Whatever you measure and act upon gets improved, and whatever you don’t measure doesn’t get improved. In fact, it almost certainly declines. To shift your life in the direction you want, it’s important to “count what counts”, and create the habit of tracking your progress.
Consider the example of a garden. Someone tends the garden every day for a year, “measures” the number of weeds, and compares it to the desired number of weeds (i.e. zero). Consider a different garden that is left untouched during that year. Which garden do you think will have more weeds?
The same principle is at work in our habits and activities. Left untouched, some habits may appear to work well enough on autopilot for a while. Often, however, those same habits wind up in a state of decay and we don’t really know how they got there. Without records or measurements, it’s hard to figure out why this happened.
As Bob Parsons writes in his Rules for Success in Business and Life in General: measure everything of significance, and anything that is not managed will deteriorate.
Your personal measurement system
To track your progress, it’s a useful idea to record daily measurements of quantities that you want to increase, maintain, or decrease in your life. For example:
- physical health – minutes spent working out, weight, body fat percentage
- education – minutes spent studying or reading
- spirituality – minutes spent meditating
The key is to use a system that is simple and easy enough that you can record exactly what you want, without it getting in your way or taking too much time. Regardless of what you do, it will take some effort. When you use an overly elaborate system, there’s a risk that you will spend too much time creating the system in the first place, use it enthusiastically for a few days, and then stop because it’s “too complicated”. Avoid this trap.
Why does a simple process of measurement work to help you create or remove habits? The key reasons are attention and accountability.
When you pay attention to something daily – even if it’s only to write down an “off day” or “rest day” – you’re much more likely to make it (or keep it) a habit. When you are accountable to something outside yourself – even if it’s only a notebook or spreadsheet, you are far more likely to maintain the habit.
To increase your level of accountability even further, and help others in the process, you can create or join a support group to share your progress in maintaining your habit. This social aspect of measurement is the key to such organizations as Alcoholics Anonymous or Weight Watchers. The same principle is at work in services such as life coaching or personal training – the process of checking in regularly with a professional who helps you with your goals vastly increases the likelihood that you will make steady progress.
Falling off track – and recovery
No one is perfect, and even those of us with the best of intentions – and good measurement systems – still get sidetracked for various reasons. One advantage of recording your progress in a habit, is that if you get interrupted, you can see exactly when you stopped practicing the habit. This can help you design new support systems that help you to maintain your habit through future difficult times.
For example, suppose you observed your workouts dropping from five times a week on average, to only once a week during crunch times at work. To counteract this pattern, you could take special care to schedule in workout appointments during times of heavy workload, or, if that is not possible, you could take special care to reestablish the habit when your heavy workload subsides. Without measurement, this pattern could easily pass unnoticed.
By making sure that your system takes into account mistakes and imperfections, you can handle exceptional situations. In other words, it’s a good idea to measure your overall measurement system once in a while, and to make sure that the system is doing its job in helping you make progress toward your goals.
What about stuff that “can’t be measured”?
Some might criticize this approach as too mechanistic – “the most important things in life like love, and friendship, and family can’t be reduced to simple measurement”. While I appreciate the sentiment behind this statement, this is simply wrong.
Although love, friendship and family can’t be measured, time and attention certainly can, and it’s time and attention that determine whether you’re able to experience these intangible things in your life. The feelings of love and friendship are intangible, but the habits of love and friendship can be both practiced and measured.
If you’re feeling disconnected from your spouse or lover, why not make a commitment to say “I love you” or similar phrase five or ten times a day? (And measure it!) If you’re feeling disconnected from your friends in other cities, make a commitment to speak to at least three friends by phone every day. (And measure it!)
Ultimately, any kind of behavior or actions that you want to add or subtract from your life can be measured somehow. If it matters to you, you can find a way to measure it.
Changing your behavior and habits can be hard, and any system is only as powerful as the intention of the person using it. Compared to most methods, however, a simple system of measurement is a low investment / high reward way to increase the odds that you will make regular progress toward goals that are important to you.
What can you start to measure today that will have the greatest positive impact on your life?
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