I’ve read a lot of productivity books and tried a lot of productivity “systems”. Each one offers a way to organize your life and promises that you’ll be able to stay on top of everything if only you followed their method. Problem is, most methods feel like they were written for people who only need to be told how to organize themselves but are otherwise motivated and focused people. I’m often not on speaking terms with motivation or focus. So, I’ve salvaged a lot of tools from different methods, but couldn’t find anything that would keep it all together for more than a few weeks.
Until I found OKRs. OKRs stands for Objectives and Key Results. They have nothing to do with organization, and everything to do with focus. And this is what I find to be missing from the productivity methods I’ve followed.
Like Orks but with less dakka.
OKRs let you pick a goal and define what it looks like to accomplish that goal. They help avoid arbitrary or overly ambitious goals, but more importantly they help to evaluate goals.
You want to read a book a week? That’s a Key Result of reading 52 books this year. But what does it accomplish — what’s the Objective? Maybe you have a strong reason, but maybe you have more important things to do with your time. And, maybe, there’s a better way to accomplish what you want than reading a lot of books indiscriminately.
Personally, I’m reading more because you can’t be a good writer without being a consistent reader. My Objective is to be a good writer. I use this Objective to refine what I read, which means I read things that are similar to what I want to write. I’ll skip biographies, for example, although I’d consider one if I thought it would help me write better characters.
The first time I ever saw OKRs used in a professional context was at work in preparation for the next year. They all seemed like fine things to want, but I remember thinking, “I don’t see how I can contribute to any of these.” That was also the last time I saw OKRs used in a professional context because they just quietly let them slide. I suppose they realized their OKRs didn’t reflect what they wanted.
You can’t set a meaningful goal without determining what’s meaningful to you.
Try asking yourself these two questions:
- What do you want your life to look like?
- What would you do if your life looked that way?
The first question gives you an Objective, while the second gives you a Key Result. For example, the only consistent advice that professional writers give across the board is that writers write. Therefore, if my Objective is to be a writer, my Key Result is to write.
If these questions aren’t helpful to you, remember that the important thing is to decide what’s important to you. Then when you have something you care about, decide what needs to happen to prove that you care about it.
An OKR is Not a Task
An okra is a vegetable, and eating it is a task.
The productivity methods I’ve read are primarily about answering the question, what do I need to do right now? This is a great question but it’s absolutely not the first one you should answer, unless you are on fire.
When I say to decide what needs to happen to show that you care about something, I don’t just mean eat your vegetables. Do it, but that’s a Task, not a Key Result. The result you want is to be healthier, and eating your vegetables is just one action that helps to accomplish that result. Don’t get distracted by your Tasks and lose sight of your Key Result. In the (almost) last words of my grandfather, “All that broccoli for nothing.”
This is where OKRs really strut their stuff. Under other productivity methods, it’s tempting to put write on my to-do list and ignore it because it’s intimidating. I may even put write first part of blog post with a due date, if I’m on top of things. But write is a Key Result, not a Task, although English is a goofy language so it’s tempting to see them as the same thing.
No one cares how many first parts of blog posts you write. What you really want is to have written, which means publishing, which is a Key Result. Break your Key Result down into as many Tasks as you like, and keep track of them however you like, but don’t confuse the two. Keep focused on your OKRs.
How To OKRs
Useful means full of use.
Even the best tools are useless if you don’t use them. After picking an Objective, after picking one or more Key Results that prove the objective was accomplished, and after picking only the most pertinent Tasks that accomplish each Key Result, you can walk away and tell everyone about your new year’s resolutions.
I’m kidding, don’t do that. At least, don’t do just that. The real usefulness of OKRs is still ahead.
OKRs help you answer the question, am I doing what I want to be doing? This is a question you should think about more than once.
I use a series of check-ins, from weekly to yearly. Each check-in doesn’t have to be more than a few minutes.
- Process Check-ins (Weekly)
Am I doing what I need to be doing? This is the Task level that other productivity methods are good at. I’m using checklists on a wall so that I can’t ignore my Tasks. If my process is bad, I need to change what (or when) I’m doing.
- Progress Check-ins (Monthly)
Am I finishing what I need to be finishing? This is the Key Result level that keeps your Tasks in line. If I’m writing, that means publishing. A month is the right length of time to see most trends emerge, and I’ll either adjust my expectations or my process if things aren’t going well.
- Purpose Check-ins (Quarterly)
Are my achievements what I wanted to achieve? This is the Objective level that keeps your Key Results in line. If I’m writing, that means consistency and skill. Three months is an excellent length of time to commit to a goal for, to see real progress. If my results are good but I still didn’t achieve what I wanted, I’ll pick new results for the next quarter now that I know better.
- OKR Check-ins (Yearly)
What do I want my life to look like in a year? How did my previous OKRs affect my life? This is a good time to evaluate what’s important to you and reflect on what you’ve accomplished in a year. I like to pick categories of important things, like Art, that I can slot my Objectives under, like be a good writer.
Whatever you do, keep your goals top of mind and you’ll head towards them.
Be On Guard
Tasks can be hard to define and accomplish. Don’t waste too much time here, despite the ubiquitousness of productivity methods that say otherwise. Do the bare minimum to plan out and prepare for what you have to do, then trick yourself into doing it. Do not settle for completing your Tasks without completing your Key Results.
Motivation will come and go. Make the best use of it while you can. With a three-month commitment, you’ll see whether your Objective is important enough to push through a lack of motivation for. You can make it without motivation, and you can bolster your motivation by reminding yourself of your Objective.
Time is a limited resource. To succeed at one thing, you need to say no to many more things. When I wrote out my desired list of Objectives, I realized I had too many to focus on at once. Because I knew what mattered to me it was easier to say “not right now” to some of the goals I wanted to accomplish, and pick the ones I wanted more. Use OKRs to feel justified in saying no.
Pick Objectives that are meaningful to you. Pick Key Results that prove they’re meaningful. Get those results done, and break them down into Tasks only as much as it helps to get your results done. Check up on each level regularly so you’re always heading where you want. Say no to things that don’t help your OKRs.
Rather than follow a productivity “system,” commit to goals and measure your success to focus on what matters.
Your turn: What’s one OKR that would make a big difference in your life? Leave your responses below!