Why I’m Not Batting a Thousand on My Personal Goals

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Fogo Island, Newfoundland and Labrador; photo by the author

My first post of the year was about the importance of goal setting. In it, I described my personal goals for 2019, which I presented as OKRs (objectives and key results). An important component of the OKR framework is accountability: a “continuous reassessment and honest and objective grading” of performance against goals, according to Doerr.

So, how am I doing a third of the way through the year?

So-so.

I achieved my Q1 goal for financial savings. I also achieved my Q1 goal for physical fitness, although not for the reasons I expected, and I’m behind on my Q2 goal, putting my full-year goal at risk. I’m behind on my national parks goal (two out of ten); five planned visits were foiled by weather and the U.S. federal government shutdown.

The purpose of this post isn’t to publicly air my failings; rather, it’s to illustrate, both for myself and for my readers, that failing to achieve a goal often comes down to the goal having been crafted poorly in the first place. All of the ability and effort in the world can’t overcome a poorly-crafted goal, and for the most part this is where I went wrong.

In his book, Measure What Matters, John Doerr introduces six common OKR-writing mistakes and traps:

  1. Failing to differentiate between committed and aspirational OKRs
  2. Business-as-usual OKRs
  3. Timid aspirational OKRs
  4. Sandbagging
  5. Low value objectives
  6. Insufficient KRs for committed Os

I avoided the first five traps but fell into the sixth in three ways. These three errors negatively impacted two of my OKRs. Doerr explains this trap as “writing key results that are necessary but not sufficient to collectively complete the objective.” Here are the mistakes I made, and suggestions for how to avoid making them yourself.

In my original post, I wrote, “Diet, exercise, and rest are the primary influencers of physical fitness, and I have room to improve on all three.” While true, my OKR focused too much on exercise and sleep (three of five key results) and not enough on diet. For example, none of the key results suggested that I couldn’t eat pizza every day.

I didn’t ask myself, “What really matters here?” If I had, I’d have remembered that previous successful weight loss always resulted from curbing my pizza, french fry, and bagel intake. When you lose sight of what really matters, you either get lucky or you fail. Don’t rely on luck.

The key results for my physical fitness OKR were:

  • Limit consumption of alcohol to four days each week
  • Limit consumption of dessert to one every two weeks
  • Do thirty minutes of aerobic exercise four times each week
  • Do twenty push-ups five times each week
  • Set aside eight hours for sleep three days each week

There’s a subtle but important difference between the first key result and the next four: the former speaks only to timing, not to timing and magnitude. I could go on a bender four days each week and still achieve the key result, although you can be certain I’d fail to achieve the objective.

This “average of averages” key result should have been expressed in terms of an allowed number of alcoholic beverages each week.

What an embarrassing mistake for a statistician to have made!

Earlier in this post I wrote that five planned national park visits were foiled by weather and the U.S. federal government shutdown. The shutdown was the longest in history: entirely outside of my control, and not something that could reasonably have been anticipated to last as long as it did.

What about the visits that were cancelled because of weather? Do I deserve a pass for them, too? Of course I don’t. The reason is that you’re judged on results, not intentions. As Dave Kellogg has written:

We would have gotten the 30 MQLs from the event if it hadn’t snowed in Boston. But who decided to tempt fate by doing a live event in Boston in February? People who want to be judged on intentions think about the snowstorm; people who want to be judged on results think about the MQLs.

It was my mistake to think I could pull off those visits in the dead of winter. Always mind your surroundings, because while you can’t control the weather, you can choose not to put yourself in a storm’s path.

I ended my original post by saying, “Time spent writing well-crafted OKRs is time well spent.” I should have emphasized well crafted. Hopefully this post will help you to refine your OKRs for Q2 and beyond.

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Written by

Chief Customer Officer at Brightflag. I write about issues relevant to and situations faced by SaaS companies as they scale.

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