I use a simple but effective system to reach my goals. At the beginning of every day, week, and quarter I formulate my goals such that I believe I will have an 80% probability of achieving them. I note them down in an Excel sheet and track how many of them I reach before the deadline. If I reach more than 80% of them,  I recalibrate and set more ambitious goals for the next period. Do I reach less than 80% of them, then I set easier or fewer goals for the next period. This system has multiple advantages:

  • It helps to set clear and measurable goals because at the end of the period you will have to indicate whether you reached them or not.
  • It helps to set ambitious goals. I have had periods where I could keep upping the amount and difficulty of my goals, achieving more and more each day.
  • it helps to prevent ruts. Even when you only slept for 2 hours, feel depressed or ill, or it just isn't your day, you can still set goals of which you are 80% sure you can realistically achieve them. Personally, I feel that by still achieving small goals I get some positive rewards which help me to feel better sooner.
  • And maybe most importantly: it helps to get accurate beliefs about what you can and cannot do. This might be the area in life where people have the most biases: Planning Fallacy, Self-deception, Imposter Syndrome or Dunning-Kruger, etc. You might be able to achieve a lot more than you think, or a lot less. In either way, it would be helpful to have more accurate beliefs about this.

If you want to try the system I have a few practical tips:

  • Separate goals over different time periods (I use daily, weekly, and quarterly goals), and try to hit exactly 80% in every type of goal. In the beginning, I underestimated what I could achieve in a day, but overestimated what I could achieve in a week. I learned I should let some daily tasks slip sometimes in order to reach my longer-term goals.
  • Use meta-goals. The biggest failure mode of any system is that you use it enthusiastically in the beginning, but stop using it after a while. One of my recurring weekly goals is: "Set my daily goals at least 4 days this week". Of course, I achieve this goal about 80% of the time.

That's all. Now go reach your goals! Well, exactly 80% of them.

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I've seen a similar approach taken in business through the use of the OKR process (objective key results), which in a common formulation targets 70% completion for similar reasons to you: at 100% completion you are being too conservative and not stretching, and at less your just not getting enough done. It's just as important to target failure as it is success because if you never fail yoyur not talking on enough risk to succeed long-term.

In a previous role I had an informal target of having 50% of our tests fail every year. It was essentially a check that we weren’t getting complacent and just doing what we already knew.

Do you ever find yourself inclined to not work as hard as you could so you don't have to set bigger goals next week? 

No, because I try to align my goals with my general well-being, and not just with raw work output. It's really more about intentional living than working hard. A goal might also be: "Take at least four 20-minute breaks from work today".

That’s actually what they did at YouTube when I worked there. Except the target was 70%.

Interesting! Did they just use it for aggregate business results or was it encouraged for personal goals as well? 

Just aggregate.

Thanks! This seems plausibly effective to me, and if it works, that's awesome!

For how long have you been using this system?

Do you know of anyone else who is using it currently and says it works?

I have been using it for about 4 months now myself now. I have not shared this technique with anyone else yet, so I don't know whether it works for other people. This is one of the reasons why I made this post, to hopefully inspire some other people to use it and see whether it works for them. 

Good idea, I might actually try this one.

Some questions on implementation:

When do you set your daily goals? Are you doing this exercise each morning of the particular day, or are you setting these on the evening before?

Do you have specific time slots set to update the tracking or do you do that each time you complete a task?

Did you change something in the process since you started using it (e.g., something that seemed too arduous or ineffective)?

I do it first thing every morning, Monday-Friday. This is of course a personal preference, but generally I have trouble with establishing habits in evenings, due to reduced executive function. I like to immediately tick a task as completed when done (small dopamine boost), but check when setting new goals, whether there are any unresolved goals from other days.

The main change I have made is separating goals into different time categories. before that, missing a daily goal had as much impact as quarterly goals. Other than that, I haven't changed much to the whole routine.