Please Measure the Right Things

by Niki on March 3, 2011

There has been a lot of writing online lately about metrics. Matt writes here about the very practical concept of white board accounting. Lots of marketing folks have been writing about conversion rates and page views and Twitter followers. I believe that measurements matter, but I also believe we need to get clear about identifying the RIGHT measurements before we get our measuring sticks out and get to work.

In my own life, I’ve been observing how easy and appealing it is for us to measure the wrong things. I don’t mean the BIG wrong things, like houses or cars or spouses or diamonds. I mean the smaller daily things that we get lulled into measuring, because they are easy to measure. We are all human, we are notoriously good at deluding ourselves, and we are fallible.

Let me share a personal example. I recently sent out an email to a large group of work colleagues, with a list of upcoming event details, with dates and times of group meetings. I prefaced it with the header “Please don’t delete this email.” A friend of mine commented later that the message worked, because he didn’t delete that email. I clarified for him however that I wouldn’t consider my email successful until he actually attended a meeting. My intention was NOT to keep emails hanging around all year, my intention was to have people attend real meetings. But that’s how we commonly think these days. We measure the “intermediate metric” because it’s easier and faster and simpler. We might keep the email in our inbox, but that doesn’t guarantee we’ll take any action.

The real things in life that are more important to measure are messier, more complicated, and more subjective. Therefore we are less likely to measure the important things. Yes you can measure how much time you spend with your spouse each week, but is it quantity or quality of time that matters most? And how exactly does one measure the quality of time? On a different subject, how would one measure career success? The traditional answer for the previous generations would be to measure the number of promotions, raises, and awards. But I think that measurement has changed significantly in the past 10-20 years. People are still people, and we all have similar basic human need, but I think that how we assess and measure those needs is evolving with every generation.

Here’s what I did over the past several months. Every day on the drive home after work, I started measuring how I felt about the work I did that day. When I say “how I felt” I don’t mean happy or sad or glad. Instead I asked myself these questions:

  • Do I feel I accomplished meaningful work that day?
  • Do I feel I worked on projects that really made a difference?
  • Was I energized about the work I did that day?
  • Was I excited about the work I had in front of me tomorrow?

I didn’t write down the answers every day, but I just made mental notes to myself. Yes these were subjective and personal measurements. Importantly, I didn’t judge myself or anyone else for the answers. I just took in all the data, and tried to identify the trends. My measurement of career success includes the degree to which I use my talents and my level of excitement and energy I have for my work. Therefore, that is what I tried to measure with my questions.

Another way of saying this is that we all need to be scientists. We all need to be rigorous and accurate about the data we collect. We could thin of our life as one huge scientific experiment. But in order for us to learn something, we need to understand the right data. Data that measures outcomes, not just activity. Yards gained does NOT equate to touchdowns scored.

Another blogger wrote a useful article that advised, “If you want to start a running routine, don’t go buy new running shoes.” The reason is that you will mistakenly consider your new shoe purchase to be a productive activity, when it’s really not. Only running will make you a runner. Everything else is superfluous. This is a very disciplined way to think.

So now I’ll ask you – what are the right things you should be measuring in your life? What matters most to you? Write that down – no more than five things that truly matter to you. Then get creative about HOW you can measure those right things. Don’t worry if the answers are messy or subjective.

Just make sure you don’t waste time measuring things that don’t matter. Life is just too short for that.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Dana March 3, 2011 at 9:42 pm

I'm not sure how to measure all the costs (psychological and otherwise) of working on a very difficult project for my job. It hit a new low today and one of our team members almost cried in frustration during a conference call. I'm still in shock but I did manage to sign up for yoga and schedule a massage.

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