What Are You Measuring In Your Life?

Imagine this…

Someone walks into the gym, warms up, does a little bit of this exercise, does a little bit of that exercise, bounces around to a few machines, maybe hops on the treadmill, finishes their workout, and leaves the gym.

This isn’t a critique of their workout. In fact, it’s quite possible that they got a nice workout in. So, what is notable about this situation?

They didn’t measure anything. They didn’t track their workout. They didn’t count reps or weight or time or speed or any other metric. And so, they have no basis for knowing if they are making progress or not. Not tracking your progress is one of the six major mistakes I see people make in the gym.

But here’s the thing: We all have areas of life that we say are important to us, but that we aren’t measuring.

What We Measure, We Improve

Count something. Regardless of what one ultimately does in medicine—or outside of medicine, for that matter—one should be a scientist in this world. In the simplest terms, this means one should count something. … It doesn’t really matter what you count. You don’t need a research grant. The only requirement is that what you count should be interesting to you.
—Atul Gawande, Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance

The things we measure are the things we improve. It is only through numbers and clear tracking that we have any idea if we are getting better or worse.

Our lives are shaped by how we choose to spend our time and energy each day. Measuring can help us spend that time in better ways, more consistently.

It’s Not About the Result, It’s About Awareness

The trick is to realize that counting, measuring, and tracking is not about the result. It’s about the system, not the goal.

Measure from a place of curiosity. Measure to discover, to find out, to understand.

Measure from a place of self-awareness. Measure to get to know yourself better.

Measure to see if you are showing up. Measure to see if you’re actually spending time on the things that are important to you.

You Can’t Measure Everything

Critics will be quick to point out that you can’t measure everything. This is true.

  • Love is important, but how do you measure it?
  • Morality is important, but can it be quantified accurately?
  • Finding meaning in our lives is essential, but how do you calculate it?

Furthermore, there are some things in life that don’t need to be measured. Some people just love working out for the sake of working out. Measuring every repetition might reduce the satisfaction and make it seem more like a job. There is nothing wrong with that. (As always, take the main idea and use it in a way that is best for you.)

Measurement won’t solve everything. It is not an ultimate answer to life. However, it is a way to track something critical: are you showing up in the areas that you say are important to you?

The Idea in Practice

But even for things that can’t be quantified, measuring can be helpful. And it doesn’t have to be complicated or time-consuming.

You can’t measure love, but you can track different ways that you are showing up with love in your life:

  • Send a digital love note to your partner each day (text, email, voicemail, tweet, etc.) and use the Seinfeld Strategy to keep track of your streak.
  • Schedule one “Surprise Appreciation” each week where you write to a friend and thank them for something unexpected.

You can’t measure morality, but you can track if you’re thinking about it:

  • Write down three values that are dear to you each morning.
  • Keep a decision journal to track which decisions you make and whether or not they align with your ethics.

The things we measure are the things we improve. What are you measuring in your life?

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60 Comments

  1. Hi James-

    Loved this one! I am tracking everything I eat and it is so true. I am now eating better and less. Thanks for your efforts.

    John

  2. Your wisdom inspires and guides separate but as a whole!

    You may want to look at how many time you use the letter “I” hence, this is not a critique or meant with judgement. People read your wealth of knowledge and obviously change! Imagine when your word (I )changes to”Us” and “We” you then raise your bar for greater change!

    Your respectful admirer,
    Erika Mason Marin County, CA.

    • On the other hand, I trust James because he is speaking from his experience. If he had too much “we” and “us” I would think he’s making assumptions that might or might not be true. I appreciate his direct experience, and his personal stories. They make me feel like maybe I could do it, too. Fills me with hope.

  3. Your article with suggestions was well worth reading and following. Thanks so much for sharing. Blessings.

  4. Count something. I like that.

    Right now I measure my sleep (sleep cycle), food (myfitnesspal), productivity (rescue time), basal body temperature (girl stuff) and I’m a big fan of the Bullet Journal method to keep track of all of my to do’s.

  5. James… you are awesome … because you are from those very few bloggers whom people respect as you always have something very meaningful to say. Another wonderful blog… Well done. :)

  6. I write down each day in my journal the things that I accomplished in my business and things I did that were non-business related.

    It is useful for realizing that I have accomplished something on days that seem to be a struggle, and to see if I am working on doing things that are non-business related as well.

    I get more done when I do this than when I kept a strict check list of things I wanted to do.

    I appreciate your personal examples of things you keep track of. It gave me an idea of something to add to my journaling.

    Thanks!

  7. Even love can be measured: How many times relationship strains will show.

    Even morality can be measured: How many criminals are going to jail or how far the corruption.

    I 100% agree what cannot be measured cannot be controlled. What cannot be controlled cannot be counselled. What cannot be counselled leads to chaos!

  8. Great post, James. I agree that while you can’t measure everything in life, you exercise great control and track your progress when you measure certain things.

    When I started working out, I did it for 10 minutes per day for one week. I made sure that I increase by 10 minutes each week until I reach an hour, and then increase the difficulty of each exercise I make. That way, I make sure that my body is getting stronger with each session.

  9. Another amazing post James. Thanks for sharing your wisdom and brilliance. For that, I am sharing this article with others! But, I also want to share I LOVE the Seinfeld Strategy you mention. I learned about it almost 5 years ago. There are so many apps out there now developed around building a streak and measuring the things you care about. I meditate everyday and workout for at least 30 minutes everyday and I have done it because of the habit streak app, AND of course these are two of the most important things I can do everyday for myself, my family and for my businesses.

  10. First mail in the morning on why it is important to measure progress. Very inspiring James!!!

    Thanks for sharing.

  11. Very good points, thank you. I’ve experienced the value of measuring in my own life. I measure if I eat healthy foods (x servings of veggies per day for example, and being sugar free) and if I go to the gym.
    Personally, I like it that you say ‘I’ and not ‘we’. If someone says ‘we’ I tend to think ‘speak for yourself!’ :)

  12. Good stuff James! Measurement is critical if anyone wants to improve or be better, else we’ll be wandering around the same mountain under the delusion that action equals progress.

    About the Erika’s point, I’m trying to improve my writing skills by writing for some minutes every day and what I’ve noticed is that there are a lot of ‘I’s in my writing. I’m afraid it would make me appear self-absorbed, like some articles on writing point out.

  13. Excellent information, I will use measuring in more details in my daily activity for work and exercise.

    Thank you.

  14. Very much agree with your post. I sometimes get lost in the tracking, though, and realize I need better tools. Do you or your readers have favorite, and general, online tools / apps for behavior, perhaps a fill-in-the-blanks type tool?

    Many thanks for your help and your posts!

  15. I think this is a great article. In a professional setting, I see upper management and leaders attempting to spend a lot of time measuring and not enough time working to improve said measurements. It is a long and tedious process to make that change. In addition, we (managers and our support staff) are working to drive the feedback that ‘metrics drive (re)action’. Similar to standardized testing, we are moving away from the entire experience in our role and solely focusing on some numbers provided up the chain daily.

  16. Since my husband’s death almost three years ago, I have finally gotten to the point that I find myself not thinking about him every minute. Sometimes I go days without crying and I find that amazing since I spent over two years crying every single day! So I’m counting down to when I will stop missing him. He will always be in my heart but he doesn’t have to consume all my thoughts. Especially since I know we will be together again; this is just a short vacation without him. I am exercising again and eating better. Thank you, James Clear for helping me do that!

  17. I am curious. How do you do your tracking? Do you use a computer, sheets of paper, a special notebook? If you use a computer do you bring it to the gym or do you use a piece of paper then type it into the computer. If you use a notebook do you keep it in a special bag and bring it with you everywhere you go or do you happen to put it down while doing something interesting and oops, misplace it regularly?

    Great article, I love the idea of tracking things. Ha, maybe the first thing I should track is how often I lose my cell phone… :-)

    • I support Lu Ellen (above) and Patrice in their search for methods and techniques of tracking.
      There is an app on the iPhone called Daily Goals which I find is good but I would like to improve my recording of events. Any suggestions?

  18. This is my first email from you and I am grateful for your words, glad I signed up. I find measuring is important. The distinction between measuring for awareness and being fixated on the goal is important to keep in mind. Thanks.

  19. Hey James, a while ago you wrote about Dean Hovey (the guy who did the mouse for Steve Jobs) – his experience / comments while at Stanford. I’m a big fan of yours for a while now, if you are interested I’d love to introduce you and even meet you / talk to you myself someday.

  20. You’re really helping me! I read and re-read your emails…starting small, things I can sustain…habits vs. goals…bit by bit I’m getting better and I will keep reading. I tell my friends about you and I repeat a lot of your message so keep it coming and thanks!

    Tom Harvey, Cincinnati OH

  21. Hi James

    Try searching for him on linkedin.com or FB?

    Something that Robin Sharma said “What is not measured, cannot be managed”

    Great post, as usual, keep up the good work man!!

    Reven

  22. Thanks for your great work, I was just telling my girlfriend about your love of writing, traveling and (unusually — I have found) working out. Good for you.

    I traveled all over the world when I was younger, it has given me a totally different outlook on people as the only thing that really changes in the world are it’s people. The geography and wildlife are a moving panoply of images.

    I’m sixty now and have been working out since my late twenties and enjoy it mentally and physically. When my doctor asked me why I was visiting him, I told him I was competing. Against who he asked? Against myself I replied. Keep it up and thanks again.

  23. Decided to measure the number of times I come back to my body (feel my feet on the ground, be aware of my breath, soften the back of my neck, or just tune in to the air on my face or whatever). I would love to have a little clicker that counts. (Ha. There’s probably an app for that.) Anyway, because I tend to get completely lost in the rabbit hole of my head, I’m measuring my growing relationship to my body.

  24. Hey James… how would you measure your progress as a photographer?

    Especially since photography and any artistic endeavor is very subjective…

    Thanks!

  25. An old management adage is: You manage what you measure. Well-run companies identify where they want to excel, then measure, manage, and improve. A company that says customer satisfaction is important, yet doesn’t survey customers, nor give customers an easy path for complaints and comments doesn’t really value customer satisfaction.

    The same is true for each of us, which is why I record and review every exercise session since I began working to improve my strength and balance nearly two years ago. It’s satisfying to see improvement in some areas. And the areas that haven’t improved provide me with challenges and direction for future work.

  26. James, There are few blogs that are as beneficial as I find yours to be. Today’s post on measuring things in your life is another example. Please keep up the good work… you are benefitting the lives of those you touch.

    Be well and be blessed,
    Paul

  27. I’ve never “set” goals. Since I was a teen, I learned about goal-setting and heard all the benefits that come from it, but it just didn’t ‘click’ or seem important. I even memorized a quote:

    “When performance is measured, performance improves. When performance is measured and reported, the rate of improvement accelerates.”
    – Thomas S. Monson

    But I never “set goals.” I figured I’d just “go with the flow.”

    But now that I’m… older… and have teenagers, I am just starting to see how goals work (sad, isn’t it–that it took me so long). I was always intimidated by setting goals. I was afraid of failure. But, I’ve seen my attitude change in the past year. I’m not sure what triggered it, but James’ posts have reinforced what I’m personally learning about–Thanks for the help, James!

    Now, I see greater wisdom in my memorized quote, and I’ve had small successes at home, at work, and personally. I’m also trying to pass that along to my kids.

  28. “What’s measured improves.” I believe Peter Drucker said that, btw. But he had an additional subtle point to what you suggest – you have to be careful what you measure, because not everything gets better when that thing improves. For example, if you’re measuring the number of new product ideas you have, you’ll start having more. But they might not help your company be more successful if they are in a different domain, or aren’t valuable to a customer. Measurements can create perverse incentives.

    That said, if you measure things that *are* important – and watch to make sure they don’t transmute into going after the wrong goal – it’s as powerful as you say.

    I wrote a longer piece on this topic here – http://nilsdavis.com/2014/05/30/if-you-cant-measure-it-then-all-is-not-lost/

  29. I quite like your blog and look forward to reading it.

    For measuring, I use chains.cc. Kind of a graphical Seinfeld tracker with unlimited subjects. Works well and you can set it to skip certain days.

  30. I am measuring and tracking everything I eat. I had no idea how much I was overeating and now I’m holding myself accountable. A sweet bonus is the weight that’s coming off.

  31. This couldn’t have come at a better time. I have been thinking about making big changes in my life for a while and have realized that the best way to do it would be to establish better habits, little bits at a time. After reading this blog, I followed the link to the Seinfeld principle. As luck would have it, I have a big one month planner (paper) stuck on my fridge with magnets. It begins with August 1. Since I was afraid of waiting to begin, I’ve written the remaining July days on the empty spaces. I’ve identified 7 small, measurable habits I want to adopt and have listed them.

    As a young girl, I remember getting gold stars for reading books as one promotion in grade school. I became addicted to those gold stars and read more books than anyone and am an avid reader to this day. So with calendar in place, I begin. I am beginning with colored markers, but may switch to stickers. It appeals to the kid in me and I think will succeed where other methods have met with yo-yo consistency.

    I haven’t been this inspired in a long time. I’ve completed my 20 min of exercise today (hardest for me, usually). Thank you for consistently great content. I love your blog!

  32. Love your blog James, but speaking of measurement, how come your header always has the same number for how many people received your blog last week?

  33. I like measurement, but I often find it to be onerous. I find this is one area where the right tools are very hard to come by.

  34. A truly inspiring, motivating article. I’ve taken out both my physical and mental tape measures right now. I’ve got a lot of measuring to do!

  35. I first heard this concept from management guru, Peter Drucker, who essentially stated, ” . . . what get measured, gets managed.” Now a management/leadership tenant.

  36. I really like this article. I’ve gone through periods when I measure lots of things. Reps, weight, water and then I fall off the wagon. How do you suggest someone stays on the wagon and keeps on measuring?

  37. I measure energy levels. A silly yet effective way I do this is by putting my arms in front of my body like I’m holding a beach ball. The bigger the beach ball, the more energy I feel I’ve got.

    Sounds silly, but for me is a great way to understand if something drains me.

  38. Completely agree with this post, James. :)

    “What gets measured, gets improved” –> Since the time I started exercising from last 4 months, every day I am making note of how long and what I am doing and how am I benefiting (checking weight and tracking waist size).

    Awareness is the key to transformation… with better awareness we make better choices and with better choices we can expect better results.

  39. Thank you for such a wonderful guidance. It actually happens that we live our life mechanically without analyzing and assessing things that are important to us. Will surely try to implement this.

  40. Good post. Tim Gallwey says something similar in his great book “The Inner Game of Work”. Just ‘paying attention’ to what we want to change or improve upon, can produce results in itself.

  41. James, this post was a big inspiration to me. As an educator, I’ve been preaching the importance of measurement to my students as a way of becoming more aware of their growth and progress. Even though I work in the arts, there are plenty of opportunities to measure and quantify, with significant results. I just wrote about it on The SAVI Singing Actor (www.savisingingactor.com), and linked back to this post. Thanks for your consistent great work!

  42. Hey, guy! I read your book about habits. I couldn’t finish it, I just got up, laced up my sneakers, and went to the gym. :)

    It may sound stupid, but it really changed the way I looked at things in life. I woke up today and remembered of your nice writing and dropped by, and found this awesome text. Wow. I recently, like yesterday, decided to start measuring money. With the risk of sounding greedy, I recently got a raise and found myself not knowing where the money was going. And then I set aside loads of strategies on how to keep track of money (without money, you can’t pay for the gym, and that would be a real issue). I got some real new knowledge here today, thanks.

  43. I couldn’t agree with you more about the importance of measuring your projects.

    Last year I had a project to “have more deep meaningful relationships with those around me”. But how should I measure if a relationship is deep and meaningful? First I though about how many and how often I open up to a person. My coach, however, said that it’s better to involve a response from the other person if you want to measure a relationship. This approach is harder but mostly better (I think), I’ll explain.

    The two metrics I choose were “How many different persons have opened up to me?” and “Total number of times someone opened up to me?”. I then went on and defined “When has a person opened up?” and the criteria was a bit vague but when I felt that someone shared something private and scary with me.

    This still required me to open up at least once to a person to get that person to open up, sometimes more than once. In addition it required me to listen inventively to see if the other person really shared something scary and personal.

    For me this was my most successful project of 2013. I’d say I’m a totally different person now and thanks to I chose the harder path I’m now a better listener and I can read body language a bit better. This would not have been possible if I hadn’t measured my relationships.

    On another note.

    I’d say you can still measure love, or rather make up your own definition. But you should know why you want to measure it and make it wide enough so that you don’t get some skewed measurement that the amount of hugs you get from your spouse. :P

  44. It’s amazing to find such practical essays which are much better than those chicken soup. Thank you for your generosity!

  45. More often than not what separates someone from achieving their goals or not is the ability to stay focused. Tracking and measuring progress can definitely help with that.

    The act of tracking your progress can also help uncover more moments to celebrate your progress, as well as show you which actions or activities provide the best results.

    Big fan, James!

    -Lolly

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