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Personal Change You Can Measure

As we approach mid-year, are there any goals you had set at the start of this year that you want to make progress on? Here is a simple tool that can help you in becoming more productive and effective.

There is an old business adage, “what is measured, improves.” I believe that lesson applies, to not just your business, but also your life. If you measure something, you gain conscious awareness of it. If you gain conscious awareness, you increase your ability to control it.

Today is the third day of a week-long diet log I’m running. My diet log is simply recording everything that I eat for an entire week. Recently, I set a few fitness goals, and I wanted to ensure that my eating habits were matching my plan of action.

I measure more than just what I eat. I record personal expenses, how I use my time, what books I read and many other personal metrics. This may seem a tad obsessive, but I’ve found it greatly helps me in staying productive and reaching my goals. Besides, a little obsessiveness isn’t always a bad thing when it comes to reaching your personal targets.

Why Measure Personal Change?

Reaching your goals is a delicate surgery. Now, would you like to do that surgery with a scalpel or a baseball bat? Measurement adds precision to your goal-setting efforts, and helps you see whether your efforts are on target.

The biggest reason to measure personal change frequently is that people (which includes you and me) are self-delusional. The vast majority of car drivers believe their driving skills are above average. And if pressed in a survey, most people believe they are better looking than average. I’d also wager that, if you don’t measure, you probably underestimate how much you eat, what you spend money on and how much time you waste in a day.

These biases are unavoidable. The only cure is actually recording what you do to see if your mental picture measures up to reality. Personal metrics are an escape from the carnival house mirrors that twist and distort your life.

Another reason to measure is feedback. Feedback is incredibly important for growth. Some authors note that surgeons tend to improve more over the lifetime of their careers than do general practitioners. The reason is that surgeons have access to immediate feedback for every decision, which enhances their skill. Whereas, the general practitioners must wait weeks or months before receiving feedback on whether a diagnosis was correct.

By measuring, you gain access to more immediate feedback. Is your new diet working? You can find out whether you’re eating too many calories on a daily basis, rather than waiting a month or two to see if the pounds shed away. Is your new routine successful? A daily time log and productivity analysis can help you measure your output per hour of work.

Immediate feedback allows you to make quick corrections. I’m conducting a diet log so that I can see, with relative accuracy, whether my current eating habits are in line with my goals. Without doing a log, I can only guess and hope. That’s the difference between using a scalpel and a baseball bat to reach your goals.

 

Isn’t Measuring Time Consuming?

Instead of that question, I pose an alternative question: “Isn’t sloppily reaching your goals, time consuming?

Still, I suspect many people are hesitant to jump into the deep end of personal metrics because it becomes one more thing they need to do each day. The good news, however, is that this really isn’t necessary. There are two ways you can add more regular measurement to your life without it becoming a distraction.

1. Habitual Measuring

The first way to make measurement painless is simply to create a habit. If you measure something frequently, you won’t even think about it. It will become a part of your routine. I recommend this approach when pursuing longer goals, where the measurement isn’t too intensive.

For example, I am currently in the habit of writing down all of my expenses. For the first few weeks, this required deliberate effort. However, after over a year, I barely think about the habit and it consumes only a few minutes each day.

For those few minutes, I get precise information about how much money I’m spending and where the money is going. This helps me be smart when using my money instead of simply being cheap. I can see where my largest controlled expenditures are, and see whether these match my goals. For about an hour over the span of one month, I greatly increase my success with my personal savings goals.

2. Burst Measuring

The other approach to personal metrics is to record detailed information for a few days or a week. The total time commitment is negligible, and it can give you a lot of information when you’re trying out a new plan.

My week-long diet log is an example of this. I’m recording everything I eat for one week. This is too much detail and sorting to carry on permanently, but it’s fine to run for just seven days.

I like to regularly record myself for various metrics: food, time consumed, productivity, etc. Each time I record, I learn valuable information that allows me to make corrections into the future.

Time-logging

One way to get started is to keep a record of when you start or stop any activity throughout the day. Optionally, to simplify things, you may only want to record the time from when you wake up until you finish your daily goals, completing your workday.

To do this, keep an index card and a pen with you at all times. Every time you switch tasks, even something like going onto the Internet during work or using the bathroom, make a quick note of it on your index card. Afterwards, you can enter the data into a spreadsheet and sort it into categories.

There are two interesting findings I see whenever I do a time log:

  • The number of interruptions
  • The amount of time spent on each activity

Interruptions

When I first started time logs several years ago, the first point that became obvious was the number of times I interrupt myself when working. A phone would ring, or I’d use the washroom. In some cases, the interruptions would be a few per hour.

I don’t need to explain to you the problem of frequent interruptions. Interruptions break your concentration, lengthening the amount of time you need to work. I love my work, but I don’t want to spend eight hours to accomplish a task that should only take three. Interruptions are a major cause of this.

But, unless you get some data regarding the amount of interruptions you face, it’s hopeless. Recording metrics can help you identify not only how much time is wasted from constant interruptions, but also what causes those interruptions. Knowledge gives you the power to fix those problems.

Time Allocation

Generally, if I do a time log, I will record the time spent on every activity of the day. This allows me to see where I actually spend my time. When I started doing this, I didn’t like what I saw.

I started to realize that the chunks of time I spent on mindless entertainment far outweighed the amount of time I spent on the things that matter most to me. I also realized that the things that added the most value to my wellbeing, didn’t really take that much time at all.

Time logging can be a reality check for many people because it forces you to acknowledge that you don’t spend your time in the way you’d like. But, with that awareness comes the power to experiment with new changes. With better knowledge of my time usages, I had more time for new activities like joining Toastmasters, learning to salsa and reading more books.

Diet-logging

Another personal metric to record is what you eat. This is a big source of self-delusion. Is that donut you ate a one-time treat, or actually a fairly regular habit? If you’re trying to gain muscle, are you eating enough clean calories and protein to reach that goal?

Even if you consider yourself in good shape and want a healthy lifestyle, diet logging is a good idea. It allows you to place a benchmark for your eating habits, to know whether or not you are living up to the standards you would like for yourself.

I don’t like to be too obsessive about what I eat. I want to eat tasty foods and not worry about number crunching every calorie or snack. I’m not suggesting you start to mash up and weigh everything before you consume it. Eating is not just about nutrition. It is also about enjoyment, socializing and experiences.

Recording what you eat doesn’t have to remove the gustatory pleasure you get from food. All it does is open up the option for you to improve the way you eat. If you have a fitness goal, this may be in changing what you eat to reach it. If you simply strive for healthy living, this will shine a light on your eating habits to see whether your menu is delicious and healthy, or simply fast junk.

Here are a few things you can do with the knowledge gained from recording a temporary diet log:

  • Reduce/increase calories. Do you need to eat 1800 calories a day to meet your health goal, then a diet log will quickly tell you whether you are going to reach it.
  • Change the types of food. See a lot of processed foods, fast food and junk food on your list? A diet log can expose your broader eating habits so you can make a shift.
  • Increase the variety of foods. Record for a week and see how frequently you eat the same meal. Life is meant to be an exploration so maybe you should broaden your menu?
  • Change the timing of when you eat. If you make a note of the time along with what you eat, you can see whether you are eating multiple small meals or one huge meal. Your blood sugar has a huge impact on your energy levels, so if you see large gaps or spikes of processed carbohydrates, that may help explain your fatigue levels in patches of the day.

Parting Words

Time, food and money are three ways you can become more conscious about your life, but there are many others. What you do depends on the goals you have and what you want to improve.

What is measured, improves,” works in business because it focuses your attention on a key issue. When I measure statistics for my website or sales conversions, I’m gaining immediate feedback on all my improvement efforts.

Recording your personal metrics works the same way. By allowing unbiased, immediate feedback you can see any change of plan ripple into your measurements. If you’re going to spend hundreds of hours on a project or goal, why not spend a few minutes to see whether those hundreds of hours are being put to a good use?

 

** Which goals or areas in your life could benefit from being tracked on a regular bases? Any other productivity tips that help you stay on track? Share your thoughts and stories with us in the comment section. See you there!

Editor’s Comment: I (Tina) track many life goals using simple logs and free online tools. In one example, I wanted to develop a spiritual routine that included rising at 5am, meditation, reading, contemplation and yoga, so I keep a simple chart in a notebook, where I record my progress for each day. When I’ve completed each of the activities, I would check it off for the day. The chart/log/table allows me to quickly see an overview of my progress, where I am at, and each checkmark builds momentum that encourages me to keep going. Overtime, the activities becomes habits. I keep similar logs for managing our personal and professional spending (using mint.com and google docs), and various metrics for this site; Both, I create and review at the end of every month. It’s true what they say, “What gets measured, gets managed, and thus improved.”

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33 thoughts on Personal Change You Can Measure

  1. Ben

    I also use Things and highly recommend it for Mac users. There is also an iPhone version.

  2. Great article – I’m a big believer in writing things down and measuring progress as well. The reason I believe that folks have a hard time with going through the steps is they don’t believe change is possible.
    Often the first step is the hardest. Believe that change can happen and then a world of possibilities open up.

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