Personal OKRs are the New New Year’s Resolutions

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Forget New Year’s resolutions. They don’t work.

Over 80% of people have grand intentions for the new year, and 40% make new year’s resolutions.  However, the clear majority fail. According to a study by University of Scranton researchers, Auld Lang Syne: Success Predictors, Change Processes, and Self-Reported Outcomes of New Year’s Resolvers and Nonresolvers, only 40% of those who made resolutions kept their commitments at 6 months and fewer than 20% stuck to their resolve two years out. I am trying another direction: Personal OKRs.

Why do resolutions fail? The discipline of change management in business may shed some light on the question.  New Year’s resolutions are not unlike setting business objectives. Current performance management theory tells us the success of change initiatives depends on how well the objectives are defined. Objectives need to be inspirational, and to be supported by measurable key results. These results must be specific enough that weekly plans can be made that incrementally achieve them. Yearly goals should be broken down into shorter periods with progress milestones. Success also requires a system for documenting, communicating and measuring progress against the goals. Progress needs to be measured consistently to reinforce the habits that are bringing about the change.

Resolutions are doomed from the start

Translating this theory from the business to personal domain, it’s clear that most people’s New Year’s resolutions aren’t supported by the management tools to make them happen. Resolutions are often dreams divorced from the roadmap to achieve them. They may not be measurable nor time-delimited. They are often not linked to routine or habit that moves them forward continually. The objectives may be inspiring and fill the resolver with determination at the beginning of the year.

Witness the gyms overfilled with resolute exercisers in January. Some people may even be able to stick to their resolutions based on sheer will power for the first few weeks or months. But without a structure and a plan for achieving the resolutions, many who start out with the best of intentions slide off the rails due to inattention or vagaries of living.  Motivation is fleeting as the more sparsely populated gyms of March attest.

Objectives and Key Results

This year I decided that instead of New Year’s resolutions, I would use personal OKRs to set and manage my personal goals. I didn’t wait until January. I started in September.  Why wait? Although objectives can be yearly, the time frame for OKRs is typically a quarter (three months). And, why not head into January with a running start?

Having been introduced to OKRs at my last job, I found the simplicity and flexibility self-evident. OKRs quickly joined SMART goals as the model I used to organize the efforts of my team.  I found it took a while to get everyone oriented on the process, however. Acclimating the group to the idea that objectives should be inspirational and aspirational required a shift in thinking. Convincing my team that OKRs are not a replacement for performance reviews, nor a sneaky way of getting teams to overcommit were hurdles to overcome. Ramping up took several quarters. After a lot of communication and several iterations, we started to see benefits.

In contrast to business use, using OKRs for just yourself is easy and friction-free.   It requires some education, but no buy-in and alignment of the team. You can also use software to manage your personal OKRs. I had done a survey of software when we had implemented OKRs at work which we ultimately decided not to use. I revisited the idea when setting personal OKRs for myself.  Against the criteria of cost, simplicity and adherence to principles of the system, Weekdone came out as the winner. Your mileage may vary, and there are a lot of credible services out there, but so far Weekdone has been awesome.

Without further ado, here were my 5 objectives for last quarter:

Q4 Objectives

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Objectives are supposed to be stretch goals.  They are supposed to be things that you could theoretically accomplish, if everything broke your way. To note: it is common practice for objectives to last a year or longer. It is the Key Results that are meant to be accomplished quarterly. At the end of the quarter if you accomplish 70%, you should be happy with your diligent progress. If you get 100%, either you have become a rock star or you have been sandbagging and set your goals too low.  If you get 40%, perhaps your goals are too hard and/or you need to apply more effort.

For three months, I organized my weekly plans around the Objectives and Key Results and measured my progress against specific metrics I had set out. I ended up checking into them every day, because most of my weekly tasks were tightly linked to one of the key results that I identified.  For example, key results for “Get A New Job” included the number of meetings with people relevant to my career, the number of proposals I wrote, number of industry events I attended and completion of specific promotional projects like a new website.

And here were the results:

Q4 Personal OKR Performance

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At 48%, my overall results were underwhelming. I had wanted to accomplish so much more.

Why did I do so badly? Were the goals too high?  Did I not devote enough attention and effort? Were the results not that important?  Were other things more important that I left off the OKRs? Did the OKRs as I structured them model closely the free-form objective that I had in mind?

The benefit of OKRs, in addition to being a clear statement of intent to the activities that contribute to achieving your objectives is that they offer a lens for you to evaluate those results and measurements themselves. Looking at each Objective and Key Result individually, and my performance against them on a weekly basis, I uncovered insights into what happened.

Realistic goals

For the objective to “Get Fit”, I could not have tried harder. I worked out 60 times during the quarter which averages five times a week.  You can see the progress on my blog posts. Two different personal trainers consulted on my program. I ate well, slept well, and moved around a lot. Any more attention to fitness would have stolen time and energy away from other pursuits. The clear take-away for the fitness goal is that I set my sights too high.

For example, one of my goals was to run a 5K in 22 minutes.  That is a real stretch.  The fastest I have ever run a 5K is 22:50. My best time in the last year was 26:00. It was just not realistic to imagine that I could shave 4 minutes off my 5K time in three months, especially in the context of my other fitness key results like bench-pressing 225 lbs. Those two goals were, in fact, competing. I made a note to scale back fitness goals to more reasonable numbers for the coming quarter. Some new apps in my toolkit are also accelerating my progress.

Measuring the right thing

On my “Get A New Job” objective, there were more significant problems. I had high targets for arbitrary things number of emails sent and LinkedIn posts. I didn’t get anywhere close to achieving them because they didn’t measure the thing that I was trying to increase, mainly interactions with people who would be interested in hiring me for projects or referring me to a job.  The things that matter, like in-person meetings and number of proposals sent have much higher correlation to landing jobs and deals than grunt work.

I made the worst progress on the objective of “Position Myself as a Thought Leader.” The objective was fatally flawed.  “Positioning” is not the same as being. Instead of creating Key Results that which described thought leadership. I had set goals which I thought would make me look like a thought leader. I had set an ambitious target of writing 50 blog posts in the quarter.  This, even though I have never written more than twelve blog posts a quarter.  I made good progress on data science classes and marketing automation certifications, but my failure to write more than 4 posts during the quarter dragged the whole objective score down.

Process as objective

The bright point was scoring 100% on “Improve Productivity.”  No sand-bagging here at all. The key results driving this score were my implementation of OKRs for the quarter, improvements in my daily time management and getting counseling and coaching.

With insights in hand, I retooled my OKRs.  The objectives were still good after the adjustment to “Thought leadership”.  I was confident that changes to the key results would improve my results for the next quarter.  But some important objectives were missing.  As important as my career and health were to me, objectives around my family life, our vision for our future with our kids left a gaping hole in my planning. Having had a successful run using OKRs for myself, I brought them to the family.

Personal OKRs for the Family

Family life is not business life and OKRs are not exact fit. A family is like a company in that both have hierarchies, differing amounts of power and autonomy, different functional areas, budgets for time and resources, baselines and stretches of objectives, and a wide range of stakeholders. How a family is not like a company: no customers, salaries, or promotions. You can’t usually add or remove members to accomplish goals. None of these incongruences make OKRs unsuitable to the task.

My goals in bringing OKRs to the family are to help everyone in the family to surface their goals.  By focusing on the activities and results that matter, I want to encourage children to take ownership of their lives and dreams. With two teenagers, I want to articulate a shared vision and mission, and to find opportunities for mutual support and understanding.

Personal OKR pioneers

I’m not the first to do this.  Author Christina Wodtke wrote about using personal OKRs back in 2013 and then followed up with another article, Personal OKRs, Three Years Later.  For a product management professional like Ms. Wodtke success using OKRs seemed to come naturally.

From what I could find, though, Ms. Wodtke doesn’t have kids and the personal OKRs didn’t cover her partner.  Another product professional, Lívia Labate also posted her experience using personal OKRs. Although Ms. Labate has a young daughter, her child didn’t contribute to creating the objectives or key results. My “company” on the other hand includes two teen-agers and an independent and ambitious spouse.  Applying OKRs to a family and including my teenagers takes personal OKRs to the next level.

Partner on board

My partner Meighen was game to try it. Meighen had been working with OKRs at her organization and was familiar with concept. I shared my OKRs from last quarter and my analysis of results. We decided to use them as the foundation to coordinate our vision for the quarter. Meighen had her own goals, of course.  We set up a group, “the A-team” which included her and I, and she set up her own personal objectives.

The Weekdone software makes it easy to start, it pre-populates your personal OKR list with an objective: learn the OKR methodology and writing 3 objectives and results. A large part of objectives revolved around our kids.  Their success in school, health, and focus on growth became objectives.  Other concerns like getting them to help keep the house clean and treating each other with respect were also very important.  In a couple of sessions, we had put together goals for ourselves as a couple and for our family.

Goals instead of chores

It was easy for us to put some goals and metrics around parenting that we were already doing.  We wrestled with, and were often beaten by the tasks of enforcing limits on the screen time, weekly cleaning and chores.  Tying these specific results in parenting to a broader vision and objectives for a happier, healthier and more stable household renewed my commitment to them.

There are a ton of things that you just have to do as a parent. Every day you need to set out breakfast, pack lunches and make dinner.  You have to get the kids to school on time, ferry them to performances, practices, and doctors’ appointments. Attention to their school performance, encouraging them to do their homework, and limiting their media time also are constant demands on your attention.  Putting this constant drudgery into the context of an inspiring objectives changes the whole complexion of the effort. With both of us working and traveling tradeoffs need to be made and priorities given.  The process of creating personal OKRs helped us to make these decisions without feeling like we were falling short as parents.

Pick your battles by choosing objectives

We finally had a conscious process to “pick our battles.”  Improving the things would have the biggest impact on our happiness and our kids’ success. For example, we had been slack on enforcing homework time, and getting the kids to be more self-sufficient with chores. After thorough consideration, I raised these in importance to become key results for the objective “Positioning Kids for Success.” In contrast, the previous quarters key result of “Meeting With Teachers” I demoted to a mere task in our new quarter’s scheme.

We set up the table of results and objectives and designed a process to ensure that we were making progress. Together as the “A-Team”, we set aside time for a weekly meeting to discuss our progress and make plans for the coming week.  We also set up weekly one-on-ones with each of our children individually.  In these meetings, we dedicate time to talk about what is going on in their lives and how they are feeling.  Also on the agenda are schedules, behavior, school, housework, and what they want to accomplish in the next week.

Mixed Results

“The best laid plans of mice and men, go oft awry and bring grief and pain for promised joy.”

Week One: the meetings did not go well. The children thrashed and gnashed their teeth at the very idea.  “No meetings!” The energy they expended to avoid the meeting with us amazed me. Apparently, they preferred ad hoc nagging and cajoling.

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.”

Week Two. More gnashing and thrashing, but some progress made. We pulled out the lists of rules we had created years ago, and made it clear that we intended to adhere to them.  Mostly the rules boiled down to try hard and be nice. We went through their chore lists that we had written six months ago line by line and together checked off their accomplishments. Halting and difficult though it was, we got through it.  We also coordinated our schedules, making sure that one of parents had the entrée for the Drama Club pot luck taken care of and other details.

“You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink.”

Week Three. The kids realized that these weekly meetings were the new normal. For one child, there was a dawning realization that these conversations were positive versus punitive. For the other, they gnashed and thrashed, but the got the message.

At the Week Three meeting we brought up the concept of Objectives and Key Results. We told the kids that we were using them to organize our progress towards goals for the family.  And, we invited them to create their own. We know that they have goals. One child dreams of designing robotic prosthetics, the other of being a fashion designer (or maybe an artist/journalist, or a scientist, or…). We offered personal OKRs to help them set near-term goals that support their longer-term aspirations.

Where we go from here

My kids are cagey but I have a suspicion that they are excited by the idea. We asked each of them to read up on OKR methodology (we provided) and to plan on drafting an objective and some key results in our meeting this coming weekend.

I don’t know what will happen when we meet next. The children will probably gnash and thrash, but I am optimistic that the kids are going to engage with the program. I remember my frustrations and conflict with my parents. I would have liked to have something akin to personal OKRs to communicate with my parents in an objective and systemic way. My hope is that engaging them in this kind of structure and process will give them a platform to communicate their wants and needs, and bring us closer as a family.

We’ll try it, take stock at the end of the quarter and report on the results.