Personal OKRs, Three Years Later
Don’t know anything about OKRs? Read The Art of the OKR first, and/or Personal OKRs.
Also, personal OKRs are for your personal life, individual OKRs are for performance tracking at work. NOT the same thing! This is a personal essay about personal OKRs.
Also also I’m sorry this is 3k words, but really that’s only 1k words a year. I would have written a shorter essay, but I didn’t have the time.
Three years ago? Whoa…
Since then I’ve created a life I love living
- I teach at California College of the Arts and Stanford Continuing Education (you can take the Creative Founder class this January)
- I’ve spoken around the world, from Tel Aviv to Grand Rapids Michigan to Buenos Aires, and given workshops publicly and privately (you should hire me).
- I wrote Radical Focus, Working with Pictures (V.05 here, V1 shipping 2017) and am now writing Continuous Feedback, a book on management.
To say OKRs have changed my life would be an understatement. They have made my life possible. They are the backbone that holds my life together.
Since it’s resolution time and I’m not much of a resolution person (or maybe I’m a year round resolution person?) I figured I’d share what I’ve learned, in case you also want something more effective than a resolution.
Why Use Personal OKRs?
We all want things from life, but life wants things from us too. How do you accomplish the things that are important to us, but aren’t urgent? How do we move forward when life is screaming at us to focus on now! Pay bills, do taxes, register car, go shopping, buy socks, pack a lunch… it’s so much!
First, Close Out the Last Quarter with Learning
I take the last week of the quarter to grade last quarter’s OKR set. Reflection is the key to accelerated learning. (see more on evaluating OKRs).
Let’s look at my Q4 OKR set. During the quarter I report how confident I am I’m going to hit the key result. 7/10 means I’m 70% confident I’m going to make it. However, if the report was from the last week, as this status was, 7/10 it means I did NOT hit the KR, while 10/10 means I did.
Now I want to consider how close I got, and grade that.
O: Model life as a professional author
KR: Rough draft of Continuous Feedback to Alpha reader list (and Cathy) with actionable feedback 7/10
GRADE: A- Rough draft done, but can’t go to Cathy/Aphas until Q1. Needs a cleanup pass.
KR: Working with Pictures V2 on Amazon with 4 five star reviews 6/10
Grade: B- Big progress, but it will likely ship mid Q1
KR: Product-Market Fit book (Creative Founder) interviews complete with essays at 2K views each or higher 10/10
In my other writing on OKRs, I talk about sandbaggers and overachievers. I am clearly an overachiever. I ask a lot of myself, and never achieve it all. You could look at two two “failed” Key Results and wonder why the grades are so high.
Let’s look at the rest of the weekly report
Teaching: Stay on top of grading and class plans GREEN
Body Health: Watch for stomach and back issues: GREEN
P1: grade DONE
P1: sort out kid’s room (she’s got a new tansu, and it’s in an unusable state) DONE
P1: Prepare for Belize DONE
P2: WWP progress KINDA!
P1: Grade OKRs and set NEW OKRs
P1: submit final grades
P1: WWP shipped to designer/copyediter
P1: Annual massive houseclean.
This quarter, I taught two classes at CCA, had holidays with family, recovered from an election, back problems and fought SAD. That is the noise of my life. It’s good noise — music even — but I still made progress on my OKR set.
In the middle of that noise I wrote 50K words on Continuous Feedback , got Radical Focus in audiobook format and into Chinese, doubled Working with Pictures page count and wrote a half-dozen essays for the next book.
This quarter I’ve learned I’m a one-project-at-a-time person, that when solstice comes, taking care of myself is a full-time job, and grading is a massive time suck. Oh, and if I don’t take care of my body, it falls apart. BIG learnings, BIG progress.
I give myself an A.
Will you Explore or Exploit Next Quarter?
I think of my OKR set as a theme for the quarter. But normal OKRs don’t always work for me. Sometimes I want to spend a quarter testing a hypothesis, as you saw in the Q4 OKR set.
In Algorithms to Live By, Brian Christian explains the explore/exploit problem. How much time should you spend exploring new possibilities, and how much exploiting ones you have proven work?
For example, after I dropped out of corporate life, I did a number of things to try to figure out how I wanted to live (chronicled in “Living Lean”.) I tried culinary school, food startups, advising, teaching… I was exploring. When I discovered how much I loved teaching, I took a three-year contract at CCA for health insurance and better pay… I was exploiting.
My problem with OKRs was that they seemed to be designed for exploiting — driving performance in known areas — and not for exploring. That’s when I invented what I call hypothesis OKRs. In a hypothesis OKR, the objective is a hypothesis about a success state, and the key results are the metrics that prove if it’s true.
An example from this quarter: the first draft of my OKR set.
O: Model life as a professional author
KR: Radical focus selling in two more languages with 90% five-star reviews
KR: Rough draft of CF to Alpha reader list with actionable feedback
KR: Working with Pictures V2 on Amazon with 4 five-star reviews
I wanted to test a hypothesis: I can be happy and financially viable writing while teaching part-time.
It’s commonly held wisdom (ASSUMPTION ALERT!) that you need multiple books in the marketplace, so when people finish one, they have another to buy. I keep a backlog of books I want to write, both fiction and non.
Because getting more books into the marketplace was critical to my success as an author, I changed the KR around exploiting Radical Focus to pushing out toward the next book in my queue, Product/Market Fit, based on my Creative Founder class. But how can I write two books at once?
I hired a writer, Robert Hoekman Jr, to interview me about the topic while I write essays. He’ll then wrap it all into a draft we can collaborate on.
KR: Product-Market Fit book (Creative Founder) interviews complete with essays at 2K views each or higher
When you know what your objectives are, tactics quickly become clear. I want more books in the market. I have a lot of ideas and knowledge but I don’t scale. Therefore, get help.
3. Focus on Won’t Get Done
The other reason I changed my KR was because I knew I was going to have a Chinese Translation and Audible up — the process for both were already underway. It was disingenuous to make that a goal. OKRs for things you’re worried you’re NOT going to do, not for tracking things you will. Or — as in the case of Product/Market Fit — they are to make sure you do well something you might half-ass. It would be easy for me to reply on my writer pal to do the work, and drop writing the essays. But I wanted to validate the topics were interesting, not just had over my ideas to a ghost-writer.
Your OKRs exist to protect the dreams you’re afraid you’ll abandon.
What Do Personal OKRs Look like?
I know you want examples! Here’s how I design my Q1 OKR set.
I’ve proven my hypothesis. I love teaching, and I love the writer treadmill. But looking back at Q4, I sacrificed self-care more than once. I need to balance my work with my body. So Q1 will be an “exploit” quarter; a quarter I try to take my learnings from my “explore” quarter and make them common practice. As well, I have royally eff’d up my schedule by agreeing to teaching too many classes and probably too many talks and workshops as well. I have very little time left over for my OKR set, so I need to be thoughtful.
Objective: Work Well, Be Well
KR: Something around shipping drafts
KR: Something about health metrics, move to KR for extra attention
I start with an objective: What is the most important thing to keep an eye on this quarter? Then I pick vague areas where I want to measure, to make sure my KRs are providing me with a balanced way to look at my life. Right now I’m thinking Happy/Healthy/Writing. All the stuff I tend to drop when life obligations come knocking.
Next, I need to narrow the focus of each KR, and add a metric.
Everything can be measured, IMO. Although some things are hard or annoying to measure, it’s worth figuring it out. Worried about health? If you were healthy, what would change? Less back pain, less weight, fewer inches, smaller pants size.
If you were happy, what could you measure? I once spent a month rating every day on a scale: happy-content-meh-discontented-unhappy. I wanted to learn if food, sleep and activity affected my joy. (Spoiler: they do. But that’s another essay.)
I’m not very good at regular tracking, so I ballparked my feelings on a wall calendar at the end of the day. Remember, “the best is the enemy of the good.” Good enough tracking is just that: good enough.
Learning to find the right metrics and measure them regularly is as much a key to success as setting good goals. Metrics tracking is essentially habit building. Check out B.J. Fogg’s work for help with that.
What gets measured, gets managed.
— Peter Drucker
Focus On What Won’t Get Done II
My coach, Andrea Corney, once told me to picture all the things in your life as balls you are juggling. Some are made of clay, some are made of crystal, and some are made of rubber. If it’s clay, and you drop it, you won’t care. It’s just clay. If it’s rubber, it won’t be hurt if you drop it. But crystal is valuable, and if you drop it it’s all over.
Continuous Feedback and Product/Market Fit are both rubber — I have my editor, Cathy, and my co-writer, Robert, to watch over them. Working with Pictures is crystal… if I don’t watch over it, it won’t bounce back.
Objective: Work Well, Be Well
KR: Working with Pictures in market with 10 reviews 4 stars or higher
KR: Down one clothing size
KR: 80% of days content or higher
The health KR was a tough one. I already track back pain and stomach issues in my health metrics. I considered weight loss, but if I put on muscle I won’t see much of a change in the scale. I want to be healthier, not thinner. I don’t have an easy way to measure BMI, which is the best metric for what I want. I’m putting in clothing for the moment. If I can figure out how to measure BMI regularly, I’ll change it.
I’d already solved happiness tracking, so that was a slam dunk.
Now I stare at them: can I really look at these every week for three months and be ok with these goals?
Living Your OKRs
Historically, I send my coach an email on Monday that looks like this:
From Oct 10th: Q4 OKRs & Priorities thread
O: Model life as a professional author
KR: Rough draft of Continuous Feedback to Alpha reader list (and Cathy) with actionable feedback 5/10
KR: Working with Pictures V2 on Amazon with 4 five-star reviews 5/10
KR: Product-Market Fit book (Creative Founder) interviews complete with essays at 2K views each or higher 5/10
Teaching: Stay on top of grading and class plans GREEN
Body Health: Watch for stomach and back issues: YELLOW
P1: Run 2x this week DONE
P1: Grading catch up (all caught up by sunday) DONE
P1: WWP at 50 pages. DONE(ish) 50 pages outlined
P2: Finish a Creative Founder blog post ND
P1: Finish a Creative Founder blog post
P1: Food diary kept daily
P1: 50 pages WWP filled in,
P2 WWP 10 more pages outlined.
This quarter I also sent my status report to two friends, Livia and Donna, and they sent theirs to me. We wanted to coach each other through figuring out personal OKRs and what they meant to each of us. In my case, I wanted to examine my process (check!)
Kicked so much ass this past week. Planning got done quickly so went ahead an sowed all the things. It didn’t rain for three days after that, but amazingly I have sprouts coming out for beans and cucumbers, plus tomato and basil seedlings survived the transplanting and are thriving. Will be out of town until the 29th on family vacation.
O: Establish a productive kitchen garden
KR: Six different plants thriving past seedling stage, four plants at harvesting stage. — 7/10
KR: Fewer than two incident of dogs/other animals destroying garden/plants. — 8/10
KR: Eat one proper meal entirely from the garden on my birthday (Nov 21) — 6/10
Balance: Maintain open-loops inside GTD system for follow-through — YELLOW Professional: Explore next steps and opportunities for jobs/exposure — YELLOW Home: Keep fam fed, infra running and manage Kigali must dos — YELLOW
Last Week’s Priorities
100% — P1: Sketch planting order/mix and schedule day/time block to sow.
100% — P1: Get new critical house infra to-dos done ASAP (or they’ll take over this week)
100% — P1: Work on my presentation for Media Party Africa in Cape Town in a week.
100% — P2: Discuss composting approach with Aimable, pick one 30% —
P2: GTD capture & process all open loops — Couldn’t carve out 3 consecutive hours I needed for this, only a 15 min or half an hour here and there. Will block a half-day when I’m back to South Africa and get this done.
P1: Give garden maintenance (and bunny care!) instructions to Emmanuel for when I’m out of town
P1: Finish prep and participate in Media Party in Cape Town
P2: Do crazy fun things during Cape Town vacation with Mel and Lili
P2: Shop for durable goods (and Halloween candy!) in Cape Town
P2: Contact Gardens for Health International to see if they can set up a new skills workshop since I’m missing the one happening next weekend.
Risks & Blockers
All is looking good; 3 day rain hiatus seems to have been a fluke in weather pattern.
I like the addition of Risks and Blockers, and might incorporate it for next quarter.
You Need Someone to Keep You On Track
The biggest lesson was how hard it is to build the habit of checking in on your OKRs each week. Donna struggled the most, as she had a new baby. At one point I wrote
Part of the work is to keep trying. Don’t lose hope. Be late a day. Mess up, forgive yourself, try again. It’s like Yoga and meditation. It’s a practice.
The nice thing about there being three of us is that there is always someone who remembers Mondays are for OKRs. I put it in my calendar, but if it’s hectic (I have an eleven year old. Mornings blow up sometimes) you can still forget them.
Improvements & Experiments
Next quarter I’m going to try to keep my OKRs in a spreadsheet. I want to get better at finding patterns of why things don’t get done. If there is a software engineer out there who’d like to co-develop an app for personal OKR tracking, contact me. After three years of monitoring my OKRs, I feel pretty confident I know what’s needed.
As well, I’m considering looking at an annual OKR and my 4O’s approach. A quick draft would look like this:
Annual: (I’m using my favorite X instead of a number trick here)
O: Live the Dream of being an Author-Professor
KR: A book every six months with X quality metric
KR: Teaching classes with X reviews
KR: Health measured in finances and well being
Q1: Work Well, Be Well (integrating writing into my life while staying healthy)
Q2: Revise All the Things! (books and health program)
Q3: Launch PMF (I want a book in the market every six months)
Q4: Fiction, Finally! (I’ve been dreaming of finally digging into writing fiction.)
So now I have a theme for the year, as well as an arc from my progress.
If you are just starting on personal OKRs, do NOT do this! Just focus on one quarter, and expect to fail in some interesting ways. The first time you do personal OKRs is just to learn what you want from them, and what keeps you from accomplishing the things you wish to accomplish.
Final Random Thoughts
Sizing is hard. You have to pick an OKR set that fits into your life, considering other obligations like family and work. Goals can be as big as a novel, or as small as a garden. They’re YOUR OKRs!
Keeping a cadence is hard. Find a partner or two to help you stay on track.
Failing is easy, and encouraged. Just make sure you learn! As long as you are learning what gets in your way, you are doing it right.
Hack the system until they fit your life! Livia changed her format to match how she thought about tracking, and you should also. Want more? Want less? Do what YOU want!
Forgive yourself when you inevitably forget your goals, and gently guide yourself back to them. Some weeks explode. Sometimes you just have a brain fart. It’s all ok.
I think of my personal OKR set as a lucky rock in my pocket. I touch it over and over, to remind myself of my dreams. But instead of wishing, I plan. And I act. I never achieve as much as I attempted to, but I always accomplish so much more than I ever hoped.
Have a Happy 2017!
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Read Livia’s story of how she did her personal OKRs, and what she learned!