If You Don't Measure It, You Can't Manage It

Pete Ross

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I’ve seen variations of that statement for many years now, always applied to the realm of business with regards to sales, employee performance and a bunch of other metrics. The idea is pretty simple, but incredibly useful in far more contexts than just the business world. It’s useful because data doesn’t lie. You can try and explain it away or come up with justifications, but when you examine it you see the truth of the matter, and are forced to either make a change or continue on your way and act as though it doesn’t exist.

Imagine how much you could change your life if you started measuring a bunch of things that your instinct is telling you aren't what they should be:

  • You might realise that you watch many more hours of TV than you thought you did
  • You might realise that your social media use is out of control
  • You might realise that your sleep is all over the place
  • You might realise that you spend far too much money on going out and drinking
  • You might realise that you spend far too much time talking to people at work instead of producing anything of value

Those are just a few of the more obvious ones. You can really measure just about anything you want and improve that aspect of your life, because when you measure something, it suddenly becomes a focal point for your attention.

Coming from a strength sports background, the utility of this approach is quite clear, and the reason that anyone seriously competing keeps a training diary. That diary provides a constant stream of data as to how your strength is improving, stagnating or worse — going backwards. It’s by constantly measuring our performance in training that we get an accurate picture of our progress. You can look back over a training cycle, or over an entire year (or even longer), and see exactly what results your training is producing. That data is then used to determine if we need to maintain our current program and see it through, make minor adjustments, or even change it up altogether.

Don't believe me? Any elite athlete worth their salt can rattle off a half dozen statistics without even blinking regarding their performance. I recall a recent episode of The Tim Ferriss Show where Grant Hackett and Michael Phelps talked about, of all things, the time it takes for their body to clear lactic acid. They know race times from a decade ago.

Let’s talk about something more mundane that a lot of people struggle with: their weight. Dieticians and health experts will tell you not to weigh yourself, that a number isn’t important and it will turn you neurotic and anxiety filled. Well, not really. I agree that you shouldn’t obsess over a number, that’s pointless and stupid. The fact is, however, that food is manufactured and advertised today in a way to make you want more of it. That’s something you need to fight against. How you can do that is by stepping on the scales every week. I did that for 15 years as I competed in sports that had weight classes. What that does is keep what you eat in the front of your mind. If you see that your weight is trending up, you automatically hold back from eating that dessert, having that extra helping, and make an effort to walk a bit more or do a few extra sets at the gym.

When you don’t get on the scale, the only measure you have is the tightness of your clothes, and that’s dangerous because you can put on multiple kilos before you really feel them tighten. By then, you have to go on a “diet”, and restrict yourself to lose that weight. All of a sudden it’s something much bigger than it should have been, because instead of managing it by measuring it, you’ve turned a blind eye and lied to yourself.

Personal finance is another great example. Go back through a news archive of the last decade and you’ll see that literally every single week there is a story of how people are “struggling to make ends meet”. One of the biggest issues people have with getting ahead financially is the fact that they never look at their bank statements. Much of the time it’s wilful blindness, because they know that they aren’t going to like what they see, and it’s going to be a source of stress and anxiety. When you don’t look at your statements, it’s easy to lie to yourself by thinking things like “we don’t spend that much, we don’t have any luxuries”. The bank statement, however, is unbiased, cold and clear. It will show you the truth of the matter, that you eat out on a regular basis, that you spend a lot of money on things you don’t even really need, and that you’re an impulsive shopper. You might not like seeing that truth (in fact, it’s almost certain you won’t), but the pain of knowing is better than the anxiety of wondering.

“The price of light is less than the cost of darkness.” Arthur C. Nielsen, market researcher & founder ACNielsen.

Assuming a high enough income, this stress can be eliminated just by looking at your bank statement from week to week. Once you start looking regularly, you’ll automatically cut back on your spending, because it’s all there for you to see in black and white, and the numbers tell the story. It will keep it in the back of your mind, so when you do go out shopping you’ll start asking yourself “do I really need that?” instead of taking it to the register as a matter of habit.

I challenge you to pick one aspect of your life that you’re not really happy with right now and measure it. It can be as simple or as complicated as you like — it could be checking your bank statement once a week, it could be making a spreadsheet of everything you eat each day. It doesn’t matter, so long as you’re measuring it on at least a weekly basis. Try it for a couple of months and see what sort of an impact it has.

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I write about career, performance, psychology, self development and business humour. I'm an author, former national competitor in judo and strongman and a former military instructor.

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