You Manifest What You Measure
How to track your progress on the goals that really matter to you
“The goal of measurement is to not only do things right but do the right things.” ― Pearl Zhu
I’m not hugely into the quantified self thing, although one of my hangovers from my previous life as a management consultant is a mild addiction to Excel spreadsheets. And I do like my Fitbit as much as the next data junkie. So maybe I’m a bit more quantified than most, but these days I try to focus on quality, rather than quantity.
Having said that, I think we all have some metrics we use to check in on things that matter to us and to hopefully ensure we’re heading in the right direction — things like our bank balance, how many books we’ve read, how much we weigh, or (for the pretweens) how much we’ve grown.
For seven years, my main metric was nautical miles. I have a logbook — a yellow hardback notebook of waterproof paper — for each of my five solo ocean-rowing voyages. First thing in the morning and at the end of every rowing shift, four times a day, I’d ship my oars and record the following:
- Latitude (north or south)
- Longitude (east or west)
- Distance to waypoint (miles to my destination)
- Bearing to waypoint (compass direction to my destination)
- Wind speed (in knots)
- Wind direction (compass direction)
- Battery power (charge in ship’s batteries, powered by solar panels)
- Hours of sleep (if any since last entry)
- Hours of rowing
- What I ate
- What audiobook I was listening to
- Psychological wellbeing (subjective score out of 5)
- Physical wellbeing (subjective score out of 5)
- One-line summary of how I was feeling, what I was thinking about, what the weather was doing, or what I had seen
Looking back through my logbooks, particularly that long list of one-line summaries, I rediscover so many moments that otherwise would have been lost in the recesses of my memory.
Often, I’m amazed at the hardships I went through. It seems like every day there was always something that wasn’t going according to plan — some part of my body hurting, some piece of equipment breaking, or winds or currents not taking me where I wanted to go.
Yet, somehow, I persevered (for which I can only take limited credit — it being logistically very difficult to quit when alone in the middle of an ocean), and the memories of the struggle have now been subsumed into the glow of eventual triumph.
I find this helpful when I’m in the midst of a current struggle — to know that I’ve struggled before and survived. It reminds me that this, too, shall pass.
The logbook served another useful purpose. It gave me a historic record of daily mileages, which allowed me to see what conditions produced what results and helped me predict future progress.
There were times when this information was absolutely invaluable — for example, when working out whether it was possible for me to row across the current to Tuvalu or whether I’d have to go for the easier option of Tarawa. My watermaker was broken, so I absolutely had to make landfall somewhere, anywhere, before my water ran out.
The historic data in my logbook showed me reaching Tuvalu would be impossible, even though that was where we had already put all the logistics in place for my arrival. I would have missed Tuvalu and spun off into the wide-open Pacific with dwindling water supplies. My logbook quite literally saved my life.
Recording your progress toward your goal may not save your life, but it can certainly make a dramatic difference to your effectiveness and your sense of well-being. When you have a moment of doubt, you can look back at where you started and remind yourself how far you’ve come.
I love measuring things because it gives me some sense of controlling them. But even if measurements don’t come naturally to you, I’d urge you to give this a try because what you measure is what you get. Measuring something is just another way of giving it your attention, and energy flows where attention goes. So by measuring your progress toward your goal, you give it the energy that’ll help it to become a reality.
Here are some things I’ve learned about how to make metrics work for you. Most of this I learned by doing it wrong, so that my metrics worked against me, and I had to find a better way. I hope you learn from my mistakes.
Choose a metric that is meaningful to you. And if there is more than one, fine, but know which is most important to you. It’s quite hard to focus clearly on more than one metric at one time. For example, longitude and latitude were both important to me, but most of the time making progress west (longitude) was the more important because I needed to make a lot of progress west and only a little bit of progress south. A mile west was generally a mile closer to my destination, while a mile south felt like going sideways.
“If you don’t collect any metrics, you’re flying blind. If you collect and focus on too many, they may be obstructing your field of view.”― Scott M. Graffius
A word of caution: It’s really tempting to choose a metric that’s good for your dopamine addiction or your ego, but it might not reflect what you’re actually trying to achieve.
For example, I got four Guinness World Records for ocean rowing, which is all very lovely and ego-gratifying and looks good on my bio, but what I was actually trying to do was use my voyages to raise awareness of — and hopefully inspire action on — our environmental issues. That’s a lot harder to quantify, and I didn’t try.
So although I’m grateful for the accolades, in my heart of hearts, I also have a small sense of dissatisfaction at a mission probably not accomplished — but because I don’t have any relevant metrics, I can only guess as to whether the mission was accomplished largely, partly, or not at all. So do as I say, not as I did, and make sure your metrics actually relate to your intention.
Choose Metrics That Motivate
When I was on the Atlantic, I set out with the default data fields displayed on the Chartplotter in my cabin. It had the standard fields like latitude, longitude, distance to waypoint, etc., but it also had an evil little data field that gave an estimated time of arrival (ETA) at my destination, based on my current speed.
The problem was to look at the Chartplotter, I had to stop rowing and go into the cabin—but my speed had dropped because I wasn’t rowing. So my ETA sometimes looked like years rather than months. And if I was being blown backwards, it went to infinity. Absolutely demoralizing! Eventually, I had to get out the manual and reprogram the Chartplotter to get rid of the ETA. It was undermining me rather than supporting me.
“The more you praise and celebrate your life, the more there is in life to celebrate.” – Oprah Winfrey
Get the Scale Right
For several weeks on the Pacific, the complex currents and eddies at the equator were playing merry hell with my navigation. I got rather obsessed with tracking how much they were affecting my direction, so I cranked the scale on my Chartplotter right down so I was looking at the micro view.
When I found that in the last couple of hours the currents had pushed me in a full circle, I got very discouraged. It took a text message from a supporter to help me get over it. He wrote, “Turn the scale back up, and look at the big picture! You are still making progress!” So don’t get too micro. Keep an eye on your macro progress too.
“One rough patch is not the big picture.” — Ellen DeGeneres
Put Your Metrics Where You Can See Them and Be Motivated By Them
On my boat I had a whiteboard on the cabin bulkhead in front of my rowing seat. Sitting there for 12 hours a day, I didn’t have much choice but to look at it, so that’s where I’d write up a list of either degrees of longitude I needed to cross or chunks of 100 miles I needed to row.
As I passed each milestone, I’d cross out a number on the list. It was a powerful reminder that, even though progress sometimes seemed glacial, I was getting there slowly but surely.
“I am a slow walker, but I never walk back.”― Abraham Lincoln
Stay Focused on the Long Term
Progress is not always linear. Nor is it always proportionate to the effort you’re putting in at that time. I had terrible days of frustration when winds and currents were taking me anywhere but where I wanted to be. I could slog away all day at the oars and get no closer to my destination.
This was what led to me discovering scream therapy — one day I stood at the bow of the boat and hollered my frustration to the waves until my throat hurt. I think it was due to meteorology rather than the screaming, but the next day the wind changed into a nice healthy tailwind, helpfully pushing me toward my goal. So when you feel like you’re going nowhere, hang on in there and keep doing the right things.
You’re in this for the long game, and it’ll pay off in the end. Acknowledge and vent your frustration when necessary, but hold it as a temporary state you’re passing through.
“When we feed our faith, we starve our doubts.” — Christine Caine
How to Plan for Tracking Your Metrics
Get your what, your why—and then define your metric
Think deeply about what you want to achieve and why you want to achieve it, and then figure out what metric you’re going to use to measure your success
My quality-not-quantity alter ego wants to butt in here and say something about how we’re usually aiming to achieve a particular feeling, and we believe that achieving something external will give us that feeling. If we want to lose weight, it might be because we want to be more healthy, but it could be because we want to feel more sexy or more self-confident. If we want to learn the piano, it might be because we love music, but it could be because we want to impress somebody in particular (think Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day”).
It’ll help you to find relevant metrics if you’re really honest with yourself about your why. (You might even find you can cut straight to the feeling you want without changing a thing — like, just decide to be happy, without pinning it to “I’ll be happy when ….” Just sayin’.)
You’re welcome to use a subjective metric (such as giving yourself marks out of 10 for how happy you feel on a daily basis) rather than an objective one. That’s not a problem — so long as the metric feels relevant, and there’s some way of recording it to assess your progress over time.
Write down the metric you’ve chosen.
Decide how to celebrate often
Nothing succeeds like success, so you’ll find it much easier to maintain momentum if you pass milestones on a frequent basis.
To use a weight-loss example, you might want to measure ounces rather than pounds if you find it hard to lose weight. So long as you’re heading in the right direction, the speed at which you’re going doesn’t matter so much.
In fact, you deserve to celebrate the first time you begin to manifest the kind of behavior that’ll help you reach your goal. Even if you haven’t lost a single ounce, the first time you push your plate away with food still on it or manage to drive past your favorite fast-food joint without going in, celebrate! This is great! You’re breaking the habits that got you overweight, and you’re on track for weight loss! This is huge!
Write down the milestones you’ll celebrate.
Decide how and where you’re going to record your progress
If it’s deeply personal and private, you might want to record it in a notebook or on your smartphone, or there might even be an app that can help you keep track.
If your goal is work-related, you might want to keep an open window on your computer that shows a chart or spreadsheet tracking your progress.
The most effective way, if appropriate, is to mark your metrics somewhere where you’ll see them often so you get to reinforce your sense of reward several times a day.
Write down your plan for recording your progress. And do it.
Keep your eye on the bigger picture
Don’t get discouraged by the little glitches or occasional backward-progress days that are bound to happen along the way. So it was your spouse’s birthday, you went out for dinner, and the next morning you’d put on a pound. No biggie. In the overall scheme of things, we’re talking about a lifetime of healthful eating, so that pound isn’t going to stay there for long.
Write down how much backward progress you’ll forgive yourself for before you get yourself back on track.
Come up with a contingency plan
One reason many people shy away from metrics is if the metrics start going the wrong way, they give up. Not taking metrics allows you to delude yourself that everything is still okay.
But this is the whole point of metrics. They’re an invaluable tool for telling us what’s working and what isn’t. Progress isn’t always linear, and sometimes we have to go sideways or backward in order to go forward. Truly successful people don’t always come up with the winning strategy right away. But by measuring their results consistently over time, they identify problems swiftly and take appropriate action.
So before you start measuring, think about what you’ll do if your progress stalls or becomes backward progress. What are the possible glitches? How can you get back on track? If it was due to a lapse in motivation, how can you get remotivated? Who can you reach out to, what can you read, or what online resources can you use to support you? The main thing is not to let a temporary blip derail your efforts.
Write down the potential glitches you might encounter and the strategies you’ll take to get back on track.
By the way, don’t be afraid to change your metrics. If you find the metric you initially chose doesn’t feel relevant or the scale isn’t encouraging you, change it. Nothing is set in stone. This is all about finding a metric that serves you and spurs you on toward your goal. Just be honest with yourself, and make sure you’re changing metrics for the right reasons — and not to give yourself an easy ride.
Practice self-compassion (aka “the f*** it” option)
Metrics can be brutal. Humans hate losing around twice as much as we enjoy winning, which is why I haven’t weighed myself in eight years. I used to weigh myself, obsessively, every day. When I did road trips across America, I took bathroom scales with me. How sad is that?
Then, when I read the research about the losing/winning response, I realized that weighing myself would always be a net negative. If I lost a pound I’d be 1x happy, but if I gained a pound, I’d be 2x unhappy. Seemed like a really bad deal. So I stopped.
I thought I’d balloon to blimp-size if I didn’t monitor and control. But I didn’t. Obviously I can’t tell you I haven’t gained a single pound despite not weighing myself because I wouldn’t know. But after eight years, my clothes still fit. And I have freed up a lot of headspace for things more interesting than what I am or am not going to eat.
So what I’m saying here is: Metrics are useful, but they’re a tool. Ultimately, you’re in charge. If metrics are making your life better and helping you achieve your goals, use them. If they’re becoming yet another thing to beat yourself up over, screw ‘em.
And be happy.
“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not that counts can be counted.” — Albert Einstein
Beyond Rowing: How My Metrics Have Evolved
In writing this piece, it occurred to me that my own metrics needed a revamp. I’d been recording the same stuff for a couple of years, and I’ve got some new goals, so I needed to update.
I’d also ended up with four or five spreadsheets of metrics relating to different things, and I wanted a one-stop shop. So now I have a splendid new Excel spreadsheet with tabs for each of my various metrics.
The list below might look like a lot to track, but it only takes a few moments. Most of them I update weekly or monthly, only a couple are daily — I’ve put the frequency in brackets. I feel like it’s time well spent.
- Writing (weekly): Thursdays are my writing day — I’ll work on a blog post in the morning, and a Medium article for the rest of the day. I’m tracking dates (for regularity of habit), topics covered (also a great place to jot down ideas for future articles), and word count. I’m on track for over a quarter of a million words this year, from one day of writing per week. Good habits add up. (So do bad ones.)
- Books read (ad hoc — when I finish a book): This has now evolved into a reading plan for the whole of 2020, and I shade in the lines as I finish a book. I record title, author, topic, who recommended it, and what date I finished. I’ve grouped books according to subject so I can immerse myself in a topic for several consecutive books, which is an experiment to see if this improves my memory and understanding of the content.
- Fitbit (monthly): Average steps over the course of a month, aiming for an average of 15,000+ steps per day. I know there will be days when I do more, and others when I do less — the long-term average is more important than being a slave to a daily target. I also track average resting heart rate and sleep score on a monthly basis. (And yes, I know the Fitbit app also charts this stuff, but I can chart the numbers more flexibly in Excel.)
- Finances (monthly): Cash balances across savings and checking accounts, plus income and expenditure. This can be very erratic/scary for a freelance speaker/writer — but as with the rowing, it’s important to keep an eye on the bigger picture. I use Buxfer to automatically import all my transactions and balances into a single dashboard, which makes it super easy to see where it’s all going, and I can cut and slice and drill down to my heart’s content.
- Nutrition (daily): This one isn’t very scientific — I’m still experimenting, while also not wanting to get too obsessed with what I’m eating and drinking. I give myself a score out of 10 for how healthily I ate and drank on a day, and a score out of 10 for how mentally sharp I felt the next day. I definitely notice an inverse correlation between alcohol intake and mental acuity, and it’s only getting worse with age. (When I was getting ready for the Atlantic, I tracked everything I ingested. I also had a breakdown of calories, grams of fiber, protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Then there was the exercise I did and how many calories I burned to arrive at my resting metabolic rate — all so I could calculate how many calories I needed to take with me for 100 days at sea. But that was bordering on OCD, and unless you’re actually a professional athlete and/or provisioning for a months-long expedition, I don’t recommend it.)
- Handicrafts (ad hoc): Yes, I’m a crafty nerd— knitting, macramé, embroidery, mosaic, willow weaving, whatever. I used to go to the pub — now I make stuff. But hey, I don’t have 60 cats yet. This isn’t a fancy metric — just a simple list so I can look back on it at the end of the year and get a little hit of satisfaction.
- Tao oracle cards (daily): I draw a card from my deck most mornings at the end of my meditation. I make a note of what card I drew and note a short description of what it meant to me that day. I’m watching to see what cards come up more often than average — could be something I really need to pay attention to.
Ahem. I feel like I revealed a lot about myself just now, and am feeling just a tad squeamish about potentially oversharing. But I hope this was helpful to you. You’ll have your own unique set of metrics, according to what matters in your life. I hope I’ve inspired you to keep tabs on a few things that are meaningful to you, because the one thing I can guarantee is you’ll get more of what you measure.