OKR (Objectives and Key Results): Applying the popular business goal-setting framework to personal goals

Dmytro Yarmak
OKR (Objectives and Key Results)

Most of us work in ‘get task, do task’ mode. We sit in silent awe of those who achieve amazing things, wondering how they get so lucky. But the secret isn’t luck — it’s in setting goals. You start with one big ambitious goal and then keep track of whether you’re making progress toward it. These two simple actions are the basis of the OKR framework so common in the business world. In this article, I will describe how the framework can help you in achieving personal goals outside the office. For example, how I ran 2023 km in 2023 using OKR framework :).

What are OKR?

OKR is a framework for goal-setting and disciplined pursuit of those goals. OKR stands for Objectives and Key Results. First, we determine the goal we want to achieve, then the key results that will tell us whether we are moving towards our goal.

A good goal meets four criteria: it is concrete, significant, motivates you to act, and inspires.

To make goals action-oriented, formulate them using verbs: build, implement, receive, etc.

OKR differs from SMART, another common framework for setting and achieving goals in that while SMART goals are realistic, OKR goals should inspire — they should be ambitious and even seemingly outside the realm of what is possible. Of course, we’re not talking about pure fantasy, like wanting to fly a car instead of driving it on the road.

It’s also important to understand that Key Results aren’t about how to achieve a goal, that is, it’s not a set of actions. Instead, they define how we will know that we are making progress toward our Objective. In other words, they are indicators. For example, if my Objective is to get in shape after the holidays, a Key Result might be decreasing my body fat percentage by 10%. To do this, I decide to do certain things, like run 16 km a week and drink three litres of water a day.

How I used OKR to run 2021 km

The OKR framework isn’t just for global business goals — it can be used for personal achievements. I used it to run 2021 km in the year 2021.

I’d run before and liked doing it. But there would be breaks: I could lose motivation, be out of town a lot, or just be overloaded with work. I could go a month without running, and getting back to it was hard. I wanted a more systematic approach without long breaks, and so I decided to run 2021 km in one year.

Let’s look at my goal through the OKR framework. It was significant — before, I’d run around 1000 km a year. It inspired me: it was awesome telling people how much I’d run. It motivated me to act: there was that verb, ‘run.’ And it was concrete: 2021 is a pretty clear number.

But an Objective isn’t enough; you have to make sure you’re moving in the right direction. I set quarterly Key Results: 505 km every three months, or 170 km a month. I tracked the distance I’d run using a mobile app connected to my smart watch.

Another Key Result was taking running clothes with me wherever I went. That way, even if I wasn’t at home, I could still go for a run.

Another Key Result was to get someone else to run the 2021 km with me. This created social pressure to run, more fun, and a game aspect. And I did get others to join in the challenge. This was enough for me to get started. Within six months, I was on my own — others had given up on the goal. But by that time, it wasn’t that important; I knew I only had two quarters to go.

The next Key Result was to run a marathon without doing any special training. My friends would typically spend two or three months getting ready, using a special training program. I wanted my regular runs to be my training. I ran the marathon — and set a personal record.

Once I had formulated my Key Results, I decided to run 12 km each day. It wasn’t a hard and fast rule — some days I’d run six, others I could run 18.

Why OKR?

The framework really helped me. If I’d had only a goal (Objective) and no progress indicators (Key Results), I’d most likely not have achieved it.

I also realized that transparency is really important to me. I told my family about my goal, and they supported me — though this challenge certainly took time that I could have been spending with them. Even without the running, I might have two hours a day for my family, and here I was running for an hour and a half every other day. But they understood that this was my focus in one aspect of my life.

Running and business

We have a lot of distractions in our personal life and in business. The biggest obstacle for me in running was the weather or just being tired. In business, this could be the desire to do something that really isn’t necessary for achieving your global goal — but easier. Like creating a new landing page for your website or holding a conference unrelated to your goals. It can also be hard to motivate yourself to do something that is important, but difficult.

OKR requires discipline and helps you focus on the most important things. Transparency makes it hard to get off track. I told my friends and family about my running Objective. Bosses can tell employees and partners about their Objectives. Once teams start working toward their OKR, there is no going back. Of course, it is hard at times, and you may want to give up. But if the team wants it, and every individual in the team is moving in that direction, it gives you support. Transparency also means accountability — you don’t want to look bad in the eyes of others. If you tell someone about your Objective, you have a greater chance of achieving it.

Businesses also need to understand that Key Results should be somewhat aggressive but realistic — like my 505 km each quarter. Even if you get only 70–80% of the way there, it’s a good result for your OKR. Setting the bar high and falling a bit short is better than setting the bar low — even if you don’t achieve your ambitious Objective, you’ll still have achieved something great.

It’s also important to understand that you’ll have to give up other things — with my running, that meant reading and computer games. I made this choice consciously because I wanted to focus on what was important, and I have no regrets.

One more thing: listen to your body. I did this literally: I ran at a comfortable pace and was alert to how I was feeling. In business, this is more figurative: take note of how your team is reacting to OKR-related initiatives, how much time and energy they are spending on them. Be respectful of those who are in the boat with you.

Conclusion

If you use the OKR framework, set a clear Objective, believe in it, and be transparent (getting support and social pressure), ‘unrealistic’ goals become realistic.

Just look at Elon Musk. Once upon a time, his goal sounded unreal. A private company sending rockets into space? And coming back on their own? Who could imagine? And yet, now it’s happening. I don’t know whether Tesla uses the OKR framework, but they definitely had focus and a clear goal.

Nowadays, innovation giants like Uber and Amazon use OKR, and Google continues to use this framework to set goals. In companies like that, it could be easy to lose focus among the multitude of opportunities. But if everyone is moving in different directions, you won’t achieve anything. Coming up with a great idea is easy — the winners are the ones who make those ideas happen.

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