5-steps to goal setting in the modern age


Mattan Griffel

May 3, 2015

This article originally appeared on The Next Web

Mattan Griffel is CEO at Y Combinator-backed OneMonth. He’s also a growth hacker, and online learning expert. This post first appeared on Medium.

In the wake of the new year, I’ve thought a lot about setting goals. Both in the context of my personal life and professional life. As a CEO it’s my responsibility to ensure that goals get set and accomplished throughout our company. In this post I’m going to talk about how to set goals properly and also discuss a management technique called OKRs.

Setting goals is important because they have a clarifying and motivating effect. Goals can literally determine priorities, and they allow you to not have to think about what you should be doing all the time. Goals give you a sense of accomplishment and give your work a meaningfulness that you wouldn’t get otherwise.

When we first started One Month, we didn’t have any deadlines. Because we were a startup, we had been trained into believing this mentality that big companies were evil and so meeting, process, and goal-setting were also evil. That they restricted individuality and creativity.

The problem was that after a while no one really knew what we were doing. There was no sense of progress. Sure, on a week by week basis we were getting a lot done. And people were happy that they didn’t have to report to anyone. But after a while everyone started wondering, “What’s the point? Where are we going with all of this? Did I even accomplish anything this month?”

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Of course you accomplished something this month, but if you didn’t have a goal for the month to look back on and say “I did this” or “I didn’t do this,” it’s easy for all your work to kind of blur into one amorphous thing. So we started setting goals and it solved all of that. We feel more challenged, we work harder, and the work we do feels more meaningful.

I realized along the way that just having goals is only half the battle. In order to actually accomplish the goals, you need to set goals in a specific way. This is true for both business and personal goals.

If the goal you set is too ambiguous, task-based, or long-term, then it’s likely that you’re going to fail. Maybe that’s too negative of a few. Let’s put it the other way. It’s possible to construct goals in such a way that they work for you. That they make it easier to accomplish the goal.

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And all it takes is a little bit of extra time and planning up front. A lot of people don’t like time and planning. They like doing. But in my experience, a little bit of extra time up front spent crafting a good goal can save you a lot of time and frustration later on.

So how do you set a good goal?

Every goal has five important qualities to consider:

  1. ambiguity vs concreteness
  2. task-based vs outcome-based
  3. short-term vs long-term
  4. easy vs hard/stretch
  5. measurability

I’ll start with a goal like “Get in shape” because it’s a fairly common New Years’ Resolution. Like I mentioned above, this is a bad goal for a few reasons.

1. Ambiguity vs Concreteness

At face value, “Get in shape” is a fine goal because it’s what you actually want. You feel like you’re out of shape and you want to get in shape. Easy.

The first problem with this goal is it’s really ambiguous. There are a lot of things “Get in shape” could mean. It could mean lose weight, get a six-pack, get stronger, work on cardio, and all of those things look different in both approach and outcome.

In Getting Things Done, David Allen notes that the mind has two modes: Thinking and Doing. When your mind is in Doing mode, it doesn’t really want to be Thinking, and vice-versa. Switching between those two while doing an activity can be exhausting. It interferes with habit development.

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Imagine you decide to go to the gym. Now you’re faced with the question: Should I run on the treadmill or lift weights? Or should I do more yoga? At some point you have to make the decision anyway, but the danger is that you make it subconsciously and differently each time. That way you never put enough dedicated effort into one activity for it to actually make a big change.

A good way to make your goal concrete if you have an ambiguous goal like “Get in shape,” is to ask the following three questions:

a) What does “Getting in shape” look like?

b) How will I know when I’ve accomplished “Getting in shape”?

c) Is “Getting in shape” something I will be able to check off as completed?

It’s fine if you realize that “Getting in shape” to you actually means a few different things. Think of them as sub-goals to the larger goal.

In management, there’s a method of defining and tracking objectives and their outcomes made popular by John Doerr called OKRs. OKRs stands for Objectives and Key Results. The idea is that you set objectives (generally up to five per company, department, and person), which can be something like “Get in shape,” and then you define up to four key results for each objective.

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In this case it might look something like this:

Objective: Get in Shape

Key Results:

  1. Lose ten pounds
  2. Be able to run a 5k
  3. Look good naked

Then you have to ask yourself the three concreteness questions above, but in relation to the key results. If you do, you’ll realize that the last key result is a bad one. It’s easy to know if you’ve lost ten pounds, or if you’re able to run a 5k, but looking good naked is one of those subjective things that is hard for people to agree on. So what about:

Objective: Get in Shape

Key Results:

  1. Lose ten pounds
  2. Be able to run a 5k
  3. Get Body Fat Percentage down to 15%


Note that this is HARD. You may even have to do a bit of research to figure out how to make a goal more concrete. One good way of doing this is to ask someone who does it for a living. Ask a personal trainer, “What are the things that you think about or measure when you’re helping someone get in shape?”

The Backslide:

One of the reasons I suspect people naturally create ambiguous goals is that they want to be able to do “The Backslide” later. It’s a coping mechanism designed to protect you from failure.

If you set an ambiguous goal like “Get in shape,” then at the end of the year when it comes to actually measuring whether you’ve succeeded in hitting your goal, you can always fudge it. You will try to negotiate with yourself. You will change your definition of what “Get in shape” means so that you managed to accomplish it. It’s not a conscious behavior — you’ll actually try to convince yourself that that’s what you meant.

“Well I went to the gym once a week, so I feel like I accomplished my goal.”

Ehhh, was that actually your goal? And did you really go to the gym once a week? Unless you’re clear about what you’re going to measure, it’s easy to shift your definitions around after the fact (more on that later).

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Take another goal, like “Be a better friend” (super ambiguous). Maybe you have one idea of what it means, like getting back in touch with people you haven’t talked to for a while. But the year gets busy and you forget to reach out.

So at the end of the year you think back about whether you “Became a better friend,” and you remember that time that you loaned your friend $10, or that time you said that nice thing when your friend was upset that made them feel better. You might want to say that you accomplished your goal. But you didn’t, at least not as you originally meant it. You failed. But “The Backslide” made sure you didn’t feel like you failed.

Be honest with yourself. Set goals that make it possible for yourself to fail, because it’s also the only way you can truly succeed. Watch out for “The Backslide.”

2. Task-based vs Outcome-based

Almost any goal can be either task-based or outcome-based. A task-based goal is an action or set of actions that should be completed. An outcome-based goal is the intended outcome or effect of those actions.

“Get in shape” is an outcome-based goal because it describes the intended outcome of a set of actions, presumably something like “go to the gym 3x a week” and “eat better.” (maybe “run 3x a week / 45 minutes / 1 mile” instead.)

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(Actually, I’m on the fence about whether “eat better” is a task-based goal or an outcome-based goal. First of all, it’s clearly ambiguous. What does it mean to “eat better”? For some, it means to eat less fat. For others, it means eat less carbs. A third group might say eat more vegetables. And yet even those would be outcomes! The actual actions here might include something like “prepare a low-calorie dinner at home three times a week,” or “stop eating bread.”)

Neither is necessarily bad, but most goals start as outcome-based, and as it individual it helps to be thinking mostly in terms of task-based goals.

A friend of mine named Mathias once bought a loaf of Sourdough bread from a bakery in San Francisco named Tartine. He thought it was amazing. So amazing that he got sad because he thought he’d never be able to bake a loaf of bread that good in his life (not to mention the fact that he had never baked bread before in his life).

So instead of focusing on that outcome, he set himself a task-based goal to “bake 100 loaves of Sourdough bread.” It seemed fairly reasonable (though a lot), and at least much more achievable than the outcome-based “bake a loaf of bread as good as Tartine’s.”

The first few were bad. I mean, really bad. The next few were okay. He eventually started baking four at a time, out of his little kitchen in Brooklyn. Each one he labelled with the # on it. By the time he was on #50, the bread was fantastic. Better than most things I had ever tasted. Last I checked he was on #257.

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That’s the difference between temporary and lasting change. Lasting change requires habit-formation and habit-formation requires accomplishing a set of repeatable tasks regularly.

A quick note here about task-based goals and outcome-based goals within an organization.

I’ve found that within a fast-changing environment like a startup, especially when the connections between tasks and outcomes isn’t clear yet, it’s better to define individual goals based on outcome rather than task.

The first point is that the connection between tasks and outcomes may not be clear yet. For example, at One Month we initially set one marketing goal:

“Get 5 press releases out this quarter.” After doing two press releases, and not getting much traction or the results we were looking for, we decided that doing more press releases wasn’t valuable so we scrapped the goal entirely.

This was a case where we actually started with a task-based goal that was tied to an implicit outcome-based goal that we had never made clear. We know that because we were able to look at the goal of “Get 5 press releases out this quarter” and say, “Well that’s not really going to accomplish what we want.” So what is it that we wanted?!

After sitting and thinking about it for a while, the outcome we were looking for was both brand awareness and traffic to our website. So when the next quarter rolled around, we set two outcome-based goals instead:

  1. Achieve an Aided Branded Awareness Rate of 10 percent within our target demographic
  2. Increase monthly landing page traffic from 30k to 40k

The benefit of setting outcome-based goals here was that we could set goals at the beginning of the quarter around getting more customers without knowing exactly how we would do that yet. This gives individuals the flexibility to try out different things without having to keep changing the goal when some of those things inevitably don’t work out.

It also holds individuals responsible for outcomes rather than tasks. At the end of the day, as a manager you don’t really care if someone did all the things they were supposed to do if it doesn’t accomplish an intended outcome. To have a set of purely task-based goals incentivizes people to do unnecessary work without ever thinking about why they’re doing it.

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However, the downside of setting outcome-based goals is that individuals are responsible for not only coming up with, but also keeping track of, their own tasks for accomplishing the outcomes. You can’t just put up a sign that says “We need to get 10k more people to our site” and call it a day. That’s only the first step. That outcome still needs to be translated into tasks and projects. Team brainstorming sessions can help you come up with ideas for what tasks and projects you can try out to accomplish your goal.

A final note is that measurability will effect your ability to set outcome-based goals. Some outcomes are tactically very hard to measure, so you may end up having to set a task-based goal to avoid the problem of how to measure the results. This isn’t a great situation, since as I mentioned above, the tasks may not actually achieve the results, but sometimes its unavoidable.

3. Short-term vs long-term

This is one of the more obvious features of goals, but commonly misunderstood. All goals generally have some time-frame associated with them, whether explicitly or implicitly. If your goal is to “Write a book,” even though you haven’t stated the timeframe, it’s likely that you have some vague idea of the timing. “Not this year, but within the next 10,” or something like that.

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In general, a mix of short-term and long-term goals is important. Without long-term goals, you end up with a feeling of lack of purpose. You may hit all your short term goals and still feel like you’re not getting anywhere. But in order to hit long-term goals, you must translate them into short term goals.

Long-term goals almost always require some form of habit development. That’s because a long-term goal is inherently more complex, and requires a series of steps, often spanning over a longer period of time. Habit development is aided by short-term goals. Without short-term goals, it’s hard to hit long-term goals.

A different, but related, concept is sub-goaling. This is a technique for breaking down long-term goals into short-term goals. It requires either reducing the scale or breaking down a result into its component part.

Take, for example, the admirable goal of, “Feed one million families (by creating a non-profit).” You may have an idea that this will take 20 years, so the goal would become “Feed one million families in 20 years.”

This is a great goal, but without short-term goals, it will be hard to measure progress along the way. Similarly, if you’re managing a team of people and setting only yearly, or even quarterly goals for each employee, you will be unable to measure progress on a weekly or monthly basis.

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It’s important to do this because goal achievement requires development and iteration of behavior, process, and approach. The actions that you or your employees are taking to accomplish a goal may or may not actually get you to that goal.

By checking in more often, you can measure results against goals and course-correct more quickly, rather than only finding out you didn’t hit our goal after the fact. Requiring a check-in more often also helps actually develop a plan and solidify a habit, whereas something as long-term as, “Write a book within five years” will likely not see progress for a while without a set of short-term goals associated with it.

Reducing the scale involves both reducing the scope and the time-frame. In the case of “Write a book within five years,” you could turn that into “Write a draft within two years.” Or “Write a draft of the first chapter of my book within 1 month.” One technique for doing this is to ask yourself, “If this entire project would take five years, what could I accomplish in two? Or one? Or even a month?”

Associated with this is the idea of sub-goaling. Breaking down a task like “Write a book” into its component parts. This sometimes requires research if you’re less familiar with the nature of the task. Writing a book requires first writing a draft, a book proposal, a sample chapter, finding an editor, and so on.

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Take the more complicated example of “reduce support’s average first response time from 10 hours to five hours” for a support department. There are many ways of tackling this problem. If you understand average first response time, you could break this down into time periods.

You could say, for example, “Increase the percentage of support questions responded to within four hours from 25 percent to 50 percent.” That’s one way of tackling the larger goal. Another is “Decrease the percentage of support questions responded to in more than 24 percent from 20 percent to 10 percent.”

In order to set these subgoals properly, you need to understand the nature of the metric: average first response time to a support issue. One way of dealing with it is to reduce the number of tickets that stay outstanding for a long time. Another way is to respond to the quick tickets even quicker.

Ultimately this may require a sensitivity analysis to determine which of the two makes the most sense to choose.

You may find it useful to set extremely short-term goals, at the level of one week, one day, one hour, or even smaller intervals. This can sometimes correspond to breaking down an outcome-based goal into a task-based goal.

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The outcome-based goal of “Write a draft of the first chapter of my book within one month” will need to be translated into a task-based goal like “spend two hours per week writing every week for the next month.” That’s essentially a weekly goal, which may even need to be broken down further into 20 minutes per day, or one hour per day two days a week, or something like that.

4. Measurability

Once you’ve defined a goal that is concrete, you then will be faced with how easy it is to measure progress against that goal. You’ll find that some goals, while just as concrete as others, are very hard to measure.

You don’t want to pick a goal that requires you actively keeping track of a lot of things. Goals like “Spend two hours per week improving overcoming sales objections,” is theoretically a measurable goal, but it requires keeping track of whether those two hours have been completed every week.

Ideally, you only have to check in on the results of a task a handful of times over the period that you’re measuring, and you don’t want to have to keep track. Setting a task that is difficult to measure will make for more cognitive overhead.

Another example of a goal I’ve set that was inherently difficult to measure was “Achieve aided brand awareness of 8 percent.”

Aided brand awareness can be calculated by taking a sample of people and asking them “Which of the following brands are you familiar with? (list of brands)”

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This is theoretically perfectly measurable, but it takes time. You don’t see the results of your actions until the survey is done.

The ideal goal has an outcome that is measurable in real time. Especially when the tasks that it takes to accomplish that goal are unclear, you need to be able to see the results of the actions that you choose and adjust them several times over whatever period of time you’ve chosen.

In the case of the aided brand awareness goal, you run the risk of doing a whole bunch of things that potentially decrease aided brand awareness, but you might not know it until it’s too late!


When it comes to evaluating your success against a goal later, it helps to have a baseline for where you currently stand. What is your aided brand awareness currently?

If you don’t have a baseline, then when you measure later and get a result, you won’t know what kind of progress this indicates.

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Another reason to have a baseline is that you may not know how measurable or unmeasurable a goal is until you try to get the results the first time. If you don’t have a baseline already, it’s likely that the results are harder to get than you expect.

So by setting a goal where you haven’t measured the baseline yet, you’re actually sneaking in two goals. One is measuring the baseline. For some businesses and some goals, measuring can take days or weeks. If you can swap out the metric that you’re measuring with an equivalent but easier one to measure, it’s almost always a good idea to do so.

5. Easy vs. Hard

This is the most straightforward aspects of goals that we haven’t covered yet. A goal can be either easy or hard to hit.

If your goal is to increases aided brand awareness of your product, increasing it by 1 percent is certainly easier than increasing it by 100 percent.

Generally, you can dial up the difficulty of your goal by just multiplying along whatever vector you’re measuring success by.

It can sometimes be difficult or even impossible to know, but you want to come up with a sense of what kind of change would be easy and what kind would be harder.

With goal setting, this is more of an art.

One philosophy on difficulty that works fairly well is the one behind OKRs. They say that a goal should really be scary — a stretch. That you should aim to hit about 60–70 percent completion of the goal, otherwise it’s not motivational enough.

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To set a high goal has motivational value. Especially if it’s understood that not hitting the goal is acceptable. As Norman Vincent Peale said, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”

On the other hand, consistently failing to hit goals can have a demotivating effect on your team. You may want to set some stretch goals and other easy goals to show immediate progress.

This article was written by Mattan Griffel from The Next Web and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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