TAHs: OKRs for Life Planning

$ when January 2021

I've always been fond of exploiting my experience as a startup founder to better lead my life. In a sense, you're your own CEO. One of the most interesting aspects of startup management that can support life planning is strategy. What comes first? What gets the highest priority? What to tackle next?

Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) is a powerful goal-setting framework that many companies, big and small, deploy when working on their business strategy. They essentially help managers coordinate long term goals with short term tasks by forcing the company to measure progress.

Say that a startup wants to become the #1 app for yoga in South America (the "Objective"). By measuring the progress towards carefully selected quantifiable goals (the "Key Results"), like "increase weekly sign-ups from Argentina to 50k by September", management can keep track of the goal's status before the deadline, allowing for mid-way corrective actions.

Now, super organizers and quantify-selfers see OKRs as an effective tool also for personal management. I know for a fact because I'm one of them. Many have already written at length about it.

After introducing them in my own company, I've spent several months using OKRs also for my own personal life, concluding that they're both the right and wrong tool for supporting me in fulfilling my aspirations.

For sure they're extremely effective: you achieve more and you're more intentional in what to focus on.

At the same time though I'm not fond of the productivity anxiety they tend to create: a general feeling of constant need for output maximization, that inevitably leads to a miserable life. OKRs address a sensible need, but at the same time also have the potential to create some unintended consequences that can do more damage than good.

That's why I ended up revising them into my very own take on the tool: TAHs — Theme-Aspirations-Habits.

The need for life strategy

I firmly believe that a strategic approach to life can massively contribute to making someone happy. It takes an unreasonable amount of luck to be happy on the long-term without some stort of intentional planning.

The human brain evolved to prioritize immediate rewards over delayed ones — a trait behavioral scientists call time inconsistency, or hyperbolic discounting. When the cost of an action (or lack thereof) is in the future, especially if such action bears little to no short-term gains, we tend to do it (or avoid doing it) regardless of long-term consequences. We're lazy animals naturally inclined to take the path of least resistance.

Humans will always be tempted to do what they feel in the moment. That's why I don't share the "give it a rest" sort of criticism you usually hear towards management techniques applied to our personal lives: Strategic guidelines are fundamental to reach fulfilment: in the long run, it's a risky bet to gamble on our willpower to always do the right thing.

For such reasons, I spent a huge deal of time trying to use OKRs to help me run my life. My Objectives sounded like “Improve my personal branding online” and “Get in shape to run a marathon”, and my Key Results “Hit 1000 Twitter followers by the end of the quarter”, and “Get to run 20K by November”.

After trying them for over a year, and especially after reading a few influential books on habits and quality time, I ended up reckoned that off-the-shelf OKRs are not the right tool for effective life planning.

OKRs and productivity anxiety

OKRs are essentially a framework for doing efficient goal-setting, which is proven to be an effective way to achieve a lot and yet still feel bad about yourself.

As James Clear beautifully put it in Atomic Habits, goals create an either-or conflict: either I achieve the goal and earn a momentary satisfaction that won't last anyway, or I don't and I'll feel miserable. Oh, and while striving towards the goal I will also feel miserable because I haven't gotten there yet. (Soul, from Pixar, amazingly depicts this dynamic.)

Goals are all about lag metrics: the result — the output — of our work. The goal of running a marathon tells me nothing about what to do to make it happen, nor about what will happen after achieving it. The goal measures the result, and as such it's a lag measurement.

I grew a fierce belief in focusing on lead metrics instead: metrics that measure behaviours that will lead to the desired outcome, and thus over which I have some control. By ensuring that I run every day, I can safely assume I'm making progress towards becoming an athletic person, irrespective of the number of marathon I'm able to complete. Sure enough, though, by focusing on a set of behaviors that lead me to being athletic, I'm indirectly increasing the odds of eventually completing a marathon.

This reshifts the focus of our attention from the stress of a binary result (the marathon), to the mundanity of what will inevitably lead to the result (running every day).

As legendary coach Bill Walsh phrased it, it's all about just focusing on playing while trusting that the score will take care of itself.

TAHs — OKRs for personal management

In the end, life planning boils down to these two competing elements: A need for direction, counterbalanced by the necessity of avoiding arbitrary expectation-setting.

After multiple attempts and consequent revisions of my OKRs, I ended up with a slightly modified version I called T.A.H.: Theme—Aspirations—Habits.

The general Theme is about setting the mood of the time period (say: 2021). It helps me ground my aspirations in long-term explicit planning: the power of being forced to say my life priorities out loud is incredible.

Aspirations replace Objectives. It's no longer a matter of setting up a binary goal I wish to achieve (the marathon), but rather dreaming of an identity state I aspire to reach (being athletic). It's ok if it's imprecise, or even elusive, like “I aspire to always be a good person”. An Aspiration is meant to provide motivation and direction, without the burden of being an either-or goal: I already know in advance that I'll never achieve such state, but I can at least work to get closer.

Habits replace Key Results. They don't measure progress, as there's no destination to get to: the promised land is aspirational, not literal. Habits describe one or more lead metrics that push me towards my aspirations. If I aspire to be an athletic person, one habit might be clocking in at least 3 hours of running activity each week. No progress towards any goal, or output: simple, standalone inputs.

Now, don't get me wrong: this framework still totally adheres to the OKR original specifications. Aspirations are a special type of Objective focused on identity — a much more powerful way to motivate humans than goals —, while Habits are a special type of Key Result designed to force me to go through an explicit intention setting.

TAHs, in a sense, are a subgroup of the more general OKRs, focused on avoiding the pitfalls of productivity anxiety that so much affected my early attempts.

What I'm planning for 2021

I'm a fan of working "with the garage door up", so I'll include here my own, personal TAHs for 2021.

The general Theme of 2021 is going to be Back to the Basics. I feel I still need to properly master foundational skills like focus, stress management, and dealing with avoidance. Any ambition at a higher level than that would be unstable. 2021 for me is going to be all about making the bricks for any future edifice I'll want to build.

My life, at this stage, is so fluid that it would be pointless to plan it further than the first quarter of the year, so I'll settle to this timeframe for my Aspirations and Habits:

  • AH.1: "Being healthy", for which I commit to follow a consistent daily sleep schedule -- I'm targeting 11 PM-7 AM, but I'll leave room for some experimentation first. (I'll write about my biohacking experiments in the near future!)
  • AH.2: "Being integrated into my community", for which I commit to spend 3.5 hours on learning German every week — as I have lived in Berlin since 2016 and yet I still can only barely order food. I'm working on a data-driven way to bootstrap language learning, let's see how it goes (and eventually I'll write about this too).
  • AH.3: "Being a good communicator", for which I commit to publishing 600 words every week on my blog.

See you in Q2-2021 to see how I'm doing!

In the meantime, I highly suggest you go through the same process: I'd love to read your TAHs! Feel free to work on them and send them over.


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Thanks to Ryan Williams, Drew Stegmaier, and the amazing Kyla Scanlon for reviewing earlier drafts of this post.
© Gianluca Segato 2024