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Chalking up new habits to keep up with the OKRs

A couple of years ago, I started leading my life as though it is the product that I own and I've been playing the role of the Product Manager. One of the powerful tools that Product Managers use to make their products great is the OKRs, popularised by Google, that I've written about multiple times before.

Using this tool blindly takes you nowhere. You may define clear objectives and key results and the metrics you want to track for their progress, but that might still lead you nowhere if you're not prioritizing. One of the key skills a product manager brings to the table is ruthless prioritization. With a view over the entire product and how every feature and interaction affects the users and the business, it is vital to get prioritization right.

And often, prioritization ends up being on the proverbial paper, which is now the Excel sheet, which is of no use to anyone. Priority is not what you say it is, it is what you act out.

I started off this year thinking that writing would be a top priority for me, and as a consequence, reading more variety and new experiences would rank equally high on priority. Although that has been on paper since the start of January, over two months in and I had made the least progress in these two areas as compared to everything else on my list of OKRs.

I have faced this in building actual products as well. Something that ought to be high priority and something that I acknowledge is high priority, still ends up not progressing simply because it is harder to make progress on this. There are often easier wins, the 'low hanging fruit' in business parlance that I can go after and show some progress. But this progress is at the fringes as what is important and at the core (hence it is top priority) gets sidelined.

This is the equivalent of doing busywork over deep work (as Cal Newport likes to put it). Busywork is the answering of emails and attending meetings and the like which feels like real work and which keeps us thinking that something is moving while deep work is that which requires us to sit down (often for hours) and figure out the best way to present a feature to a user, or work out how to address the top issues raised by users, or figure out the best strategy to double the user base.

Here's how I'm performing currently on a bunch of metrics that measure my progress towards my OKRs. Unlike the three-month period this is done over at most corporates (and nowadays startups), I do this exercise over a year. That explains some of the blanks which represent tasks that I plan to start on later on in the year.

I look at this every week, and when I saw this at the start of March, I was surprised to find that I was in the red for higher priority tasks while I was in the green for lower priority tasks. A deeper look showed that the higher priority tasks were inherently harder to do (like write thousand words a day) as compared to the lower priority tasks. A little more deeper, and I saw that my habits were biased towards enabling the lower priority tasks more. And it was evident as I was doing better than what I would have liked to at this point (see the 100+ percents?), but at the expense of falling behind on more important tasks.


So, I decided to bring about some changes and chalk up a couple of new habits. And the basis of it was ruthless prioritization. In execution. And not just on paper. 

One of the changes I did was to assign the first block of time dedicated to deep work (1-2 hours depending on the day) each day to the top priority task - writing. This wouldn't have been enough in itself. So, I made this block of time extensible. Which means I wouldn't take up any other task until I was through with this one. And over the last couple of weeks, this has been working. I have been clocking 100+ percent on the high priority tasks while clocking lower on the lower priority tasks (as it should have been from the start).

Since time and resources are finite, it is easy to fall into the trap of feeling good about achieving some tasks while falling behind on others even though the ones we fall behind on are more important in the grand scheme of things, in making the product something the users love. 

One of the best startup advice that you get is to list down the top three things you want to do and throw away numbers two and three. What I've done is the equivalent of that. Not starting on numbers two and three until I'm through with number one. 

And it's been working!

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