You get what you measure

June 27, 2012 | 18 comments

Tomorrow is a deadline for this latest round of book revisions, which is an exciting milestone as it marks the end of step 14 of ∞ in my publishing journey. But don’t worry, this is not a Writer Angst™ post! Nay, I actually have something interesting to share that you might find helpful and/or at least worth the time you spent blowing off more important things to read this post.

The other day I remarked to my husband that I was surprised at how smoothly the last re-write went (everything being relative, of course — by “smoothly” I mean “it got done and I did not, technically, die”). To him, this was not a surprise at all. He said he knew I’d get it done the moment I set word count goals and tracked my progress against them. “You get what you measure, ” he remarked with a shrug, as if making a statement about the greenness of grass.

You get what you measure.

I guess this is an obvious statement to people with MBAs, but to me, it was revolutionary. I thought about other times that I have measured some aspect of my life, and realized that it almost always yielded results: When we started tracking our debt on a spreadsheet that we updated month-to-month, it went down at a higher rate than before. When I kept a food journal to track what and how much I ate each day, my eating habits improved. When I started noting how long I could run without stopping, my stamina increased significantly. I thought of a handful of other examples as well. In each case, the improvements occurred with little obvious effort on my part. The simple act of measuring this area of my life put it on my mental radar; and having clear numbers forced me take a hard look at reality, rather than letting the truth get lost in the ether of uncertainty.

Perhaps more startlingly, I realized that there’s a telling flip-side to this concept as well: If you want to see where your priorities are, look at what you measure.

Most recently, I was measuring wordcounts. But I regularly perform rough measurements in other areas of life as well, even if I don’t write them down: Each day, I’m acutely aware of my “Free Time I Actually Had” to “Free Time I Expected to Have” ratio (and I treat my husband to detailed analysis of this metric as soon as he walks through the door each afternoon). I know almost to the minute how much time the baby spent napping, and how much sleep I got the night before.

Now, ask me for those same detailed numbers about how many minutes I spent in prayer, or how much quality time I had with the kids. I could probably come up with the answer eventually, but I don’t know off the top of my head. I don’t measure it.

I intentionally didn’t make a lot of plans this summer, mainly so that I can have the space to re-evaluate, re-prioritize, and re-focus before we get back into the swing of things again in the Fall. I wasn’t sure exactly how I would go about getting things in order, but I’m starting to think it may be as simple as taking a good look at what I measure.

P.S. If you’re looking for more detailed and interesting thoughts in this area, read about what Modern Mrs. Darcy learned from keeping a time diary


  1. Becky

    Emergencies also have a way of showing up what you really value. I have spent the last three months mostly in bed because I broke my leg. Things I can’t do: babysit for my grandchildren (usually two to three full days each week), teach horseback riding lessons, train my young Choncoteague pony, make dinner, walk the dogs, vacuum, do laundry. So,of course I have LOTS of time to pray all the Liturgy of the Hours, many rosaries, write thank you notes to the wonderful people who brought my family dinners, which is what i have always thought i would do if only I had time. Those are the things I tell myself every night that I will get to tomorrow, but I have actually done very little of. I don’t really know why. Maybe I need to start measuring these. What I have done a lot of is web surfing, including btw discovering your NCR blog, so that’s one good thing I guess.

  2. Mary

    Put another way, “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” I think of this whenever I avoid the scale =)

  3. Amy@Diapeepees

    Amazing how much a simple statement can make you see things differently. Luckily, you live with a yoda.

  4. Julia at LotsaLaundry

    Well… yes and no. And for me it’s mostly no.

    There are a lot of things that don’t get measured in the here and now. I think this is one reason so many moms feel unfulfilled: they can’t measure the progress of their parenting, can’t quantify what they’ve done. Some things are measured incrementally, and in ways we can’t see.

    Then, too, there’s the matter of measuring the wrong thing. In my state they’ve just added a slew of new, mandatory tests. In talking to a higher-up I learned that the reason why there’s now a state test for music is because “If there’s no test, the school districts don’t value the subject enough to teach it”. Except what ends up getting taught isn’t the subject, but how to take the test.

    It’s easy to “measure” our prayer time and lose sight of what prayer is supposed to do. It’s easy to “measure” our faith and end up feeling holy instead of being holy. Some people are good at avoiding those kinds of traps; I’m not. As soon as I try to start measuring things that are faith-related I almost immediately tumble into an achievement trap.

    There are some things in life that are best addressed through goal-setting, and others that are better dealt with through life-living. For me, thinking of prayer or devotion as something to be quantified instead of prioritized is a disaster.

  5. Jessica Snell

    What a good post! and especially appropriate for Ordinary Time, since that just means “the days we count”. 🙂

  6. Sam

    This is easily one of my all time favorite Jennifer Fulwiler posts. Thank you!

  7. Anne @ Modern Mrs Darcy

    I love this! And I just dug up my old reading notes from Seth Godin’s Purple Cow, because they are so appropriate here: “What could you measure? What would that cost? How fast could you get the results? If you can afford it, try it: If you measure it, it will improve.”

    (And as always, your husband-wife give and take is priceless.)

    And thanks for the link love!

  8. Genny Heikka

    I loved this, Jennifer. As a planner to the Nth degree, my challenge is to measure AND be open to the surprises and “picnic baskets” that God places along my way. I can get so focused on a goal that I sometimes miss when God tries to get me to switch lanes or change course! But great words of wisdom from your husband!

  9. Felicity

    Each day, I’m acutely aware of my “Free Time I Actually Had” to “Free Time I Expected to Have” ratio (and I treat my husband to detailed analysis of this metric as soon as he walks through the door each afternoon).

    Ha! Me, too.

    As always, your words gave me a much needed boost. 🙂

  10. Jeannine

    This is brilliant. I like this very much. Last year, when I turned 40, I had a list of things I wanted to accomplish. I wrote down every one of 40 books I read, every one of 40 recipes I tried, stuff like that. I realize now that I must do this with my time, account for my hours. Thank you, Jen, and please thank your husband for me, too!

  11. Brittany

    Perhaps the fact that you don’t have an MBA proves that your measurement of priorities already tipped the scale in favor of your faith and family! (: “Balance” is such a small word for what may turn out to be one of the biggest challenges of our lives. So proud of you, Jen. Every time I sit down and read your thoughts, I smile and say “you go, girl!”

  12. Robert

    This is also why a daily examen of conscience is a good idea, even perhaps writing it down, with a specific fault(s) one hopes to overcome.

  13. Karen

    I have a Sister Helen Prejean quote up at my desk for years: I watch what I do to see what I really believe. And someone told me when I was a teen that “your datebook is your creed” meaning that someone should be able to backwards-engineer my priorities and beliefs by looking at my weekly schedule.

    BTW – you can read Sister Helen’s essay on the This I Believe website here: Careful. ThisIBelieve is like TED, you can lose HOURS if you’re not careful.

  14. LuAnne

    How timely this post for me!!! I’m just reading these words and thinking – “I KNOW this” – but then, sometimes what I “know”, I sort of forget…so thanks for the reminder!!


  15. Benedicte

    Excellent blog! I’m a working mum, and recently thought that if I set a goal of spending just 15-20 minutes every day with each of my 3 kids, individually, one-to-one, I would feel less guilty about working, and they would feel better and special! I could cut out all the times I stupidly check my phone for work-related emails, and make up that special time with them…measurable, and attainable!

  16. Benedicte

    Just to clarify, I am with my kids for more than 15-20 min per day, but doing stuff around the house, cooking dinner, driving/collecting from school, etc…not for each individually, but collectively.

    • Anjum Qureshi

      When we decide what to measure, we set our goal and predetermine what is important. When we choose what to measure, we also choose the conclusions or outcomes. An example is U.S. education system we measure test scores, so students learn how to take tests rather than how to think and be creative (what we actually need). States that use standardized education assessment tests produce kids who indeed perform well on these tests but falter when asked to demonstrate their knowledge of the same material in a different way. I am a doctor from Pakistan. I worked as a physician for almost twenty years there but because I did not do well in standardized tests, I am unable to get any job here in U.S. I was performing surgeries back there but here even a lab or hospital would not hire me just to collect blood. Our society is unable to use an enormous potential because we do not have tools to measure it.

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