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OKRs for Writers (And Creatives)

After reading Stephen King’s writing memoir, I realized part of his success is that he knows how to set goals. I turned his goals into writing OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) for myself.

I’ve been working on my current manuscript for months now. It’s coming along in stop and go motion like learning to drive stick for the first time. Sometimes, everything clicks and aligns, and I can get some movement, if not distance, for a very urgent meeting. Other times, I stall because life obstacles keep getting in the way. The impulsive thing to do is to slam on the breaks when you think you’re going to crash.

The items on the list of why I don’t have time to write for myself is long. I could list them all, but a modified Stoic maxim comes to mind. “Waste no more time arguing about what a good writer should be; just be one.”

I am a good writer for everyone around me—the company I work for, my private clients. Yet, my life goal to be a professional fiction writer comes as an afterthought, despite the idea being the most important thing in my life. Even my excerpt for the main page of this site says, “In his free time, he writes fiction.” Yet, writing fiction is something I daydream about as I walk past Hudson News and see the latest bestsellers displayed. It is something, with every ounce of my being, that I want and need to execute on.

Gee that sounds familiar.

For over two years now, I have been working with John Doerr’s What Matters to make the site a fan page for OKRs (Objectives and Key Results). OKRs are “a collaborative goal-setting tool used by teams and individuals to set challenging, ambitious goals with measurable results.” I remember writing that soon after reading “Measure What Matters”, required reading for any serious OKR user.

But the quote in the book that always stuck with me is: “Ideas are easy. Execution is everything.” It’s quoted frequently, but the weight of it never hit me until recently.

I have a growing list of book ideas in a note on my computer but have never executed on any of them to success. Because success takes measurable results, and while I set them in my professional life, I haven’t viewed my writing career as a profession yet.

Stephen King helped urge me along to this simple epiphany while reading his book “On Writing”. Having worked in goal-setting for a while now, I’m good at identifying whether a goal is good or not. Mr. King’s goals were good, and if I had read his book before OKRs, I would not have recognized it. Sometimes, you have to navigate one river before it becomes a confluence to know they all both empty into one, larger river. That all great waters are deep and connected. As Mr. King communicates in his writing memoir, “two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun.”

OKRs for writers (and creatives)

I’ve realized that many artistic people, even working artistic people, aren’t good at setting goals. This is a problem because delivering on a timeline is one thing an artist can control in the otherwise intemporal creative scene. Creative writing and the arts aren’t seen as a real career unless you’re someone like Mr. King. They get to you when they get to you, so you must be on the clock.

With everything working against us, we need to work for us. And that means setting real goals. While not calling them “OKRs,” these book-writing “objectives” stuck out to me while I read Mr. King’s memoir:

  • “The first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season.”
  • “Get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words. That’s 180,000 words over a three-month span.”
  • “With that goal set, resolve to yourself that the door stays closed until that goal is met.”
  • “Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ’til noon or seven ’til three.”
  • “It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the midnight oil.”

After finishing “On Writing”, I realized Mr. King’s writing goals aligned with the many explanations of OKRs in “Measure What Matters”:

  • “What is most important for the next three (or six, or twelve) months?”
  • “It’s not a key result unless it has a number.”
  • “Ideas are easy. Execution is everything.”
  • “OKRs require a public commitment.”
  • “It’s what you can do with whatever you know or can acquire and actually accomplish [that] tends to be valued.”

And, “the simple act of writing down a goal increases your chances of reaching it. Your odds are better still if you monitor progress while sharing the goal… two integral OKR features.”

I realized how stupid I had been. With every other component of my life, I had been setting audacious goals. Yet, the most important thing was on the back burner.

It may not seem revolutionary, but it was revolutionary to me. We have a terrible habit of viewing our dreams as mist. That something will come out of it, instead of racing into it for fear of missing the road. But the road is there, even if you can’t see it.

I started drafting my writing OKRs. I wrote this objective:

O: Finish your 60,000-word-minimum manuscript by October 26th, 2020.

For my first key result, I knew I wanted a minimum word count. I looked to guidance from prolific writers. I found that Hemingway wrote 500 words a day, Crichton wrote 10,000, Rice writes 3,000, and, as said, Mr. King writes 2,000.

60,000 is about the length of “Carrie”, Mr. King’s first published novel.

I currently have about 20,000 words completed. With 40,000 words left to go, and about 30 days to get there, simple math told me I needed to write 1,333 words a day. That would be a moonshot, as I generally get to about 500 words a day—if that. But, I also knew I was writing an objective for my soul and a collective commitment to happiness. That weighed heavily.

So, I set that key result.

The second key result came: “Do not leave your office until the minimum daily word count is met.”

Next up, I wanted to heighten the transparency of my objective. So, I wrote: “Have the final manuscript ready for Belinda (my wife) to read on October 27th.”

And, for fun, I ended my key results with: “Burn the midnight oil.” While it wasn’t a great KR, the mental imagery reminded me of my “Night Garden” story and fueled me every time I read the full OKR:

O: Finish your 60,000-word-minimum manuscript by October 26th, 2020.

  • KR1: Write a minimum of 1,333 words a day.
  • KR2: Do not leave your office until the minimum daily word count is met.
  • KR3: Have the final manuscript ready for Belinda to read on October 27th.
  • KR4: Burn the midnight oil.

For the first time, I was measuring the success of me chasing my dreams. It was terrifying, because while it was direction, a place to drive, now I had no excuses. The dream was either accomplished or not. And, saying it like that adds urgency for me to get to work.

Because, as Mr. King writes, I have a meeting with the muses. And now they’re aware of my commitment to their time, too—especially my wife.

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