You Only Know What You Measure

I’m amazed at how many people fail to take an easy step when working on a goal: writing things down.  If you’re trying to save more money, a good start is simply writing down the things you spend money on.  If you want to get in shape, write down what you eat and what you do when you exercise.

Measurement isn’t foolproof.  There are some disciplines it fairs poorly (relationships, learning, family).  And even in areas where it can excel, there is the risk that you end up measuring the wrong things. But just because measurement isn’t perfect doesn’t mean it isn’t an effective (and easy) way to make progress towards a goal.

Here’s a question to ask yourself if you recently made a new resolution for something specific: Have you written anything down to record your progress?  If the answer is no, you’re missing a great opportunity to get better results with little effort.

Your Memory and Intuitions are Often Wrong

Why is measurement powerful?  Because our intuitions about our progress are horribly flawed.  Memory is anecdotal.  We form assumptions based on looking at a few memorable examples and generalize.  So your evaluation of how healthfully you eat isn’t based on an accurate sampling of your diet, it’s based on a few vivid pictures of the salad or hamburger you ate last week.

Measurement has the advantage of being unbiased.  You don’t need any supernatural powers of unbiased memory recall to get insight.  You just need to look down at what you’ve written and count.

There is No Willpower (Only Strategy)

Self-discipline is a great character trait, but it’s over-attributed to success. Reaching a target has a lot more to do with strategy than feats of willpower.  The reason measurement is powerful is that it helps you correctly aim your strategy.

Over a year ago, I started the practice of recording everything I spent money on.  Although this sounds obsessive, it actually takes little time and it helps me make smart decisions when spending my money.

Before I did this practice, I had distorted perceptions about where I was spending most of my money.  I had assumed that small discretionary purchases (DVDs, books, etc.) were eating up a lot of my extra money.  After recording for a year, I realized that was only a small amount of money, and more was being spent eating at restaurants or going to events.

Had I not written down my expenses, I would have been focused on the wrong things.  I would have tried to cut down my expenses by stopping buying new books, instead of looking for reasonable ways to limit my expenses at events, such as planning ahead to avoid a costly cab ride back.

I’ve applied the same logic to other areas of life as well, including my website income and health.  By writing things down, I was able to form a strategy that would actually target the biggest concerns.  Often simply writing things down on an ongoing basis would clue me into huge areas of waste or opportunity that I’d been missing.

Isn’t Measurement too Mechanical?

Writing down everything you eat or spend money on sounds like an unnecessary chore.  I don’t want to become a robot that itemizes everything I do, and I’ll bet you don’t either.  For people who have reservations about writing everything down, ask yourself two questions:

  1. How much effort am I putting in to reach my goal?
  2. Would I spend 5 minutes a day if I knew it would immediately inform me whether my strategy for reaching that goal had any chance of success?

I can’t see the logic in being willing to exert months of effort towards a diet, budget, business or college course, and being unwilling to keep a pad of paper to make a few notes about it.

If it seems awkward writing things down, try sticking with it for a month.  After that, it will be automatic and won’t seem outside of your routine.  You don’t need to write down everything, just the things that are relevant to your current goals.

Look for Easy Record-Keeping

I’ve written before that the hard part about measuring is finding the right things to measure. Trying to measure a relationship or your social life sounds silly because any one measurement is meaningless.  But although some areas defy record-keeping, others make it obvious.  It doesn’t take an advanced degree to see that health is a function of what you eat, or that frugality is the result of what you spend money on.

Figure out if your goal has easy records to keep that line up with results.  If it does, ask yourself why you aren’t writing them down today.

  • Elliott at Good Plum

    Scott, great post. To add something to the willpower section, aside from strategy, I think the aura of willpower is attained by belief. Until you truly believe in something (yourself, ability, etc.) – all the self-discipline in the world won’t help you.


  • Shanel Yang

    The simple act of writing it down is also an important step: signaling the seriousness of the commitment to that particular goal to yourself. If you can’t commit to writing down your goal and keeping daily track of your progress, you don’t really want to change that bad habit into a good one. And, that’s too bad because it’s so easy once you do it this way. It’s practically fool-proof! You’ll get addicted to fixing all your bad habits this way. But, remember to stick to just one at a time. Or else it starts to become not so easy. Good luck! : )

  • Mike Walzman

    I agree with you on the writing. When I leave my to do list in my head, I have a thousand other thoughts roaming in there and everything just gets jumbled up and my day is now out of wack. But when I write it out and prioritize the tasks, my day is a lot smoother and I get a lot less headaches. I also like to commit to others that I will get a task done, because left to my own devices to do a task that I’ve been dreading and I’ll probably think of some way out of it. But when I commit to someone before the task and then tell them to call me or I’ll call them after I’m done, keeps me more accountable.

  • J.D. Meier

    The value of the measurement is the value of the feedback.

    I find a lot of people give up because they didn’t find a way to speed up their learning loop or get some sort of positive reinforcement they are heading in the right direction, or a sign that they have to correct course.

  • Shradha

    Enjoyed the post. I agree that writing down your goals is a powerful motivator, and I myself write down goals regularly. However, I would disagree with the statement “Reaching a target has a lot more to do with strategy than feats of willpower.” If, from the beginning, you are not pursuing a goal wholeheartedly and aren’t committed to it, you can write it down over and over again but it won’t make much of a difference. Willpower will get you a lot further in life, then simply writing things down. Measurement will help keep you motivated in continuing to pursue a goal, but if you are not self-disciplined and cannot control your behaviour, then you will never start working towards your goal in the first place.

  • Scott Young


    Motivation is important, I’ll agree. But beyond a certain point, there’s a limit to how much control you have over willpower and how it creates results. Even if I really want to get in shape, getting “pumped up” or using willpower will only go so far. Getting a great strategy to stick to going to the gym and pushing my workout is more effective.


  • dj

    I thought everyone used Quicken, spreadsheet, or some Open Source software to record their income and expenses, before that, wasn’t it one’s checkbook register. How do you know where you stand, + or -, if you don’t.

    I recently started using a combination of Open Project and Kontact (PIM) to organize and prioritize. This may sound odd, but I got rid of all my “motivational” material and media. Whether it was Robbins, Ziglar, Covey, etc, it didn’t matter (Although I kept The One Minute Manager), and it feels great 🙂