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How joining a gym helped me understand the importance of goal-centric metrics


The one major downfall to growing up in your 30s is the relative ease it is to put on weight, and to lose track on how eating habits contribute to your overall body mass. It is not that I am lazy or anything, far from it. It just seems that the body decides it wants to rebel after all those years of partying in your 20s.

The problem is, is that my regular training wasn’t working, and something had to change. My diet was good, but I was failing to shed the pounds. My routine consisted of running around the park a few times a week, roughly taking about 40 minutes of semi-arduous exercise (although I never really used to time it accurately).

After a couple of years of pretty non-existent progress, I thought about other options. After deliberating for what seemed like an age, I finally gave in to a promotional offer at a local gym. I took the plunge. The gym offered me a 4 week progamme, which consisted of 4 one-to-one sessions with an advisor, 1 each week. The first session was to ask what you want to achieve, measure your current status (weight, height, BMI, etc), and then show the various exercises needed to achieve your goal. The second session was about nutrition and making sure your diet was sound. The third was a mid-way check-up, to make sure everything is OK and to recommend any further changes to routine. And the fourth was a re-cap and further measurements to see how you are progressing on course of your target.

OK, all good so far. Being a Product Manager by trade, I already started to see the similarities when we build software. Start with what we want to achieve, identify a baseline metric, start building the product, monitor progress as we go, and then iterate based on the learnings.

What really hit me though as I continued progress at the gym, was the importance of proper metrics. This was critical to understanding the success of my training, and to making sure I was making actual progress toward a specific goal.

Before when I was running around the park, I had nothing to gauge what was a good run or a bad run. I might have completed the run an extra 21 seconds quicker than the day before, but what use was this figure in the overall picture? In comparison at the gym, I had access to the true length of time run, the number of miles I had run, the miles per hour (mph) I was running at, and the amount of calories I had just burned. Before, the goal I had to reach just an arbitrary “complete in about 40 minutes”. At the gym however, I had a scorecard with achievements, and this progress was then reviewed and adapted as time went on.

In other words: before, I was using a vanity metric (i.e. “roughly about 40 minutes run”). That is, a metric that does not correlate to the numbers that really matter, and subsequently was of no use to my progress. But at the gym I was using actionable metrics (i.e. a scorecard of weight & measurements over time, including changes of behaviour, such as increased miles per hour). That is, metrics that tie to specific and repeatable tasks that you can improve, and measure agains’t your overall goal.

The results? Within four weeks, I had instantly dropped 2 trouser sizes. More than I had done over the course of two years. And I had a scorecard to prove it.

I am not saying that having actionable metrics will instantly improve your product. It could be said that by going to the gym, I had more determination, more incentive, more professional help to achieve my goal. But having the data available to me certainly aided the process; it helped provide clarity and confidence in knowing what was working (or not as the case may be), and gave me insight into what I should be changing along the way to reach the end goal.

As a product becomes larger (like my waist line!), then the importance of having true metrics measured against a goal can bring greater benefits than you might expect. When building products in the past, I have seen the error of my ways when using vanity metrics to measure success. Was bounce rate or the number of visits the right thing to use? Most probably not. Vanity metrics are easy to measure, they might make you feel good, but they don’t offer clear guidance for what to do.

Take this scenario. You launch a new feature or product, and a few days later you check the traffic, or the revenue, or the number of customers. Things go up, it must be a success! The product team hail the new features, the marketing team hail the new advertising promotion, the commercial team hail the new pricing structure! Oh wait, nobody really knows what happened at all. And to add even further confusion, it could even have been affected by unrelated external factors or random fluctuations in the market. In contrast, the whole team could have agreed on actionable metrics, which are ones that are tied specifically to the goal in mind, and can be repeated over time to measure success. Then it can be seen as a more team-effort based metric, and the true value of success can be determined.