Using what I learned at Google to make New Year resolutions
Setting personal goals with OKRs
I stink at making New Year resolutions in general. Probably like most of us, I start the year with high principles that rarely translate into established habits. Within a week or two of the new year, I’ve slipped back into patterns that I know are unhealthy.
It turns out that big companies don’t make New Year resolutions. In my day job as a product manager at Google, my team focuses relentlessly not just on making plans but evaluating and adjusting those plans. And it turns out that this part is at least as important as the original goals: the process of revisiting them and making course corrections along the way is critical to a good outcome.
Using OKRs for personal planning
At Google, we use the OKR process: we set a high-level Objective and break it down into several measurable Key Results that will help us determine whether we’re succeeding at our objectives. Objectives are memorable, often aspirational, and typically describe the “what”. Key results are easily measurable, tangible evidence of progress towards those objectives.
Many people have written about the OKR process, but there are some important characteristics that lend themselves well to personal planning:
- OKRs are easily measurable. You should be able to look at your list and easily identify how you’re doing against your goals. At Google, we score key results on a ten-point scale between 0.0 to 1.0; but the most important thing is that you can honestly evaluate your progress.
- By design, OKRs are ambitious, describing a world that we want to realize. At Google, we’re deeply suspicious of a team that scores 1.0 across the board: they have probably not set lofty enough goals. The idea is to challenge yourself, not describe the status quo.
- OKRs require prioritization. The act of writing them down requires selection: what are you choosing not to invest in? For a personal list of habits or goals, the process of writing them down has the same winnowing effect.
- OKRs require regular re-evaluation. At Google, our team does a monthly review where we score our KRs. The process often drives new realizations: “we said this was important, but we’ve made no new progress” or “this turns out to not be as important as we thought”. For personal goals, this is also useful. As you learn, you may choose different goals, and that’s fine.
My OKRs for 2021
Here are the OKRs that I’ve come up with so far. I share these not as a model or starting point for others, but rather for the accountability that comes with being public about them.
I’m aware of how extraordinary my privileges are in life compared to 99% of the world, both in what I have and what choices I’m able to make. You’re welcome to roast me for my decadence and my white middle-aged male priorities, but I’m trying to be open and vulnerable here, in the spirit of this article about daring to be yourself.
So, in 2021, I plan to:
1. Give more, spend less
- Categorize every expense in Lunch Money.
(Knowing what I’m spending is the first step to choosing how I spend. I’m a big fan of this new personal finance tool, because it provides a high-level picture of your spending without being too heavy on process.)
- Give $X to non-profits.
(I’m redacting the amount, but I have a specific number in my head. As a family, we’re trying to focus our giving on organizations that are locally-led (for example, Hope for Life, a grassroots organization that focuses on homelessness in Rwanda) and/or driven by local needs (for example, DonorsChoose and GiveDirectly).
- Reduce discretionary spending on physical goods by 25%.
(I want to break out of the privileged, American habit of buying things as a leisure activity. This may not be lofty enough of a goal, but I want to better appreciate what I have rather than dreaming of things I don’t have.)
2. Be healthier
- Drink a liter of water per day.
(Yes, you should drink much more than this in total. But specifically, I want to drink more water during the day.)
- Turn the bedside light off before midnight 6 out of 7 days.
(Trying to set a measurable but realistic goal here!)
- Bring no electronic gadget to bed.
(I’m sure this is a factor in my regularly waking up at 3am at present.)
- Exercise at least twice a week.
(Yes, Ring Fit Adventure counts!)
3. Sharpen the saw
- Read 26 books in 2021.
(That’s one every two weeks. The earlier KR of not bringing any gadgets to bed will greatly increase my chances of being successful here, I predict.)
- Complete one online MOOC course each quarter.
(There’s so much free learning out there on platforms like Coursera and edX, and I want to take advantage of it.)
- Complete a new app or package with Flutter.
(This is an overlay with my day job, admittedly, but I rarely get the time to code during working hours, and I think using what my team builds is an important part of loving the job I have.)
- Evaluate my OKRs each month, and share results quarterly.
(The accountability that comes from sharing my progress will both inspire me to do better and perhaps give others confidence from seeing my own imperfection.)
4. Create time for others
- Dedicate at least one evening per week for my wife and I.
(Younger couples may chafe at the idea of planning romance, but it’s important that we find time for each other, for listening and investing in each others’ lives.)
- Dedicate at least one evening per week for my family.
(Again, this isn’t an upper limit, but a required habit, whether a family movie and games night or an outdoor activity.)
- Join the board of a non-profit.
(I’ve recently stepped down from one organization that I’ve been working with, and I hope that I can support a non-profit not just in material wealth but in volunteering time and skills.)
- Invest in others’ joy and success.
(This fails the ‘measurable’ test, at present. I may need to work on this.)
Have you had success in building new habits? I’m curious to hear from others’ feedback and learning. Regardless of your own experiences, I hope that you have a healthy, happy, 2021.