The Benefits of Using OKRs to Purposefully Focus Your Personal Life

Aaron Aiken
Feb 12, 2018 · 13 min read

What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.

~ Zig Ziglar

The great thing about the internet is that you can literally find anything you want to find. You can find things to support your argument, and you can find things to dissuade you.

Example: coffee is bad for you. No, coffee is good for you.

Conclusion: nobody knows. Just drink it if you want to drink it. And pour me a cup or ten while you’re at it.

The same example applies to the various goals I am working on.

  • Finding a remote job (full-time)
  • Starting a freelance writing business
  • Thinking through several non-fiction books I would like to publish eventually (one of which I have the infamous shitty first draft written)

For every single goal above I find articles encouraging each pursuit, and then in the next instant I find articles discouraging them.

This happened to me last night. I was look around the deep crevices of the internet for freelance writing opportunities. (What a dark and scary place the internet can be). As I was searching I came across many articles with writing opportunities and tools, and then others, sometimes on the same website, saying to keep your writing to part-time, or as a hobby entirely. Not something I wanted to hear.

I closed my laptop at that point, completely exhausted. And confused.

What am I doing with my time? What is my life about? What is the purpose of living? Why am I here?

I asked Lindsay to remove all sharp objects from the house.

And then I remembered my OKRs. My Objectives and their Key Results. We’ll talk about them in a minute.

I also realized how dangerous research can be. The constant looking.

Sometimes Google can be like sitting in the middle of a room with 100 people surrounding you. You ask for each person’s opinion on something you are doing. And they all give you something different…at the same time.

What happens in the process is you lose yourself. You may even forget what it was you were looking for in the first place. This is the danger. Losing yourself. Forgetting.

This is why establishing and writing down your goals is vitally important. If you don’t there is a good chance you’ll forget, or get so distracted by the opinions of the internet and people in your life that you move on from your idea without ever giving it a real fighting chance.

Maybe you will fail at whatever it is, but at least you worked towards it and reached some type of conclusion. You’ll also learn lessons along the way that will stay with you for the rest of your life.

This brings us to establishing Objectives and Key Results. Similar to Critical Success Factors (CSFs) and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). I like Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) because they aren’t used in my day job like CSFs and KPIs are :-)

I first learned about OKRs from this phenomenal Trello blog post by Claire Drumond. Then I created a Trello board to track my OKRs and now I reference it daily before anything else.

Let’s review what makes up an OKR and how you can create some for yourself.

Objectives

Objectives are, quite simply, those things you want to achieve. Travel to a new place, learn a new language, start a business, develop a new skill, etc.

Objectives should also be set within a certain timeframe. The easiest way to look at this, especially for personal use, is a single year. In Trello, which we will review below, you could create a board for your 2018 OKRs, and then one for, say, 5-year OKRs, 10-year, and so on. The idea is to know when you want to have each objective completed.

A few notes about objectives

1. Think Big

You have to think anyway, so why not think big?

~ Donald Trump

The bigger the better. Don’t just think of this as a thing you want to do in your life, think of it as a way you are going to change your life. You need to view this as an improvement to who you currently are. At this end of this year, even if you do not achieve your objective, you will be a better person. Smarter. Wiser. Better off than you were 12 months ago.

Make a list of the changes you want to see in your life this year. Then select a few that you can reasonably focus on. Those are your objectives.

Here are my big picture objectives:

  • Start a freelance writing business
  • Land a part-time remote job
  • Land a full-time remote job
  • Get medical issues resolved
  • Pay off student loan

2. But Be Realistic

I always like to look on the optimistic side of life, but I am realistic enough to know that life is a complex matter.

~ Walt Disney

Think big, but don’t set yourself up for failure either. Life happens. Things come up. Things out of your control. Natural disasters. Job loss. Family needs. Illness. You get the idea.

That being said, don’t limit yourself…I believe that we all can accomplish whatever we set our minds to. I choose to think of goals, and being realistic, this way: am I willing to do the work required to reach this goal?

If yes, proceed.

If no, stop (or put it in the 5-year, 10-year, or bucket list).

I also view the timeframe as a necessary evil, but certainly not gospel.

Example: I want to pay off my student loan this year. It is a large amount to pay off. And I may not actually accomplish this by December 31, 2018. BUT by setting this as an Objective, I am setting out to accomplish it and will work as hard as I can to achieve it. If I don’t, it doesn’t matter. The loan amount will be lower than it is now, and I will be that much closer to reaching my objective. Maybe it will float onto my 2019 OKR board, and that’s ok. I will know that I am that much closer to getting rid of the loan (thank God).

Set your objective.

Determine if you are willing to put in the work/time/money/sweat/blood/tears to make it happen.

Then, start.

3. Tell Someone

Accountability breeds response-ability.

~ Stephen Covey

Be cautious with who you let in, but make sure you tell at least one other person what you are setting out to do this year. The goal here is not feedback per se, or even advice, but just someone to hold you accountable. Someone to check in on your progress, hold you to your goals when you feel like quitting, and cheer you on when you are winning. You will have ups and downs during the year and it will be important, and maybe even a key to your success, to have someone there to help you remain focused.

(You could even share your Trello board with them, if they’d like, so that they can see where things are at and what you are working on.)

Key Results

When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.

~ Confucius

Key Results are how you will know if you have reached your Objective(s) or not. Some objectives may only have one key result, others may have multiple.

Don’t complicate this.

Pick one of your objectives to focus on.

Read it out loud.

Now ask yourself what it will look like when that objective has been reached.

Whatever comes to mind is what you should record as your key result(s).

Again, this does not have to be overly complicated.

One of my Objectives is to get a 100% remote full-time job.

My key result? “Got a 100% remote full-time job.”

If I get the job, I achieved my objective. If I didn’t get the job, I still have work to do (and am probably getting closer).

Using Trello to Track Your Progress

I prefer to keep everything about my life (both work, personal, and side projects) organized in Trello. I do this because I have always preferred Trello to other “project management” or “task” applications, and I can utilize services like Zapier and IFTTT to further enhance my overall productivity with Trello.

All of that said, you can very easily keep track of your OKRs any way you’d like. Things, Omnifocus, Asana, Todoist, Bullet Journal, etc. Use whatever is best for how you manage things. The only requirement is that it be easy to access on a daily basis.

If you want to give Trello a try and don’t have an account, head here to create your free account.

Lists

Trello is broken down into three primary areas: boards, lists, and cards. Within a single card you can add just about anything you’d like.

The first thing you need to do after creating your OKR board is to create a list for each Objective.

Here’s what my OKR board looks like. As you can see, each list is a single Objective.

Cards

Now that you have a list for each objective, it is time to add your Key Results.

Each Key Result will be tracked via a card in each list. Again, some Objectives may have a single Key Result, others may have multiple (see image above).

The primary goal here is to make sure you know what success looks like for each objective. This is why I review my board on a daily basis. I take a look at what I have planned for the year, then at each key result. What can I do today to make progress on this Objective based on the Key Result(s)? It helps me to ensure that each day contains something that will move me closer to accomplishing my objectives.

Linking to other boards

A nice feature of Trello is the ability to link cards to other boards and even other cards. This is a great way to track your effort for a single Key Result in more detail on a separate board, but not lose track of it.

So, you can do your daily review of your OKR board, and then jump to a related board for a specific key result (example below). The power of Trello is that you can manage all of this however you’d like. Some may prefer to keep all of their OKR work in a single board. For me, I prefer to keep separate boards for separate efforts, linking things as I go to keep everything tied back to its original purpose.

Click on the Trello attachment will open the “Remote Jobs to Pursue” (see next picture)

A good example on my board is the remote work I’m trying to land. I am currently looking for part-time work for the time being, but then in June will be in a position to have a full-time remote job. I have a list and card for each OKR. I also have a separate board related to my job search where I track jobs found, jobs I’m interested in applying to, and jobs I have applied to. I have linked each key result to this board (see below). Again, organize things in a manner that suits you.

Labels

Finally, back on our OKR board, is labels. Labels is how I have chosen to keep track of the status of each key result.

  • Yellow is “Planning”
  • Green is “In Progress”
  • and Blue is “Complete”.

This makes it very simple to see at a glance where things are, and what I should be working on. Plus, labels allow you to filter your board down so you can very quickly only see things that are in the status of, say, planning. Filter it down and figure out how you can move each planning item into the “In Progress” status.

Once you’ve done that you are good to go! Remember to review this every day, and share it with someone who can help you stay focused as you chip away at things.

The Benefits of Using OKRs in Your Personal Life

When I first read about OKRs I was turned off at the idea of applying something so “technical” to my personal life.

But then I thought it about it some more and, obviously, decided that it wouldn’t hurt anything to try.

If we establish ways to measure success in our work life, why shouldn’t we also the same thing in our personal life? I would argue we should do more of this activity in our personal life, but that’s a topic for another article.

Establishing OKRs in your personal life has many benefits, four of the most important benefits, in my opinion and experience, are below.

1. Know where you are heading

The overused analogy is a heading off on a road trip. Most people have a destination in mind before they embark. A personal favorite of mine is Oxford, Maryland. A quiet little town in the Maryland Eastern Shore.

Before my wife and I leave our house to head to Oxford, I get directions. Those directions keep track of where I am going as I drive, help me make minor adjustments here and there to avoid traffic delays or construction, and ultimately take me to the front door of the bed and breakfast we stay at.

This is what OKRs do in your personal life. They provide you with the destination (objective) and then directions on how to get there (key results).

2. Remain focused in a distracting world

This is probably my favorite benefit, because remaining focused is my biggest personal challenge. I lack focus in a very real way.

Example: I set out in 2008 to get paid for my writing. Then I got a job and veered off from there. I set out to get paid for my writing again 2010, 2012, and 2016. Distractions, “shiny objects”, always came up and I chased after them like a dog chasing a squirrel.

Now here I am again, in 2018, attempting to get paid for my writing via a freelance writing business, exploring the process of traditional publishing, blogging, and even the monetization options here on Medium.

Focus is a really tough thing for me.

Having this OKR board setup for 2018 is a life saver. My daily review keeps my objectives front and center at the start of each day. Whenever a shiny object comes up I will know to avoid it because, simply, it is not an objective for me this year.

(Side note: on a very personal level, I wish Lindsay and I would have used this system back in 2015. In January we did not have the goal of buying a house that year, but then in February we bought one…? It was a shiny object that came out of nowhere, and we didn’t have anything to keep us focused otherwise. So we did it. And honestly, we regret the rushed decision. But, again, topic for another day).

There are always going to be things that come up.

A friend of mine told me a few weeks ago that I should really look into investing in crypto currency. He’s making thousands. Knows people making millions. I checked my OKR board and didn’t see “Invest in Crypto Currency” as an objective or key result, so didn’t give it a second thought. (I knew right away I wasn’t interested, but checking the board was a way to prove it to myself).

3. Easily prioritize and manage your time

If you ever have a “free” hour appear on your schedule, or a free day even (gasp!), having your OKR board will help you determine how to best use your time. What objective are you currently focusing on? Or which one is most pressing? Which key result can you begin to chip away at, or what steps can you take otherwise to make progress towards completing your objective?

Having this information handy will help to avoid wasted time, or time spent working on something that is not getting you closer to your objectives.

4. Achieve your goals or have failed trying

As this is my first year being proactive about taking a measurable approach to my goal setting, I cannot say that I have experienced what it will be like to reach one of my objectives. But, I can certainly imagine what it will be like!

Establishing OKRs will help you to achieve the goals (objectives) that you want to achieve in your life. That, or you will try so hard to achieve a goal but not make it, which is entirely fine! Maybe you decide at that point to remove the objective, or if you still want to keep working at it just carry it forward into the next year. Either way, you will make progress improving your life in ways that you want to improve.


Questions? Comments? Concerns? Thoughts? Opinions? Do you use OKRs and find them helpful? Maybe you don’t like the idea but use another method? I’d love to hear how you set and track your goals for the year.

Aaron Aiken

Written by

Enjoys writing about inspiration and lessons from day to day life. Author of The Experiment and Becoming a Father. https://aaronaiken.me

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade