For the last few years, I’ve been fascinated by habit forming, personal development, and the process of “self actualisation” — unlocking the best possible version of yourself.
I’m not interested in the sort of “self-help” personal development that focuses on building confidence and “getting what you want in life” — I’m much more interested in systems and frameworks that help people improve themselves over time and achieve clear measurable goals.
This year, my focus has largely been on developing an array of small positive habits that add up to create significant change in my life. Small things like capping my daily spend, reading 20+ pages per day, having a few vegetarian days each week, and exercising often have helped me become healthier and more fulfilled in my personal life.
Tracking habits daily is a useful exercise, but I found that I was missing something bigger.
I needed to think about my life on a longer time horizon and put my habits within the context of my long-term goals.
To achieve this, I began using the OKRs system in my personal life in Q4, and it’s been immensely useful.
I put this tweet out earlier in the week and a lot of people were interested to see my system, which prompted this blog post.
OKRs stand for Objective Key Results, and they’re a goal-setting framework developed by the legendary Andy Grove when he was CEO of Intel. John Doerr then introduced them to Google and attributed much of Google’s success to the OKR framework, which has popularised the approach in recent years.
We’ve been using OKRs at my company, Encore, since the beginning of 2018, and I can confirm that they’re an effective way to align a team and show clearly how daily activity contributes directly to the bigger picture. This is what led me to apply the framework to my personal life.
In a nutshell: OKRs take big lofty goals, segment them into objectives, and then tie each of those objectives to actionable Key Results.
The Objective is the point on the horizon that you want to get to, and the Key Results are the measures that confirm to you that you’re making progress.
Here’s an example of OKRs in action that is often used in OKR literature:
For the purposes of this blog post, I’m going to assume a working knowledge of OKRs. If you want to learn more about them, I would recommend the following resources:
- This talk by Rick Klau is one of the best introductions to OKRs I’ve come across: — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mJB83EZtAjc
- Google made OKRs famous and have written some great resources in their ReWork site: https://rework.withgoogle.com/guides/set-goals-with-okrs/steps/introduction/
- The MBOs section in High Output Management by Andy Grove is also helpful. I particularly like the section on “putting a stopwatch in the hands of your team so they can measure their own performance”
Once you understand OKRs and you’ve decided that you want to apply them to your personal life, it’s time to get started:
If you’re here for the quick version of this blog post, it’s this:
- Decide on your mission
- Break your mission down into objectives
- Draft your Key Results
- Consider WHY you want to achieve each KR
- Find an accountability partner
- Check in every 2–4 weeks with your partner
My personal OKRs template is available here:
Personal OKRs Template 2018 - James McAulay
James Created by@ thejamesmcaulay, Timeframe, Progress, Q4 Goal, M1, M2, M3 JAMES, Q4 2018, 38. 2%, Beat the Winter…
Step 1: Decide on your Mission
First of all, you need to decide on a mission statement for your quarter.
In Q4 2018, mine is: Beat the Winter slump and finish 2018 as the best version of myself
For the last few years, I’ve noticed that my good habits tend to deteriorate towards the end of the year. I exercise less, I eat more, and I drink more as December gets busy with Christmas and New Year. Eating and drinking more at Christmas isn’t necessarily a problem, provided that I’m exercising enough and looking after my wellbeing more than usual to offset the downsides of gluttony.
Step 2: Break your Mission down into Objectives
Once you have you mission, it’s time to decide which areas of your life you want to improve and work on.
These can be anything you like, but I think it’s important that you keep these separate from work.
My areas of focus for Q4 2018 are:
Step 3: Draft your Key Results
Key Results are specific, timely and measurable indicators of your progress. Your Key Results help you understand whether or not you’re achieving your objectives.
For example, one of my objectives is to improve my fitness.
Within this Objective, I have four KRs:
- Run 4 races (signing up to races forces me to train)
- Run 100k
- Cycle 500k
- Go to the gym 25 times (roughly twice per week)
If I reach an average of 70% or more by the end of Q4, I’ll know that I was successful in improving my fitness.
You should be able to assign a percentage to any KR to indicate how complete it is. If you can’t, your KR is not truly measurable.
Let’s say you wanted to exercise more in Q4. Setting a KR of “Go running more often” would be wrong. How often is ‘more often’?
Instead, you should set a KR along the lines of: “Go running 24 times”, which works out as twice a week. Then, if you got to the end of Q4 and had been running 18 times, you could assign a score of 75% for that KR.
Step 4: Consider WHY you want to achieve each KR
As well as defining KRs, it’s crucial that you consider why you want to achieve each goal. Setting yourself meaningless targets is a sure-fire way to fail. If you can clearly articulate why you want to achieve something, and if you have this reason written down in your OKRs sheet, it will be much easier to motivate yourself when you inevitably hit a slump.
If you can, try to tie these whys to your identity. What sort of person do you want to be? For example, I’m working on meditating more often because I want to be the type of person who is present in my professional and personal lives. This is a tip I picked up from James Clear in his book, Atomic Habits.
Step 5: Find an accountability partner
This is the part that I believe has propelled me to action this quarter.
Find someone who is committed to developing themselves as much as you are. This could be a friend, a colleague, or a family member.
Importantly, I believe it has to be someone that you respect and who you don’t want to let down. Ask them to define their own OKRs, discuss and sense-check what each of you want to have achieved by the end of the quarter, and then get going.
If you’re using Google Sheets to track your OKRs, I would suggest you both track your OKRs in separate tabs within the same sheet. Knowing that your partner can see your progress at any time can be motivating.
Step 6: Check in every 2–4 weeks with your partner
My partner and I checked in at the end of the 4th week. We spent 45 minutes discussing what we wanted to achieve, and assessing why both of us were falling behind. We then set ourselves a goal of each hitting 40% by the mid-point of the quarter.
We also made a fun bet: “Whoever doesn’t reach 40% buys the other a nice glass of whiskey at the local bar.”
On reflection, it wasn’t the reward of a nice whiskey or the potential monetary loss that motivated me. It was the fear of sitting down and saying “I didn’t reach the target” that motivated me more than anything else.
Just talking aloud about your goals makes them a lot more real and visceral, and discussing the why behind your various KRs with somebody else can be extremely motivating.
These are the five steps I’ve followed that have put me on track to achieving my goals in Q4 2018.
You can view my personal OKRs template here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1XKH0qfNHsT108RO3FNEj9AFlshs7wfM5OUDSyc--s9I/edit?usp=sharing
I’ve left the first Objective filled in so you can see how it works.
Let me know how you get on! I’m @thejamesmcaulay on Twitter.
The beauty of this system is that it turns fuzzy and ambiguous goals, like “I want to meditate more often” or “I want to go the gym more” into quantifiable and measurable metrics. It’s worked well for me this quarter, and I hope it helps you too.