Personal progress thrives at a human scale

The case for rethinking personal metrics

Checking a box is a satisfying moment in my day. The box is a metric that shows me this one thing got done—so the day was not a total waste. Metrics make our work world go round, given the myth[i] that “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”

That we have metrics at work is a given.

Do metrics play a role in the rest of life?

Yes. They do.

Marks on the wall show how kids have grown over the years. Marks on our IRA statement show how lavish or spare our retirement will be. Marks on my bathroom scale suggest swapping celery for the late-night cheese platter. We all have these informal metrics that build our mood or burst our bubble—these modest harbingers stake out the shape of our life.

We’re coming to the time of year when some of us try to peel away the encrustations around our metrics and ask if those measures still work for the coming year.

Down with the fail-metrics

Who hasn’t tumbled into seeking “likes” or “views” on their most-used social media platform? It doesn’t take long to realize that fool’s game leads to a dark place of banal content that matters very little in the real world unless you are trying to monetize your private life—which is not a smart life goal. Giving power to total strangers to assess your human worth, that sounds like madness.

Smarter social media metrics move on to ask what true engagement looks like. Building engagement and community is a better way forward. And every community has its own rules of engagement. Engagement becomes the conversation that moves our customers and clients forward, and engagement is also critical in our personal lives.

Define then refine

What measures do we use to note progress in life, and did I choose them, or did they show up by default? We’ve got to ask: can those metrics get us where we want to go? I like it when metrics blossom into daily habits that step me toward a desired future, like the practice of getting out 1000 words a day toward a writing project or confiscating all cheese from the premises to avoid the late-night cheese platter, or, like my newly-retired salesman friend, who set up ongoing conversations with people because he thinks people and conversations are important.

How can we build human-sized metrics into work and personal metrics? I’m thinking of measures that encourage real conversations, which go on to engage the other humans around me. In our hunt for human-scale metrics, it is possible that what was old is new again: maybe individual, person-to-person conversations, whether verbal or through phone calls or even letters, are a surer way to gauge how this life is going. Is it possible to send a thank-you card out once a week? That would put gratitude into a measurable format, which could blossom into a habit. What if I recognized—once every day—that someone around me did something that was pretty cool? Something that made life easier for other people. That sounds like a human-sized metric.

Maybe thousands of followers are not as critical as a few real-life, 3D, corporeal, flesh-and-blood connections that see me and whom I see. Conversations with these real people are the ones that salve a wound from work or shine a light into a dark period of life. Looking back, there are a few ordinary conversations I’ve had that turned my life on end and changed everything.

Don’t neglect your metrics

There is a case to be made for building out our personal, intrinsic metrics before we find ourselves without the extrinsic metrics an organization provides: fired, laid off, or retired. Lunches, letters, calls, emails—all of these old-school ways of reaching into the personal space of the people around us can be scheduled into our lives on a regular basis. Maybe they will blossom into habits that change us and the people around us.

Our personal metrics, refined over the years toward what is truly important, will be runway lights that guide us when external metrics go dark.



[i]The actual quote from W. Edwards Deming means the opposite of how we typically use it: “It is wrong to suppose that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it – a costly myth.”

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