Happy January! ’Tis the season of resolutions. I’ve been pretty obsessive and reflective about keeping mine the past few years, albeit by a different name, and I’ve shared with a few interested friends every year. I’m now feeling brave enough to share my process more widely, along with some examples of “resolutions” (OKRs) that have and haven’t worked for me over the years.
What are OKRs?
So. OKRs. Stands for Objectives and Key Results. The internet would have me believe they were first introduced at Intel in the ’80s; I learned about them during my four years at Google. You can learn roughly what I know about them here. They’re one of many possible ways to set and track progress on business goals. I like them because they start lofty and high-level and then force measurability and clear progress-tracking. I borrow the basic premise and many of the best practices; however, because my purpose is different (improving my own life rather than aligning hundreds or thousands of people on business goals), I have consciously adjusted some of the implementation details. Here are my best practices for Life Objectives and Key Results:
An objective is a high-level goal. For Google, that might be something like “Increase mobile advertising revenue”. For my life, that might be something like “Eat healthier” or “Learn a language” or “Make more music”. I like to keep these simple — I might even reduce them to a single word, like “Health” or “Language” or “Music” — which isn’t business OKR best practice, but they represent a meaningful category to me. Coming up with these objectives is outside the scope of this write-up, but check out Designing Your Life if you want some guidance there.
For each objective, I then define one or more key results. Key results are clear, measurable indications that I’m making progress toward my objective. I always use number-based key results (e.g. 14,000 steps per day) so I can check in on my progress throughout the year and assess whether I’m on-track. A good Life KR is:
- Clear and simple. Minimize ambiguity in how it will be measured. My clearest KRs are easily countable (“Read one book per week”, “Post 12 recordings online.”). My worst KRs are ambiguous and subjective (“Understand a chapter of Harry Potter in Turkish”).
- Ambitious. Business OKR best practice is to hit somewhere between 60 and 80%. Don’t get too caught up with the numbers, but ideally you should look at your KRs all together and think, “Yeah, it’s going to take some serious effort to achieve all of this.” I might hit 100% on some KRs, and more like 50% on others. Some people might aim for 75% on each KR. Find what works for you.
- Easy to track. I’ve repeatedly underestimated the importance of this one. One time, I set a KR to make one new healthy recipe per week, but I went to check in after a month and couldn’t piece together what I’d made when. Today, I supplement with day-to-day lightweight tracking (this Habits app for Android) and use passive tracking (Fitbit, my Kindle) whenever possible. Artifact-based KRs (e.g. “12 videos created”) are also easy to track.
- Incremental. While I occasionally allow myself a goal or two where I either meet it or I don’t (e.g. one year I wanted to take the train from SF to Seattle: check!), almost all of my KRs have a larger number attached, often derived from an activity frequency. For example, “Sing 4x/week” means I’m aiming for 208 singing sessions for the year; “Write 1,000 words per week” means I want to write 52,000 words. This gives me flexibility for busy and less busy times of the year, too: I could sing every day one week and then only one day the next, and that’s okay. The incremental measurement helps me stay on track and assess my progress throughout the year.
- Under my control. Say I want to get promoted at work, find a life partner, publish a book — these are are ultimately out of my hands. They’re also not incremental. So what are some clear, measurable steps I can take? Have a regular conversation with my manager, take a course outside of work, go on some frequency of dates, get introduced to N friends-of-friends, write some number of words, send chapters to friends for feedback…these are all things I can do that are measurable and incremental and should correlate with my larger goal.
Aside: I just realized if I called “Clear and simple” “Objective” instead, I could have a handy AEIOU mnemonic, but calling a Key Result “objective” is very confusing in this context. But use it if it works for you.
Tracking and Iteration
For tracking, I use a spreadsheet like this one. You can make a copy. I use mine with a few friends for social accountability; you can do the same or just use it for yourself. Here are some cool things my spreadsheet does:
- Encourages countable key results. Put your total yearly count in the “Goal Units” column.
- Calculates your total progress. If you’ve posted 3 of 12 goal recordings online, you’re 25% of the way there!
- Calculates your progress relative to the time in the year. If you’ve posted 3 of 12 goal recordings online and it’s the end of February, you’re 150% “on track”! Great job; you can relax a bit.
- Color-codes by name for social accountability. Open up Format → Conditional Formatting and change the names there; whatever name is in the first column will color the full row.
- Has a sheet for deprioritized objectives, because it’s okay to adjust, but maybe you want to keep track of what you’ve adjusted.
Day-to-day, I also use this Habits app for Android to track my daily/weekly KRs. And some of my KRs are tracked passively as a side effect of using Fitbit, my Kindle+Goodreads, Google Location History, and Google Calendar. I’ll look back at these roughly monthly to formally check in and add my progress to the spreadsheet, though occasionally I’ve gone 3–4 months without checking in. No big deal.
So, that’s the premise and my own attempt at implementation. I’ve included a bunch of examples below, but in case you stop reading here, I’ll leave you with a parting thought: you are the primary stakeholder in your Life OKRs, so make them work for you. Whenever I check in on my OKRs, I’m tweaking them. I’m adjusting my goals, deprecating items that aren’t working for me anymore, adding new ones partway through the year. This isn’t recommended practice in a business, but business OKRs have many stakeholders: employees, customers, investors. Given that, it’s really important to keep everyone on the same page with consistent, long-term goals that are tweaked only with the greatest of care. For Life OKRs, you’re the primary stakeholder, so do what you need to do to make these work for yourself. Step back and say, “Is this helpful?” for whatever that means for you, and change them if not.
Examples that worked for me
I love examples. Here are some from my own Life OKRs over the past few years and a bit of reflection on each. These are structured as Objective: Key result.
Fitness: 14K average daily steps
I’ve increased this one steadily over the years. This is an example of one that I’m really trying to hit 100%; it’s much simpler to look at my daily step count and see if I’m on-track for 100% of 14,000, rather than 75% of 18,000 or so. Also, note the “average” — this means it’s okay if one day I laze around and only get 5K steps, because hopefully I’ll get 18K a couple times later in the week. I check in about once per month via Fitbit. I hit 101% this year, which translates to 14,148 steps per day on average. Perhaps it’s time to up my goal — but just a bit.
Turkish fluency: Complete Levels 1–3 in Rosetta Stone Turkish
Here’s an example of one where the objective is hard to define, but the key result I’ve chosen is very clear and fully in my control. I ended up measuring this by Units (each Level in Rosetta Stone has 4 Units), which gave me a clear goal pace of one Unit per month. Since Rosetta Stone is almost entirely about clicking through on correct multiple-choice, this one ran the risk of becoming more about completion than quality of learning, so I had to continually remind myself to focus on learning. Supplementing with the audio recordings helped with this.
Piano: Memorize one song per month, starting in August
I didn’t come up with this goal until August, hence the qualifier. And that was no problem: it just meant my total song count for the year was 5. This one came about when I was traveling in Europe this summer: there were all these public pianos in train stations and shopping centers that I so badly wanted to play, but I had nothing stored in my head to share. A couple times I took out my phone and tried to read from there, but I wasn’t pleased with my performance. Now that I have 5 songs memorized (I probably should have set a more ambitious goal!), I’m looking forward to my next encounter with a public piano.
[deprecated] Mindfulness: Daily meditation
This is an example of one I stuck to almost every day for several months but ended up deprecating in May of this year. I don’t know if I’m doing it wrong or what, but despite a daily practice with the Headspace app, I just wasn’t feeling it. I didn’t feel like I was getting anything out of it. So I deprecated this one and made a new one a few months later:
Mindfulness: Daily piano meditation when not traveling
Once I had a couple songs memorized, I instituted a practice called “piano meditation”, where I just sit down and play without music in front of me. Similar to the meditation I was doing with Headspace where I was focusing on breathing, this practice required me to focus on the music. And it was immediately obvious when my mind wandered: I’d lose track of what came next in the piece. So this has been my meditation practice since then. I’ve made my tracking a bit convoluted by excluding travel days, but I’m at 77% since I started tracking.
Travel: Monthly 4-seconds-at-a-time video
My husband and I make “4-seconds-at-a-time” videos, where we set 4-second clips from our travels to music, generally with a few captions for context. I used to have a goal of “monthly smaller trip somewhere”; today, because we only make these videos if we’ve gone somewhere interesting, my travel goal is still captured here. We’ve just taken it up a level for documentation purposes, which has resulted in really nice artifacts from our travels. We ended up with 15 this year; despite this, I don’t want to up my goal for next year, since 15 at times felt like too much.
Fitness: 4x/week gym or 22K+ steps
This is an example of one that I’ve tweaked to accommodate travel. Originally, 4x/week gym seemed like a pretty good goal, but when I was traveling half the month, this wasn’t achievable, and that was discouraging. So I decided that if I did some significant amount of walking while traveling (which I arbitrarily decided meant 22K steps), that still “counted”. It’s definitely encouraged me to move more at home and on the road; I’m at 69% for the year.
Correspondence: 3x/week, including visitors
I live in Turkey. That’s really far from my friends and family in the US. I need to make a conscious effort to keep in touch, so I created a goal of 3x/week correspondence. This is usually a video call or an email, but I’ll also count extended texting exchanges. I also count catching up with friends from home in-person when one of us is visiting. This is one of my weakest results but I never regret the time I spend on correspondence; I want to make a more conscious effort this year.
Examples with room for improvement
Here are some objectives and key results that have failed over the years so hopefully you can learn from my struggles. In all cases, the problem is with the key result — I need to find more inspiring, measureable, and/or creative ways to measure progress toward these objectives.
[deprecated] Fitness: 100 weekly pushups
I was into this one for awhile and used one of those push-up tracking apps, but eventually I got bored of it. Rather than continuing to track 0’s every month, since I knew I wasn’t going to bother making an effort, I deprecated this one entirely and experimented with other fitness KRs. I’ve found for fitness that prescribed regularity (daily, every weekday, every Friday) is easier than a more flexible goal (100 weekly reps), since I can utilize routines.
[deprecated] Cooking: 1 new healthy recipe per week
I deprecated this one for a couple reasons. The first, as I mentioned above, is that this was too hard to track without some daily check-in: I’d look back at the end of the month and have no idea if I’d made 2, 5, or 8 new recipes. I could have solved this with a day-to-day lightweight check-in, though. But later on, I was still struggling with objectivity, especially when I wasn’t explicitly cooking from recipes: if I made a variation on something I’d made before, did that count? If a side dish was a new, healthy recipe but the main course wasn’t particularly healthy, was counting this actually helping me achieve my goal? What is “healthy”, anyway? Too many unclear questions, so I abandoned this KR. I don’t have any explicit goals related to cooking currently; I think this is because I’m generally satisfied with the amount that I do now and don’t feel the need to put effort into change.
[deprecated] Writing: 10,000 monthly words added to my books.
A couple years ago, I started a couple books. I found that when I sat down and focused, I could write about 3,000 words. So doing this a few times per month felt doable. For whatever reason, perhaps after I’d done absolutely nothing the first couple months of the year, I completely lost momentum on this goal. Every month, I’d check in and log another 0. In August or so, I resigned myself to the fact that this just wasn’t going to happen this year. I hope to find a more motivating way to break down this task in the future, perhaps by choosing something less ambitious, or by introducing external accountability of some sort.
[deprecated] Turkish fluency: Understand a chapter of Harry Potter in Turkish
This is an example of a Key Result that isn’t particularly clear or incremental. The first few months of the year, I’d check in and sort of guestimate how much I was understanding. I tried calculating paragraph-by-paragraph. Eventually, I gave up on this because the measurement felt too subjective. I definitely need a better way to track progress toward Turkish fluency. I’ve tried to measure successful conversations; above I had a goal around completing a course which worked well for what it was. Currently I’m counting daily meaningful practice, which could be a lesson, working with flashcards, or spending some quality time with Harry Potter ve Felsefe Taşı. This should correlate with fluency, through I recognize it’s a proxy measurement, and I’d like to find something more direct in the future.
[deprecated] Piano Sightreading: Be able to get all white stars on first readthrough of Yousician Level 7 song
I want to get better at reading piano music in real time, but I have yet to find a good way to measure this. For awhile, I was using an app called Yousician, which listens to my playing and rates me via stars, but I found the songs in one skill level weren’t consistent enough for this to be a good objective measure. So I’m back to the drawing board on this one and currently focusing on time spent practicing, another indirect measure.
Hopefully it’s clear that this is at least as much art as science: I assign numbers and calculate percentages to make it feel like a science, but my Life OKRs are largely a product of iteration; a lot of balancing with gut feelings about what “feels like” the right direction to be going. I hope by publishing this, I can start more conversations with more people about Life OKRs and goal tracking and resolution making. Call me up and I’ll get to check off my “correspondence” for the day, besides.