Doc to write down the goals as bullet points (like “run 1000km”), and separate Google Sheets to track my daily progress towards the goal. I use red, green and orange colors: green when I accomplished what I needed to that day to hit the goal, or when I hit the goal, orange for a missed day, and red if the verdict is out and I missed the goal. These colors carry strong psychological connotation and put pressure---the good kind of pressure---on me to hit my goals. Looking at green is pleasant, green means good.
Visualize numeric goals on charts
For numeric goals (for me, this is fitness related goals) I use a Google Spreadsheet. The master tab has a daily log of activities. One row is one calendar day; if I didn’t do anything that day, it’s orange. If I did, it’s green. Separate tabs show various line charts, showing my progress as I track toward my yearly goal. Charts are another type of visualization that have a strong psychological effect on me in terms of motivating me to get the line to move up and to the right.
Show the goal line
For goals such as "run 1000km", where I continuously make progress, I break it into a daily goal (1000/365 km per day), and show that goal line on the chart in green. This is another strong visual cue that motivates me, I have to follow the goal line.
Look at the goals daily
Goaling only works if you care about the goals. The best way to do that is to look at the goals all the time. I have 3 tabs (one master Google Doc, one Google Spreadsheet for fitness and one Google Spreadsheet for financials) pinned open in Chrome, and look at them daily. I always know how I’m tracking towards my goals.
Set cumulative goals
I find setting cumulative goals like “run 1000km in 2019” works much better for me compared to weekly goals like “run 20km per week in 2019”. The problem with the weekly version is, what happens if you miss your goal on one week? Have you already missed the yearly goal? How many weeks are you allowed to misss? Setting a cumulative goal like “run 1000km in 2019” is great, because it becomes a game: if I don’t go running on a week, no problem, but I’ll have to make it up the following weeks. And knowing that making up is tough, I don’t miss my weekly targets unless there’s a good reason (like illness).
Set S and L goals
Sometimes it’s not clear what the right goal is. Should the target be 500km or 1,000km of running? When I don’t know what the realistic goal is, I set a S and an L goal. Some time down the line I will see if the S goal is too easy of if the L goal is too hard, and focus on hitting the right one. If I decide to hit the S goal, I keep the L goal on the list (marked in red); it’ll be a good stretch goal for next year.
Set realistic goals
If you set unrealistic goals, you will know deep down that you will never hit your goals, or it is very unlikely. If you’re unsure what’s realistic, set S and L goals.
Break your goals into H1 and H2 goals
If your goal is to run 1,000km in a year, break it down into a 500km goal for H1 (Half 1), and an overall goal of 1,000km for H2. This way, when you hit the 500 km sub-goal in June, you can green it out and feel good.
These are personal goals. The meta-goal of goaling is to stretch yourself to do more, and feel good about it on the way. But there's no point to feeling bad about not hitting an unrealistic goal. If you’re some months into the year, and you realize that a goal was too ambitious, it’s okay to re-label it as an L goal and introduce an S goal. Also, sometimes circumstances change (new job, new city, family), and goals become unrealistic; in that case, it’s okay to renegotiate the goal with yourself, and introduce a new, different, better fitting goal.
Use leading metrics
There are leading metrics and lagging metrics. A leading metric is about something actionable today, like going running or cutting calorie intake. A lagging metric is the outcome of the leading metric, like “80kg body mass”. I set my goals as leading metrics, because they can be translated to something I will do daily, and I can keep track of my gradual progress. Also, I find goals like “lose 10kg” poor, because what happens once I lose 10kg? Suppose I lose it by September? Am I done with my yearly goal? If I just gain it back, that’s a fleeting accomplishment. I find it better to set leading metrics goals, which can be translated to daily actions and weekly cadence, ie. routine. It’s easier to maintain your weight if you’re used to running and working out a lot and controlling your calorie intake, and if you feel bad if you miss a day.
Should be up to you
The goals should be up to you, so "get promoted" is not a good personal goal, because it's not up to you: the company could have a bad year, you could get a new manager, etc. Instead, figure out what are the best things you can do to get promoted ("land 4 big features", "mentor 2 juniors", "present at 2 conferences", "organize an offsite") and write those down. A good goal is when you feel bad if you didn't hit it and can blame it on yourself for not trying hard enough.
Track secondary metrics
Secondary metrics are, for example, "% active days" for your activities, or the location split of your running kilometers. Since you're tracking your metrics anyway, these are easy to split and visualize and can give you interesting insights ("wow, I do most of my running indoors").
External commitments, created on purpose by you, can be a great tool for hitting your goals. Simply go around and tell everybody what your goal is. For example, in 2008 I decided to do an Ironman. I gave myself a year to prepare, and in that year I told everybody I met I'm going to do an Ironman. There was no way I could go back on it, I told everybody!
Using daily tracking, colors and cumulative goals (eg. running kilometers accumulate like gold in an RTS game) already gives you a dopamine hit every time you do something and update your tracking. You can get an additional hit if you post about it on Facebook. I think there is social good in this, because it may motivate others to also go out and do something.
My 2019 master goaling doc, after redactions: