Third Year of Setting Annual, Personal Goals

I have been setting annual, personal goals since three years ago for each of the following years. While I didn’t achieve all my goals for any of the years, working towards the goals have had many great impacts on my life.

In 2015, one of my personal goals was to apply for a job at Buffer. That goal eventually led me to my current job as a content crafter at Buffer.

In 2016, I aimed to read for an hour per day or at least 10 books for the year. I read 11 books and listened to three audiobooks. That’s the most I have ever read in a year, and I learned a lot from the books.

Why I Set Personal Goals?

Research has found that setting goals increases one’s motivation and performance. But the reason I set personal goals is less scientific. It came from Alice in Wonderland.

In the book, Alice met the Cheshire Cat and asked it which way she should go. When the Cheshire Cat replied that it depends on where she wants to go, Alice said that it doesn’t matter as long as she gets somewhere. “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cheshire Cat, adding that if Alice walked long enough, she will get somewhere.

There are many interpretations of this conversation. My interpretation is this: If I don’t know where I want to go, I’ll eventually reach somewhere as long as I go in a direction. But I don’t want to end up just anywhere. That somewhere might not be where I’d love to be. For instance, I might have a job that I dislike.

Setting personal goals keeps me mindful of what I want to achieve and how I spend my time. I think it’s unproductive to live day-to-day without having an idea (albeit a rough one) of what I want to achieve. Having an end in mind allows me to work towards it instead of living each day aimlessly.

That said, I find it hard to know exactly what I want to achieve many years from now. I have an abstract idea of my long-term dreams but right now, I find planning for a one-year timeframe much more manageable. Maybe when I get better at thinking and planning further into the future, I’d set three, five, or ten-year goals.

Three Years of Iterations

I have refined my goal-setting process slightly each year but it has been mostly the same. There are three things that I’ve been doing consistently:

1. Reflect on the past year
My goal-setting process starts with a reflection on the past year where I’d write down all the important events in the year. I’d push myself to list out as many things as possible so that I’d remember the little yet important things. For the last two years (2015 and 2016), the list had 35 and 33 things respectively.

I’d start by writing down whatever that comes to mind, then think about specific areas of my life such as love, family, friends, growth, career, and financial, and finally I’d refer to the previous year’s list to help spark any memories.

2. Plan holistically
My annual plan considers all the important areas of my life for that year. The set of areas varies a little each year but it usually includes relationships, career, health, and leisure. Since it is a plan for my life, I think it makes sense to plan for every important area than just one or two.

3. Share the plan
Once I’ve set my goals, I’d share the plan with my girlfriend (now fiancé) and a close friend to get their feedback and to keep myself accountable. As I talk to them about my life and personal goals the most, they have the context to understand my goals, know how I think, and would often ask me about my progress towards my goals.

What has changed is that I try to be more specific with my personal goals. Three years ago, my belief was that annual goals should be high-level since the timeframe is long. In my 2015 plan, I had goals like “balance work and family”. It was hard to act on such goals as they were vague. This year, I made my goals more specific by having sub-goals, such as “have at least one dinner with my family per week” and “go for a family trip” under my goal of “always make time for my family”.

How Do You Plan Your Life?

Planning my goals annually keeps me mindful of how I want to live my life each year. I’ll keep up with this practice for many more years, and I want to improve my goal setting and planning process, too. One of the things I’d love to do is to plan longer term.

How do you plan your life or year? Do you have any advice for me?

Thanks!


One of the favorite things I’m learning at work is how to work. This might sound a little silly but I feel it’s quite important so let me explain. When I think of “how to work”, there are several things that come to mind.

(Sorry in advance that I’d leave you with more questions than helpful information!)

First, how to be effective. I have always thought about being efficient (ie. doing things fast and right) but I learned that being effective (ie. doing the right things) should come first. There have been times when I spent hours on a task that isn’t the most important thing I could have been doing. I found categorizing tasks into “Important and urgent”, “Important but not urgent”, “Urgent but not important”, and “Not important and not urgent” a helpful first step. But how to allocate time among them feels like an art, and I don’t think I’ve mastered it yet. On a higher-level, how do I decide what new projects to take on? There are so many exciting ideas to work on but not all will be worth exploring.

Second, how to make full use of my one-on-ones with my team lead. I’m grateful to have a weekly one-on-one with my team lead. I’m not sure how many of my peers have one-on-ones in their companies. Sometimes, I have so much to discuss with my team lead that an hour is not enough. Sometimes, I don’t have a lot in my mind to talk about but I also don’t want to talk just to fill up the hour. How can I make better use of the full hour?

Third, how to plan my day. With teammates across 12 time zones, I feel lucky that I don’t have to stick to a fixed 9-5. On some days, I start at 7 am and stop work by 4 pm. On other days, I start at 7 am, take a long break in the afternoon, and end my day at 9 pm. How do I do enough work, spend enough time knowing my teammates, and also have time for myself and my loved ones? I prefer sticking to a routine but my schedule has been changing every once in a while. I’m still figuring out what’s a good routine to have but perhaps it is meant to change constantly.

Fourth, how much work is enough. Work never ends. There are always more things to do or new things to try — and that’s exciting! Many of us love our job so much that we like to keep working. But that is probably not sustainable. How do I decide what’s enough for the day or the week?

Fifth, how to balance work and team bonding activities. Being a fully-distributed team means we don’t see one another along the hallways, chat in the pantry, or go out for lunch together. (Some of us do meet up once in a while.) So team bonding activities are important. Our People team (ie. Human Resource team) plans activities for us to get together, know one another better, and have fun together. There are many opportunities to bond as a team, too: celebrations for promotions and new roles, showing appreciation and gratitude for each other, sharing personal news or funny stories, and more. These are important but they aren’t work. I think finding a good balance is key to being a happy, productive worker.

Sixth, how to balance work and learning. We are always encouraged to take the time to learn new things and improve ourselves, even during working hours. I’m so glad that “Have a focus on self-improvement” is one of our values. Getting the right work done usually produces immediate results. The effects of improving myself are more long term. How do I balance both immediate and longer-term needs? How do I allocate my time?

Seventh, when to take a break. We have a minimum vacation practice (which is awesome) as we feel that taking the time to recharge ourselves is important. How often should I take a break? How long should the break be? I imagine the answers to these questions differ for everyone. Sometimes, we work harder and longer hours for special events such as a campaign or a launch. But after those events, should I work less than an average day? What’s a good balance?

I have some thoughts on these questions but not the answers yet. I don’t imagine that there are black and white answers, too. They are probably different in different circumstances and for different people. What works best for me now might not work in the future, too. I see this as a continuous learning journey instead of a destination to reach, and I’m excited!


writing-an-article-is-like-creating-a-product

Today, I had a random thought about writing, and I’d love to explore it with you all.

The thought: writing an article — or even a book — is like creating a product.

To write something that people would want to read many times, we can think of the process as creating a product.

Let me elaborate.

Start with a problem

The top reason why startups fail is because there isn’t a market need for their product.

These entrepreneurs usually start with an idea. The idea feels so promising that they want to execute it and create the product. They think it’s a good idea but they usually don’t know if anyone needs the product. After they have created the product, they have to search for people who would use the product.

After reading up more about startups, I learned that the better way is to start with a problem. Find a problem a group of users has and then build a solution for that problem. If the product solves their problem, I’d have already found my users. (Of course, it’s harder than I seem to imply it is.)

This is the same for writing. When I’m eager to share an idea, I write a piece without thinking if anyone would need or want to read it. I admit this is the case for this article. The concept hit me this afternoon, and I felt compelled to share it.

That is alright if I only want to share an idea with others. But if I want to write something people would read, I have to start with their problems.

The better option is to know who I want to write for and write according to their needs. At Buffer, we created four personas based on our researchers’ interviews. This gives us a better idea of who we writing for and what problems they have.

buffer-personas

Introduction as onboarding

A good onboarding process guides users to find the core value of the product as soon as possible. Once users experience what the product can do for them, they are more likely to keep using the product. For instance, for Facebook, it was getting new users to 7 friends within 10 days.

If the onboarding process is too confusing, users might stop using the product then. It doesn’t matter if the product provides people a real value. If the onboarding process doesn’t convince them about that, they might not keep using the product.

The introduction of an article feels like an onboarding process to me. It tells the readers what they can expect from the article. If the introduction convinces the readers that the article would be valuable to them, they will read on.

Even if the article has valuable information, people might not read it if the introduction doesn’t hook them.

Design for usability/readability

Good design isn’t only aesthetically pleasing. Good design allows users to achieve what they want intuitively and easily.

An article can be well-designed too. There are two parts to the design of an article — the formatting and the visuals.

1. Formatting

Research has found that people tend to only scan through articles.

On the average Web page, users have time to read at most 28% of the words during an average visit; 20% is more likely.

But, if the formatting can convey the key points of the article well, readers might be more likely to pick up the key points. Here’s an example of the difference formatting can make (image by Ash Read):

formatted-text-vs-unformatted-text

A technique we use at Buffer is to highlight the key point of a section using a H3 subheading immediately after the H2 heading.

formatting-with-subheadings

People who scan through the article will notice the subheading — or key point — easily and immediately get an idea what the section is about. If it interests them enough, they would read the section.

This post by Ash Read goes into more details about formatting, but here are the 3 key points:

  • Use eye-catching subheadings
  • Make it scannable
  • Write short paragraphs

2. Visuals

Another part of design is the visuals. I’m guilty of using images and graphics just to break up a huge chunk of text. A huge chunk of text can be hard to read as seen in the image above by Ash Read.

Using images is a common practice to give readers breaks while reading the article. But it’s best when the visual is actually explaining something. This post by Jason Fried does it really well.

jason-frieds-post

The article is about how Andrew Mason described Meetup.com. The image explained the idea really well. I could even understand Jason’s point just by reading the title and seeing the image.

To me, that’s a great use of visuals. A picture says a thousand words. While it might not always replace a thousand words, a visual should help explain an idea I want to communicate so that I can use fewer words to describe it.

Solve the problem

At the end of the day, a great product solves the problem of the users.

That is the foundation for the product. An onboarding process can’t be effective if the product doesn’t provide a value in the first place. Great design wouldn’t save a product that isn’t valuable to the target users, too.

Like a great product that users would use repeatedly, an article has to be valuable enough for readers to want to come back and read it again. It has to solve a problem the readers have. There are articles which I read over and over again.

The content of the article forms the foundation of the article. The introduction and design build upon the content. If the content isn’t valuable to the readers, it doesn’t matter if it has a great introduction or if it’s well designed. People might read the article once but never again.

What do you think?

Great products solve a problem that users have, have an onboarding process that lets users experience the core benefits, and are easy and intuitive to use. People use such products over and over again.

Great articles solve a problem that the readers have, have an introduction that attracts readers to keep reading, and are easy to read and understand. People read such articles over and over again.

To me, writing an article is like creating a product.

What do you think of this idea?