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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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31 thoughts on Personal Change You Can Measure

  1. Tina since you recently got a mac I would highly recommend “Things” an excellent GTD app with simple structure. You can even schedule you routine tasks you do everyday. Ever since I started using it I never looked back on anything else.

  2. Ever since she lost 40 pounds 8 years ago, my wife has logged her food intake and exercise routine. She cites this as the key to her success, as it’s right there in black and white. She can also see what foods give her more energy, and what exercises work best over the long term.

  3. There’s good evidence in the medical literature that simply keeping a food log induces weight loss because of the very reasons you cite in this post: it gives people feedback and breaks through their delusional assessment of how much they’re actually eating. I highly recommend it for all my patients (I’m an internist who spends a lot of his time trying to get patients to lose weight!). In fact, I wrote a post called “The Truth About How To Lose Weight” on my own blog in which I recommend this same strategy. I’m a big believer in tracking goals for all the reasons you cite, especially for the effect of making me feel like I’m making progress, especially for big projects that have to get “chunked” into little ones. Thanks for an excellent article.

  4. I can definitely attest to this method of measuring for results. If you don’t track it, it gets lost in the “do it later” stuff that always piles up. I log things in my business every week, and have a bigger “check up” on my progress every month.

    I also do this with habits – like Tina mentioned. It works surprisingly well!

  5. Great article, Scott! :) I enjoyed reading it. I think a lot of things in my life would benefit from being tracked. I like Tina’s idea of using online tools and simple logs to track goals. Those kinds of things would really work for me!

  6. Hiya

    A timely reminder for me to record more of my goals and what I’m accomplishing (or not).
    With the exception of calendars I’ve rarely used logs, diaries or similar tools in my personal life.
    I’ll introduce timelogging as my first step. It will help me accomplish more of the things I want during the day and I want to accomplish more, not exhaust myself.

    So thanks for this article.
    Jens

  7. I usually hate keeping a food log, and I’ll admit I still don’t enjoy it. But I found that using a weekly planner and writing my food down for each day really helps keep me on track! I’m going to start tracking my time starting tomorrow. It is something I really need to work on, hopefully it’ll improve my work and my ADD!

    Thanks Tina!

  8. The other old adage is “you can’t control what you don’t measure”. Very relevant.

    Lovely article, thanks!

  9. I’ve been using Buxfer for over a year now to track my expenses, and recently had the idea to also track time with it. It’s a free online app, and if you’re creative with the tags you can accomplish quite a bit!

    Thanks for the article, Tina!

  10. Hi Scott,

    Time logging can help us to see where we spend our time and we can further optimize our time usage from the information we gathered. Great article!

    Vincent

  11. Like Ashlee mentioned, sometimes I hate writing things down all the time (for example, in a food log), but it really, REALLY works. If there’s something you want to monitor in your life, keep track of it on paper (or on your computer) is a great way to keep it in check.

  12. This was a great article – as a life coach, I’m often addressing these issues with clients. I think the “writing it down” part offers a more concrete way to address your goals, because it forces you to break the goals into smaller, more manageable pieces.

    Also, the time allocation you mentioned is huge, because when people create a pie chart of the amount of time spent doing different activities, they easily see what isn’t matching up with their priorities and goals (e.g. wanting to lose weight but spending 20% of their time watching TV). Thanks for this wonderful post!

  13. Cool post. Given that I started my blog just 3 weeks ago, measuring is definitely something I should do. If you are a mac user, there’s a really cool application called slife that measures how much time you spend in each application, each web site, etc.

  14. Great article, and I can see the value of metrics. My site is two months old and the feedback has been great, and I know I should now look at page-ranks, Alexis, keywords and so on. What’s the solution for those of us who find this type of metrics tearfully boring?

    I think it was Eckhart Tolle who suggested that if you want to know if you’re awakening, ask yourself if you feel more joyful and lighter than you did, say three months ago. I like that metric. It’s simple, easy, and it includes every other possible metric.

  15. Feeling good is not necessariy measurable in a quantifiable way. Nonetheless, as a person chooses to make choices and think about things that perpetuate and expand good feelings, this is “progress.” Love is the answer so choosing to feel, share and evoke it matters.

  16. Scott,

    Congratulations on your diet log!

    Most people eat without ever taking note of what they put in their mounth and it makes it quite challenging to make lasting changes.

    Once you have a pretty good idea of what you are eating daily, you can take a step back and truly assess which foods are NOT serving any purpose and therefore pushing you away from your goals.

    Keep up the great work and much success with your weight loss goals.

    I hope Tina will give you a chance to come back and share your progress with the rest of us!

  17. Logging things I eat and progress I make on projects has always worked for me. Surprising how I don’t think to do it more often! I took a “before” photo of myself before a month-long workout routine that started this week. Usually when I start a new workout, I feel great for the first few days, and then my progress stops feeling obvious. I think if I can see the change in my body over a whole month, I’ll be motivated to stay active. Also, I recently participated in “NaNoWriMo,” a novel-writing month-long program in which you have word count goals. I’ve never done so much creative writing in a short amount of time. I’ll try thinking of other things I could track, to become more aware of my actions and productivity.

  18. I’m not so sure success can always be measured. Sometimes success is the byproduct of emotional happiness.

    Regardless, these are great ideas that certainly work under certain circumstances.

    ;-)

  19. Jacinda

    I think I’ll try the time log. I’ve become much more efficient with my use of time this year, but I know that there are still areas where I can improve. I’ve used a diet log off and on and it’s really great for keeping my health in check.

    I started using listography.com a few months ago to keep track of what I’m doing with my life. Some lists are of goals and they contain links to websites and books that contain information that will help me reach them. I also have lists of books I have read and want to read this year and also of movies I’ve seen and want to see. I felt like I was getting pulled into too many movies that I truly did not want to see, which is definitely a waste of time. I’m looking forward to the end of the year when I can say, “Wow, look at everything I’ve accomplished!” I’m half way into the year and I’m feeling pretty good.

    Great post Tina! Thanks.

  20. Great post, Scott. I’m a big fan of measurement and tracking. Without attaching something with a tangible figure, we can only operate in ambiguity. Hazy targets lead to hazy results.

    I’ve written a 5-part goal achievement series where tracking is critical step in step #5 (http://embraceliving.net/blog/2009/01/goal-achievement-esper/), which TSN readers might found useful. I personally use tracking for every of my goals, including my weight loss goal from last year where I did a calorie tracking every day (it was tedious, but did its job in keeping me on track! And once you get the hang of it in the first few weeks, things become easy from there on)

  21. LJ

    This is a really great point. Too many people focus on setting goals, but it can get discouraging on really long processes if you don’t know how much progress you’re making. All you can see is that you’re not done.

    I personally use metrics on my biggest projects: how many sections I have planned on a book, what my weight is doing, the number of words I have written (graphed out).

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