If you’re reading this, thank an OKR

Still from the TV show “The Good Place.” Characters Chidi and Tahani hold up t-shirts that say “Pobody’s Nerfect.”

OKRs are a popular goal-setting technique because they link Objectives (O) to Key Results (KR) so that you not only have an overarching mission in mind, but also have achievable milestones to track your progress. OKRs were first developed by Andy Grove at Intel, but the method became much more famous when John Doerr adopted the technique to help a fledgling Google get off the ground in 1999.

I’m not a very organized person. Rigid goal-setting structures have never treated me well, so when I first heard about OKRs I was quick to write them off as another method that sounds great in theory but would fall apart in practice. But as I was reading Radical Focus I couldn’t help but notice the parallels between the OKR techniques and the goals I had set for myself in 2021. When I said to myself “I want to advance my career this year,” I was defining my mission statement. When I said “I want to get a new job” and “I want to cultivate a bigger following in the UX industry,” I was setting two objectives in support of that mission. And when I said to myself “I want to read and write more this year,” those were key results that would support that second objective. I knew I would need to be more specific, but it wasn’t until February when I had written two articles and finished a book and a half that I had a sense of pace. That’s when I challenged myself to read ten books and write ten articles by the end of the year. Now, for some ten books isn’t a lot, but I am not an avid reader. For me, this felt like a goal I could be 70% confident about. When my first article got more readers than I expected, I wanted to hold my writing to a higher standard, so I felt only 30–40% confident I could do this ten times in a year.

Let’s get back to New Year resolutions and goals. Personal goals are different than business goals and I don’t like to follow overly prescriptive or rigid frameworks for my personal goals. I’m even aware that in my example above, I didn’t follow the OKR process perfectly. But that’s what I found I like about it the most: the OKR framework is built on some solid goal-setting concepts that still work great even when loosely adhered to. I use OKRs for my work goals and my personal goals, but especially for these lower-stakes personal goals, I think there’s room for flexibility.

  • Quantify your key results and KPIs. Rather than resolve to lose weight or read more, pick a reasonably difficult number for yourself. Lose 20 lbs. Read 12 books. Aim for that 50% confidence level. It’s okay if these are arbitrary and it’s okay if you don’t hit your target, but establishing a number holds you accountable when you check in throughout the year and assess the status of your goals.
  • Check in on your status throughout the year. The common pitfall of resolutions, as with OKRs, is that it’s easy to start the year with so much ambition and optimism and then find yourself in December wondering where it all went wrong. You don’t need to treat this like business goals with a weekly standup meeting, but set yourself a calendar reminder once a month or once a season this year. Force yourself to read your goals again and assign a status value (on-target/at-risk, or green/yellow/red). This will motivate you to get back on track to become that person your mission statement at the top of the page describes.
  • Celebrate your wins. Just as you might have an end-of-sprint happy hour or a code ship party at work, plan yourself a final check-in date at the end of the year. There’s a great psychological value to a healthy goal-reward structure. For each of your objectives, come up with a commensurate way to treat yourself if you complete it.
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