On setting goals I might not meet — and adjusting them proactively throughout the year.

Assumed audience: People interested in working effectively, and who (like me) may struggle with disappointment when they fail to meet their goals.

Epistemic status: Hypothesis-formation: I am going to be testing this out in 2023.

Throughout the latter parts of 2022, I found myself increasingly dispirited: the year was quite difficult for our family, with a variety of health issues resulting in limited time to work on side projects. As a consequence, I largely failed to meet a few specific goals I had for composing. On the one hand, I knew that it was perfectly reasonable for me not to have met my goals, given the reality of the year we had experienced. On the other hand, it was thoroughly disappointing to have made less ground than I wanted.1

In reflecting on that experience and thinking about how I wanted to approach my goals in 2023, I realized two things about this kind of goal-setting.

First, it is important to readjust goals proactively throughout the year. On the hitting my goals” side, this feels obvious: If I am having a particularly productive year and hit all my annual goals by the end of May, adding more goals for the rest of the year is fine. Rationally, the same is true of the not hitting my goals” side of things as well: If, in a less productive year, I come to the end of May and am clearly not on track, it is fine to cut back on goals for the rest of the year. The challenge is proactively addressing a negative mismatch, because the associated emotions are so much less pleasant. Doing so is very helpful emotionally in the medium term, though, because holding onto unreasonable goals just feeds frustration as the tension between goal and reality mounts. Biting the bullet lets me deal with the emotional setback once — and then move on.

Second, setting ambitious goals inherently means I might not meet all of them. That is an inversion of my normal feelings on the matter! If I easily accomplish every goal I set, that means my goals were probably too modest, and I likely did not grow much. If I cannot accomplish any of my goals, I was unreasonable at the outset. If, however, I accomplish most of my goals, but cannot quite finish or succeed at one or two of them — particularly those I identify as being a stretch — that is healthy. It indicates I picked goals which were a good fit for my current abilities and circumstances: with room to learn or to fail, but also the chance to succeed.2

I feel hopeful about the goals I wrote down for 2023 with these two ideas in mind. They certainly represent a more reasonable mix: some are easy wins, some are just need to do the work” tasks, and a few are meaty enough that I will be surprised if I actually get to all of them or also if I do not accomplish most of them. Ask me in a year, of course; but it feels like I am better set up for success than I have been any previous year.


  1. Yes, this was also the painful lesson of 2020 and 2021, not learned until I did my end-of-year reflections for 2022. ↩︎

  2. This is a lesson I have learned from my current manager over the past few years at LinkedIn. Our infrastructure teams explicitly aim to set ourselves up with a mix of projects and goals where we should succeed at roughly 70% of what we put on our plates. In that context last 30% is usually a case of This particular R&D effort might or might not produce results,” but also might be This is a long-term play and we don’t know how far we can get it this quarter” or any number of other variants. The key is that we don’t want to be unambitious with our goals. That’s a good call for life, too! ↩︎