Measure Backward, Not Forward

We often measure our progress by looking forward. We set goals. We plan milestones for our progress. Basically, we try to predict the future to some degree.

We do this in business, in health, and in life at large.

  • Can we increase our quarterly earnings by 20 percent?
  • Can I lose 20 pounds in the next 3 months?
  • Will I be married by 30?

These are all measurements that face forward. We look into the future and try to guess when we will get somewhere.

There is an opposite and, I think, more useful approach: measure backward, not forward.

Here’s what I mean…

Measuring Backward vs. Measuring Forward

Each week, I sit down at my computer and fill out a little spreadsheet to track the essential metrics in my business. Traffic, email subscribers, revenue, expenses, and so on. I have the process down pretty well by now, so it only takes about 15 minutes.

In those 15 minutes, however, I get very clear feedback on whether or not I’m making progress in the areas that matter to me. I can tell which direction things are moving. And, if the numbers in one area are moving the wrong way, I can make adjustments the following week.

Basically, I measure backward (What happened in my business this week?) and use that backward measurement as a way to guide my actions for the next week.

I use a similar strategy in the gym. I lift every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. When I show up at the gym, I open my notebook and look at the weights I lifted during my last workout or two. Then, I plan my workout by slightly increasing the sets, reps, or weight from where they were last week. I go for tiny increases, of course. I’m interested in one percent gains.

In the gym, just like in my business, I measure backward and use that measurement to determine my next move. I am constantly looking to improve, but I base my choices on what has recently happened, not on what I hope will happen in the future.

The Chains of Habit

The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.
—Samuel Johnson

When it comes to building good habits and breaking bad habits, one of our greatest struggles is maintaining awareness of what we are actually doing. The more automatic a behavior becomes, the less likely we are to notice it. This helps to explain how the consequences of bad habits can sneak up on us. By the time the repercussions of our actions are noticeable, we have already become hooked on a new pattern of behavior.

However, measuring backward can call attention to these invisible patterns by making you aware of what you are actually doing. Measuring backward forces you to take notice of your recent actions. You can’t live in a fairly tale world of hopes and dreams. You have to look at the feedback of what has recently happened in your life and then base your decisions and improvements on those pieces of data.

The good news is that you can now base your decisions off of what you’re actually doing, not off of what you project your future self to be doing.

The Importance of Short-Term Feedback

The best way to change long-term behavior is with short-term feedback.
—Seth Godin [1]

There is one caveat to this strategy: when you measure backward, your data needs to come from the recent past.

If I used data from two years ago to make business decisions, my choices would be off. The same is true for lifting weights or other areas of improvement. I don’t want to base my actions on what I achieved a long time ago, but on what I have achieved recently. In other words, I want short-term feedback, not long-term feedback. The shorter, the better.

Measuring for Happiness

There is an additional benefit to this strategy as well. When you measure backward, you get to enjoy the progress you are making right now rather than yearn for a different life in the future.

You don’t have to put happiness off until you reach a future milestone or goal. Happiness is no longer a finish line out there in the future. You are finding ways to improve right now and focusing on how you can immediately improve over your past self is more satisfying that comparing your current state to where you hope you’ll be some day.

The Idea in Practice

Nearly every improvement we wish to make in our lives requires some type of behavior change. If you want different results, you have to do something differently.

The tough question to answer is what should we do differently to get the results we want?

We often respond by focusing on an outcome and setting a goal for ourselves. Goals are good and having a sense of direction for where you want to go is critical. But when it comes to determining the improvements we can make right now, measuring backward is the way to go. Let recent results drive your future actions.

Weight Loss: Measure your calorie intake. Did you eat 3,500 calories per day last week? Focus on averaging 3,400 per day this week.

Strength Training: Oh, you squatted 250 pounds for 5 sets of 5 reps last week? Give 255 pounds a try this week.

Relationships: How many new people did you meet last week? Zero? Focus on introducing yourself to one new person this week.

Entrepreneurship: You only landed two clients last week while your average is five? It sounds like you should be focused on making more sales calls this week.

Measure backward and then get a little bit better. What did you do last week? How can you improve by just a little bit this week?

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46 Comments

  1. Very nice read thanks James. Any time I have looked at recent past results it was either to beat myself up or pat myself on the back. It was never for the process of deciding what do to going forward. Hopefully this helps!

  2. Beautiful article ,For sure looking backward on short term event on a weekly
    basis would make that 1% change more easier and effective…

    Thanks James

  3. I am getting a lot of newsletters in my mail. Many of them are promising benefits in terms of money, health, relationships and so on.

    Yours is most useful. I feel happy each time I see your name in my inbox. Thanks!

    Regarding to topic, I am not sure that described benefit comes from measuring backward part. It could be that real reason for progress is small change.

    You are suggesting periodically analyzing of what is done. That’s certainly good to do, but I still think it’s not enough, and that your major progress comes from this part:

    “Oh, you squatted 250 pounds for 5 sets of 5 reps last week? Give 255 pounds a try this week.”

    Small incremental change can make big impact on long term. That’s where the benefit of this article is. I suppose there is not much use of measuring backward if you still set too ambitious goals for the next week.

    Thanks a lot!
    Boris

  4. Yup, I am also too focus about future goal, but rarely measure my backward. Your article always drive me to new actions. Thanks a lot James.

    • James, your timing on your articles somehow appear aligned with my life conflicts. Seriously good stuff.

      I am the president of my student organization at my university this academic year, and amongst my 9 officers, I came across a financial scenario that split them to two separate sides. I was able to piece everything back together by offering a simple solution by tracking down our most recent spending’s, and our near future expenses to better map our next philanthropic endeavors.

      This is only the beginning of the school year, and to some, this may be a tiny issue. If I had initially practiced the habit of measuring backwards in the first place, this act of friction between my officers could have easily been avoided. But better yet, after reading your article, I can begin that practice now and incorporate it into my new routine for the rest of the year. Our organization’s goals are literally to get on the level of national recognition this year, and I will utilize the method of measuring backwards to attain them. It only makes sense to keep track of records in a business in order to advance towards improvements. “What can we do differently to achieve the results that we want?”

      Thank you for this resourceful technique.

  5. I love your point about measuring for happiness. We can be so focussed on what we haven’t done yet, we forget to appreciate how far we’ve come. Thanks for the reminder. :)

  6. This approach always works for me and I wonder why did I stop using it. But I guess this is a sign to use it again! Nice one, James. Thanks!

  7. This is great stuff. I needed to hear this about measuring our progress by examining what I did before. Thanks for your expertise a job well done. You inspired me to look at life different.

  8. Great post James. I was just thinking of having a “monthly review”, taking ideas from your Annual Review, to check my monthly progress in accomplishing my year goals.

  9. James, this was a wonderful post and just what I needed to read this morning! Forwarding this e-mail to many of my close family members and friends who I know will appreciate it as well!

  10. Thanks for another thought and action provoking article.

    Goals have to be realistic. With the process you described this is ensured. It also protects you from “toxic growth” (growth that is too fast, not sustainable, too much for the current system (e.g. you or your business), growth that will break/ruin the system in the long run).

  11. Great advise James!

    I just realized that I used to ‘hope’ too much in future results based on wishful thinking…

    When I’m in the gym it seems very logical to look at recent results to choose my weights, exercises, sets, etc. Actually, it seems to be the only logical way of planning my training. For example when squatting, it really doesn’t matter much where I want to get some day… all that matters is training at the right intensity and volume each training, meaning that I need to know where I am now (based on my last few training sessions).

    You just made me realize that is true for most area’s in life… and your tip about happines (tracking progress instead of only looking at what isn’t the way you want it yet) is great! Thanks!

    Greatings from Bart (from the Netherlands)

  12. Great article. My own experience has shown this to be really helpful – All of my emails get put straight in to one of 3 folders – action (do do quickly), project (more than one action) and waiting (for somebody else to take action). Each folder has a target number of emails that I try and get below. Now looking backwards – every Monday morning I put the number of emails into a spreadsheet and calculate a one month and six month moving average of the total numbers. It takes me 5 minutes but gives me a good idea of whether I’m on track or starting to get overwhelmed before I actually start feeling the pressure.
    thanks for the validation!

  13. Intersting article. Thanks for the efforts James.

    Looking backward is difficult for most people because they don’t log their activities. Even if they know that, they are lazy to make excel sheets or other stuff.

    I suggest sharing a Google Spreadsheet templates could help a lot of people to take the first step and break the egg.

  14. James, another excellent article — an absolute gift. I will be sure to share this with anyone who cares to listen to me! God help the next person who sits beside me on the train…

    Thanks.

  15. Thank you for the wonderful piece! This is really what I needed to read this morning. Sometimes I can get so down on myself for not being at a certain place in life, and I forget how far I’ve already come.

  16. I just wanted to say I love your posts. They Inspire me to take Action! You give great examples of people I can learn from and it makes my day to receive your emails- you are one of the few I look forward to reading and actually I could start out everyday with your advice : ) (big smile).

    Measure Backward, Not Forward is perfect advice. I am a Commodities Day Trader and this is exactly what I need to do to in my “daily process” to keep moving forward. All your articles are helpful reminders for me.

    Keep the “simple” but motivating ideas coming-you are a great example!

    Thanks again, SandraK

  17. Love your stuff! Your day to day approach is powerful because it focuses on the PRESENT — forcing me to make incremental goals but also ENJOY the journey.

  18. Great view.

    “Take therefore no thought for the morrow; for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.” (Matthew 6:34)
    -JESUS CHRIST (1)

  19. This is especially true when you have a long term illness. It is demoralising to always be planning forward, not adjusting for blockages that have obstructed your path. Seeing what success was possible in the past week keeps you better in touch with what are realistic ambitions. If things are going badly, expectations can be made more modest for the coming week. This may seem counterintuitive for those who enjoy excellent health, but it is actually achievement oriented behaviour for those with a disability. Over time, the note taking will show the ups and downs but offer clear proof of the gains (even if there was a subsequent reversal). An example is my son who is currently suffering severe clinical depression. He has been unable to establish a regular sleep routine. His sleep has improved just a little bit, but this still counts as an achievement, even if he does worse next week. It is more hopeful to focus on the slow progression of the past rather being focused on future outcomes, which can go pear shaped as they prove utterly out of your control.

    • Interesting point of view. If you don’t mind me asking, are you a health practitioner or from medical profession? Because, as someone with minor long term illness, this is a new way to look on how to improve my health.

  20. Just when I badly needed a tip like this… Thanks James, you are becoming a guiding star in my life!

    May this star brighten by each passing day!

  21. James

    Yes, your strategy makes perfect sense.

    These suggestions I will print and use everyday, I know they will make me better.

    Thank You

    Morris

  22. Happiness is not a finish line out in the future. Those words have helped me put together many of the messages you convey to us every week. I enjoy reading your articles and they couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time in my life.

  23. James,

    Again love the ‘counter’ presentation. If you were in this strictly or money, you’d make 9-figures in the diet market.

    Thanks, again.

  24. Great article. The reason I started to journal was so I could tell in the future what worked and what did not work. I read lots, have had multiple occupations, to say the least, I cover a lot of territory and without journaling it is difficult at times to see a spot where things were really going super. If something is really sluggish and not so super then you can dump it faster, don’t waste time trying to make a square peg fit in a round hole. You know which things take patience and which things are a waste of time better if you have it on paper. Even a bad relationship can better be analyzed on paper, and if the outcomes are always the same misery then make a copy and send it with flowers to the one you are NOT going to miss. Make more copies and post it on mirrors and the frig incase of foolish sentimental moments (does this sound hard?). And if you are foolish enough to have lent money you will know exactly how much you lent to that lazy, foolish soul, you can put that down too with a request for immediate payment. Debtors, deadbeats, and duds always disappear when you ask for money. But I digress….

    Cheerfully yours,
    Jolita

  25. It is obviously simple, yet I didn’t realize to see it that way.

    I’ve been a soccer fan for years, from what I saw, I could see there is an enormous gap between star players and elite-star players. For the elites, their ability to improve, no matter how tremendous their achievement in the past, would still surprise their team-mates in every training sessions. It’s like they still have a lot hidden in their pocket.

    At first, I thought the way they treat every game as a final has something to do with it. But that would be exhaustive, to put every game with a lot of stakes. It’s the same way like we do with our future goals, with a lot of stakes.

    After I read this, I am really assured this must be it. The elites didn’t measure their skill with their achievements long time ago, -that made them acquire their recent stardom status. They do it by measuring with what they did recently at trainings.

    “There is still room for improvement” is their anthem in every training, while their fellow star colleagues would be satisfied and stopped. Yes, sometimes the elites would have off days, but no matter how often people said they are finished, they bounce back silencing the critics.

    Measuring backward.

    That’s what I saw from observing Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

  26. This is exactly what I need at the moment. It’s so encouraging to know that your tracking process only takes 15 minutes a week. Bravo!

  27. I’m only at the start of my journey with building muscle and changing my body – my PT tells me my body is “Under Construction” which is so true. I can’t believe what I can do now at the gym compared to six weeks ago. And my measurements are testament to how hard I am working.

    Your words are always so inspiring and so real. You don’t make anything complicated, its real life and you write it in a way that you connect with so many people – thanks for keeping it real and being someone we can relate to!

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