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.


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