Zen Habits : Untrack: Letting Go of the Stress of Measuring
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‘You can’t manage what you don’t measure.’ ~old management adage
‘You can’t manage without pleasure.’ ~Leo Babauta
Post written by Leo Babauta.
There are a few old management adages that seem to run like a current through our society, powering our work and personal lives: “You can’t manage what you don’t measure” and “You are what you measure” and “You get what you measure”.
And I’ve fallen for it myself. At various times, I’ve tracked workouts, miles run, everything I’ve eaten, every single work task I complete, progress towards goals, my weight, my body fat percentage, how many days I’ve done a habit in a month, words written each day, books I’ve read, expenses, earnings, debt, website visitors, ad clicks, tweets, followers, and on and on. Sometimes I’ve tracked a few of these at the same time.
I’m not alone — there are people who track the most minute details of their lives, from heartbeats to steps walked to hours slept (and quality of the sleep) to emails sent. As a society, we’re tracking and measuring more than ever before.
What’s the theory here? And is it true? And is it necessary?
The theory behind measuring: is that unless you measure something you don’t know if it is getting better or worse. You can’t manage for improvement if you don’t measure to see what is getting better and what isn’t.
And to some extent, this is true.
If you measure how many hours you spent writing, it’s very possible that that number will increase, simply because you are measuring it, more aware of it, more focused on it, and motivated for that number to increase. If you measure miles run, that number will likely improve (until you get injured or burnt out).
But how do you measure the hills you ran during those miles, or the spurts of speed you occasionally threw in, or the enjoyment of the view? How do you measure the great conversations you had with your wife as you did those runs? How do you track the ideas you had on the run, the health benefit of the runs, the new places you explored? You could try to track all of these things, but then you’d be tracking 20 things instead of just miles run.
Work is the same way — you can measure 1 or 10 metrics for productivity, but does it measure the relationships you’ve built with your readers or customers, or the enjoyment you’ve gotten doing the work, or the things you’ve learned by making mistakes, or the pure joy you’ve gotten in making someone’s life better? Go ahead and try to measure that.
When you track a metric, such as hours or dollars or miles, you are saying that’s more important than all the things that can’t be measured. You put that in the forefront of your head as the thing that must be improved, at the cost of all else. What about relationships and joy? Are those less important?
Then there are other problems with tracking and measuring everything:
- It takes time to measure and track — that’s valuable time you could have spent doing or living.
- It creates a mindset that we must always improve, always measure, always manage things, always strive for better, better, better. What about learning to be happy with yourself? What about focusing on joy and compassion and people you love? When does the improving stop? Are we ever satisfied? And is that the point of living — to improve endlessly, to always make things better, and never be happy with where we are?
- It’s stressful to measure and track a lot of things, and it’s disappointing if those numbers don’t go up, or don’t go up as much as we’d hoped.
- We have to choose what to measure, and how do we know we’re choosing the right thing? Why is that thing the only thing that matters? It’s a narrowing way of looking at life.
- It doesn’t improve happiness. It doesn’t make us content. It doesn’t keep us in the moment.
I could go on and on. Measurement and tracking are tools, and there’s nothing wrong with using them. I’ve obviously used them many times, and still recommend them to most people. I just think we should consider whether there are alternatives, and question our dogma, and experiment to see what works best for us.
Untrack: Another Way to Work & Live
So how do you work & live if you’re not tracking and measuring? My wife Eva asked me this today when we were on our run — she really wants to keep track of her runs (miles and time and pace) so she can be motivated to improve and keep doing it. I said it’s not necessary.
Let’s take the example of a mother or father — do we measure all the activities we do as parents, so we are motivated to improve and keep doing it? Do we measure:
- Hugs given
- Time spent reading to kids
- Time spent preparing meals for them
- Fixing their booboos
- Taking them to the playground or park
- Playing catch with them
- Helping them shower or get dressed
- Teaching them a new skill
- Snuggling or lazing around together
And so on. No, we just do all of that and more. Why? How is it possible to do all of that without the motivation of tracking?
It’s simple: we do those things because we love them, and we love our kids.
We are also motivated to learn more about being parents, to see if there are better ways of doing things, not by the measuring and tracking, but because we love being parents and want to be good parents. No tracking needed.
What about running? Can’t we run for the joy of it? Aren’t we motivated to do it because we love ourselves? And who cares if we run more miles or not? That’s an arbitrary goal that really means nothing. Just run because it’s super fun, for the enjoyment of nature and great views, for the simple but boundless pleasure of a conversation with someone you love.
What about work? Are we going to all of a sudden stop doing anything because it’s not measured? I say no.
I’ve been working for a little while now without tracking anything, and lo and behold, my work goes on. I do it because it gives me joy. I do it because I love all of you, my dear readers, and would keep doing it without pay and even if whatever numbers I decided to measure went down the tubes and into the netherworld. That’s why we do things, not because we want numbers to get better. The numbers are meaningless, arbitrary, limiting, narrow, and without heart.
Do for the love of doing, for the love of others. That’s unmeasurable, and profoundly life changing.