The Focus Problem – And How To Fix It Through OKR

We all struggle with it: focus. Staying focused—day in, day out—is incredibly complicated. Nonetheless, focus is your most important tool for getting things done. When I talk about the focus problem, I mean two focus-related challenges: limiting scope and exercising self-control.

You’ll be facing the scope challenge during a so-called strategy phase, when you’re planning what to work on next. This is a relatively easy challenge to tackle and the guidelines in this article may help. Setting goals however, is easier than achieving them. Achieving goals requires self-control (also called willpower) throughout the entire execution phase.
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Challenge 1: Limiting Scope

Focus starts with limiting the number of activities that you will be undertaking next. We call this limiting scope. It requires little explanation as we all had fallen prone to this. Initiating new things is exciting and energizing. Researchers found for instance that novelty (which could simply be an image you’ve never seen before) initiates a reward cycle in the brain. And so we are likely to start too many new things at once. As Steve Jobs explains:

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on.
But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other
good ideas that are there. You have to pick carefully.” – Steve Jobs

OKR to the rescue

This form of focus is well embedded in the OKR methodology. OKR prescribes that you have only 3 or 4 objectives per quarter. Having more of them reveals an inability to make tough choices, resulting in weak performance on all objectives.

“If you chase two rabbits, both will escape.” – Old Chinese proverb

A good way to solve this is by first evaluating whether all the objectives you came up with are actually important. Delete the ones that are not: deciding what to do, is as important as deciding what not to do.

Now that you have only important objectives left, prioritize them based on urgency. Put your most urgent objectives at the top and simply keep only the top 3 or 4. Put the other objectives in your backlog. To help you with this, we’ve added a feature to Perdoo that allows you to re-order your objectives and key results.

Each objective should be focused too

When forced to limit themselves to 3 or 4 objectives, our experience at Perdoo has taught us that many—including seasoned executives—try to fool themselves by sneaking two objectives into one. People clearly struggle to fight their “I want it all” desires. The problem with an unfocused objective is that it will not provide the direction that it should. It will also be hard, if not impossible, to evaluate success on the objective.

Prevent this by counting the number of verbs in your objectives: if you have more than 2, your objective might lack focus. Do you see that the objective sets out more than 1 direction? If not, make sure to double check with team members.

Once you’ve been able to limit the scope of your focus (i.e. the number of things that you will be focusing on), as well as the scope of each of objective, another challenge presents itself.

Challenge 2: Exercising Self-control

Achieving OKRs requires constant focus in the form of self-control (willpower), which humans—according to psychological research—only have in limited supply. Already 20 years ago, psychologist Roy Baumeister compared willpower to a muscle that can be overworked and grow fatigued. It’s basically why people are more likely to lie in the evenings than in the mornings, and why crime rates are higher in the evening. It’s also why we’re more tempted to eat that chocolate chip cookie when we’re feeling stressed than when we’re feeling on top of the world.

Our lives are filled with potential distractions: facebook, email, messages, notifications, basically everything the internet offers. With an ever increasing amount of distractions, many of us have to overwin an almost constant urge to respond to the overwhelming amount of information and stimuli. Staying focused becomes all the more difficult.

Scientists found that fixing this problem is key to success, even more so than intelligence. A world-famous experiment, the “marshmallow experiment” executed by psychologist Walter Mischel in the 1960s. Mischel offered four-year-olds the choice of 1 marshmallow now, or 2 marshmallows if they could wait 15 minutes. He then kept track of these children as they became adults. He found that children who had the ability to resist temptation achieved greater academic success, better health, and lower rates of divorce.

Luckily, self-control is something that you can train—just like a muscle. It all comes down to developing good habits. A habit is a routine of behavior that is repeated regularly and tends to occur subconsciously, and therefore consumes little energy.

Divide OKRs into 30-minute tasks

A first helpful habit is to chop your work up your OKRs in tasks that each will take you max. 30 minutes to accomplish. A related—and increasingly popular—technique for this is Pomodoro. With Pomodoro you chop up your work in bits of 25 minutes, after which you’ll have to take a break. This prevents you from constantly appealing to your self-control system. Similar to training a muscle in the gym, where people exercise is repetitions and sets.

Update OKRs every week

Another important habit to develop is to embed OKRs in weekly and monthly processes, to ensure that everyone keeps on working towards them. It is all too common that new things pop up during a week, that are not moving the needle for your ORKs. All too many organizations are “buzzing” with activity without actually pushing the organization forward. By updating your OKRs at least every week, you’ll see that the organization starts moving.

The easiest way to ensure you and your team update progress every week, is to make the OKRs part of your weekly team meeting. Simply bring up everyone’s objectives and key results (or at least the ones that they will work or have been working on) during the meeting. It really takes only a few minutes and is a tremendous help to each team member.

For example: at Perdoo every team has their own so-called “Monday Morning Standup”. Since we use Slack for internal communication, we have Geekbot.io reaching out to each team member 30 minutes in advance of that meeting. Geekbot asks 3 simple questions; one of them being what OKRs they will be working on that week. The answers are shared through Slack so that also other teams are aware.

Every Friday, we have an all-hands meeting and we ask everyone to update their OKRs in advance of that meeting. These updates are then again automatically shared from Perdoo to Slack so that everyone can read up on them. This helps to keep the entire team in sync, but also functions as an early warning system if things tend to go wrong. The biggest benefit however is an uptake in motivation: nothing excites people more than seeing that their actions have the desired effect.

On management-level we look at all the objectives and their progress every month. We don’t have a mid-term OKR review although this is very common amongst our customers. We, however, sit together with the management team every month and found it easier to bring our OKRs in an already existing process.

A few more tips:

  • Work on max. 1-3 OKRs per week
  • Ideally, every task is short enough to finish in 30 minutes
  • Finish OKRs before you start working on new ones
  • If you’re tempted by distractions, pause for a moment, take a deep breath, and redirect your full attention to that one activity
  • Whenever you open your inbox, always empty it out
  • Don’t read your email when you can work productively; instead, read them during your lunch break and after you get off work

Too much focus?

An article by James Heskett published in Harvard Business Review in late 2014 discussed whether too much focus is a problem. You could say that an excess of anything is never good, but the problem they describe is better known as “Tunnel Vision”: the inability to see what’s happening outside of the focus area, which could for instance result in a competitor coming out of nowhere with an innovative solution to the same problem.
As a solution, the author proposes to not be focused in a strategy definition phase, but to definitely be focused while executing that strategy. Again, the OKR framework has mechanisms built into the framework that prevent you from making these mistakes. OKRs are set on a quarterly basis. What this means is that every quarter, the entire organization takes some time to reflect on the previous quarter before crafting the OKRs for the upcoming quarter. This guarantees that management takes a small “break” every 3 months to have a look at the bigger picture, evaluate strategy, and adjust course where necessary.

A best practice within OKR also holds that at least 50% of the OKRs should come from the bottom up. This ensures that input is solicited from literally everyone in the organization and that views held comfortably by management can be challenged and shaken up by “outsiders”.

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