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On Metrics and Resolve

One of the least understood components of my time-block planner is the “daily metrics” box that tops every pair of planning pages. Given that we’ve recently arrived at the beginning of a new year, an event that inevitably suffuses our culture with talk of reinvention and self-improvement, it seems an opportune time to look a little closer at this under-appreciated idea.

The mechanics of metric tracking are easy to explain. At the end of each day, you record a collection of symbols that describe your engagement with various key behaviors. These metrics can be binary. For example, you might have a specific symbol to indicate if you meditated, or called a friend, or went to the gym. If you engaged in the activity, you record the symbol. If you did not, you record the symbol with a line through it.

Metrics can also be quantitative, capturing not just whether you engaged in the activity, but to what degree. Instead of simply recording a symbol that indicates that you went for a walk, for example, you might augment the symbol with the total number of steps you took throughout the day. Instead of capturing the fact you did some deep work, you might also tally the total number of hours spent in this state.

The resulting information might seem an inscrutable cipher to an outsider, but once you get used to your personal metrics, they will provide, at a glance, an elaborated snapshot of your day.

Consider, for example, the sample “daily metrics” box from above. In this case, its terse scribbles might capture the following about the date in question:

  • You did not exercise (crossed out ex).
  • You took 9000 steps (s:9000).
  • You ate clean (ac).
  • You spent three hours working deeply (dw:3).
  • You read two book chapters (r:2).

The key question, of course, is why you should bother with this tracking discipline in the first place. Goal setting and time management are all prospective, in that they look boldly toward your desired future. Metrics, by contrast, are retrospective, merely leaving a record of what has already occurred.

This latter activity, however, turns out to be closely connected to the former. The dynamics at play here begin with motivation. In many ways our motivation centers are cruder than we like to imagine. You can tell yourself a complicated story about the importance of fitness in your vision of the life well-lived, but in the end, the desire to avoid letting down your future self by having to record that shameful crossed out ex metric might prove significantly more likely to inspire you to pick up the weights.

Once you’re making consistent and disciplined progress on small things that reflect your larger values, your identity evolves. You begin to see yourself as someone with discipline; someone willing and able to do hard things in the moment to obtain meaningful rewards in the future. It’s on this foundation that you will find yourself better able to stick with grander forward-looking goals.

Tracking daily metrics, in other words, is like a training regime for your will. Like many, you might be embracing the new year with a long list of ambitious resolutions. This is great. But perhaps before you dive into your big plans you should spend a month or two first tracking the small.

4 thoughts on “On Metrics and Resolve”

  1. This is excellent Post. Thanks.
    On a related note , just wanted to share this insight which got reinforced after reading this post of yours:
    When it comes to personal finance, major number of people focus on tracking spending / their expenses and constantly are on lookout for new, shiny ‘apps’ tracking their spending.
    However, In Goal based investing ( for example, retirement/financial independence in 10 or 15 years from now etc…I need X amount of money and I need to invest Rs.YY, now).
    I shifted my focus ( and urge others too) on tracking my investments ( based on a well formulated plan) is more important than tracking spending.
    Tracking spending retrospective, however, Tracking your investments ( and how much you need to invest ) is forward looking.
    Tracking how much one needs to be invest per month / year to achieve the goal is far more important than tracking spending.

  2. I think that metrics are useful – I’m an evaluator – but this seems to be a model of productivity that assumes doing more is always good and shame is the right motivator. If you got 9k steps in, I would say you exercised that day and don’t need to shame yourself for not having exercised. This is also far less effective – and more stressful- than just creating an automatic exercise habit at set days of the week. Tracking whether you ate clean or not is going to be far less effective than just deciding not to keep junk food in your house and learning to cook healthy food that is delicious – that is its own reward. This exacting approach seems to take the fun out of achieving things that feel good like deep work, and I don’t think it’s necessary to have this level of precision to better yourself. If you got in 9k steps, exercised, ate clean, did many hours of deep work every day – you might have achieved your goals while being an exhausted shell of a human, and your withered self will naturally feel the pressure to do more after having been static in your numbers for a while. I think we are all burnt out from constantly trying to optimize ourselves when often what we need is to slow down and find joy in doing things that are good for us. We are humans not robots.

    I also want to correct the notion that this has anything to do with “will”. It’s a common misconception that good habits are formed due to great willpower. Instead it is things like repetition, making the habit the easy choice, and making the habit rewarding. I suggest reading the accessible but evidence-based book by the leading habit researcher, Wendy Wood, Good Habits Bad Habits.

    • Excellent point, Ali! It’s the intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation debate. I feel like this is also very individual. People seem to differ in not only what motivates them but how they’re motivated.

  3. Hi, Cal

    In addition to Ali’s comment above, there are also people who can’t do goals.

    For those who know about Clifton Strengths, I’m a #4 Adaptability. That’s a now strength, and it’s why I’m goalless. It’s a strength that loves change and firefighting. Because of it, if I do a long term goal of a year, or even a week (a week is long term for my Adaptability), I forget it exists and never do it. Another writer high in Adaptability can only do short goals goals two days at a time. I’m still trying to figure out how mine works. Internal deadlines (ones I give myself) don’t work at all; external deadlines (from someone else) are fine.

    Tracking and metrics drives me crazy. I quit a fitness coach because it was built into their system that you HAD to track meals. I grudgingly did it the beginning on the condition it wasn’t forever. But it was soul-sucking because it put me right into diet culture. For them, tracking was forever, so I was off. I tried the 10K steps with Google Fit. At first, it was fun getting to that number. One day, I was dead tired and going “Crap. I have 3,000 more steps t do.” Started down the block as it was getting dark and suddenly the steps became a thing someone else expected me to do. I stopped and turned off Google Fit. But I’ve seen people so obsessed with keeping up with their daily steps that one reported that after surgery, they went into the bathroom and did their daily steps there.

    But it’s hard being in a society where you are expected to track everything and set goals for everything.


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