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How do you measure up?

Kate Neser

I routinely wear a pedometer, and I aim to walk 10,000 steps a day.

To achieve this, part of my routine is to walk around the block every hour or so. I’ve been doing this for many years, and I really enjoy it, as a little mini-break from work, stress-relief, time to think, good for getting the blood flowing etc.

I was doing it long before I started wearing a pedometer, but once I started measuring my steps per day, I realised that it was also very helpful in achieving my goal of 10,000 steps a day.

The interesting thing for me was the day I forgot to wear my pedometer a couple of weeks ago.

This is a rare event, as it is so much part of my routine. To my surprise, when I got to a point where I would routinely take a lap around the block, the thought that came to mind was “Why bother, there’s nothing measuring my steps today”. I’m pretty sure that I did far fewer steps than normal that day.

I was rather disturbed that just because I wasn’t measuring my steps, I fell out of a very long‑standing, healthy, beneficial habit that had been in place long before I was measuring!

It’s made me think about – what else am I measuring, or should I be measuring?

If something this simple could influence my behaviour, how else could I affect my behaviour by simply measuring something?

Why does measuring something affect my behaviour so much?

Here are my thoughts on the matter…

We focus on what we measure – we notice it more

Ever noticed that you tend to observe things more when you’re trying to achieve something similar, or you just did something similar? For instance, when I was trying to get pregnant many years ago, suddenly there seemed to be pregnant women everywhere I looked, or new Mums with prams.

Nowadays (with two teenagers) I don’t see them nearly as much – now I see the gangs of teenagers roaming the streets, most of them looking at their iPhones rather than each other – because that’s what I’m interested in. I’m sure the actual number of pregnant women, new babies and teenagers hasn’t actually changed that much over the years, it is simply a function of what I am noticing or focussing on.

Setting a goal gives us an edge

I’m currently on a diet. I know what helps me to keep my calories down is to write down everything I eat, and put it through one of those apps that tells me how many calories I’ve eaten.

However, I can never remember how many calories I’m supposed to eat – is 1200 calories a day the weight-loss target, or is that to maintain weight?

So when I’m on a diet, I use an app that sets a goal for calorie intake, and then measures the calories I eat each day. I must admit, that sometimes it works in reverse – if I get to the end of the day and I haven’t eaten all my calories, I’m much more likely to have a bit of chocolate! But in general it keeps me to my target and keeps the calories down.

Publicly measuring something is even more effective

I’m a runner. Not a very good runner. I struggle, and I’m unbelievably slow (my 15 y.o. son says he can walk faster than I run, and at times, I think he’s right). But when I’m really struggling, the thought of coming through our front door and telling that son that I have made it to my 5km goal, and I didn’t stop and walk for the whole way, is what keeps me going.

And the thought of my daughter asking me how far I ran, and my answer being something less than my goal distance is just as motivating.

Holding ourselves accountable to a goal can be effective, but publicly sharing the goal with someone else who is going to ask about it, can be very motivating.

Measuring something gives us a much better sense of reality

This is true for me, particularly in relation to time. I had a couple of tasks to complete over the weekend, that I had procrastinated about for several days.

Part of it was that they are not tasks that I particularly enjoy, but mostly my excuse was that I didn’t have time.

But I really wanted them done by Sunday lunch time, and got up early on Sunday morning to get them done. And I think mainly because I resented using my Sunday to get the tasks done, and I was up early on a Sunday (a very rare event for me) I took especial note of the time when I started each task.

There were only two tasks to do. I started the first one at 9am, and to my surprise was finished by 9:15am.

After taking a 15 minute break from that very strenuous start, I started the second task at 9:30am. And that one was finished by 9:45am.

So two tasks that I had procrastinated over for several days were suddenly completed within half an hour. I am hoping that next time I have to do those particular tasks, I won’t procrastinate for nearly so long, and will just get them over and done with. My fantasy excuse of “I don’t have time” has disappeared!

Measuring things can skew behaviours

In the workplace, it is important to measure the right things. Unfortunately sometimes it is easier to measure things that may skew behaviours in the wrong way. By measuring how long it takes us to serve each customer, we may sacrifice quality – but it is much easier to measure time, than quality.

So while measuring things can be very effective, and important, it is also important to understand the impact of measuring it, and any possible unexpected consequences in skewing behaviours.

So now, in my usual style, I’m wondering whether I’m measuring the right things. Are there more productive things to be measuring that might influence my behaviour in positive ways?

Should I set a goal regarding seeing my friends more often, phoning my extended family members more, checking my email less often during the day, taking a trip away for a weekend every six weeks?

I know these are things that I would like to change in my life, but I know I don’t really measure them.

Maybe it’s time for some new measuring sticks in my life.

Feature image of white tape isolated on white background via Shutterstock. 

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Kate Neser

Kate Neser is an Executive Coach with the Centre for Public Management, coaching people to find the pathway to fulfil on their full potential in any area of work, whether it be developing their leadership potential, managing people or seeking the elusive work-life balance. As a former senior executive who managed the role working part-time with young kids, she is passionate about challenging some of the beliefs held in workplaces that get in the way of people living the life they dream about.

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