Absolutely Measure Your Progress — But Not Too Much

I spent my twenties thinking and talking about writing projects related to spirituality and calling. But, assuming there would always be plenty of time for this work in the future, I never actually wrote anything. Finally, when I was 32 and immersed in work and parenthood, it dawned on me: if I didn’t change my habits, I was never going to write the things I wanted to write. And there would probably come a day when I would regret that deeply.

By the time I turned 39, the situation was entirely different. A respected publisher had released my book on the search for meaning, I’d written more than 30 personal essays on spiritual topics, a number of them had appeared in prominent media outlets, and one had earned a national award. All of this had happened while I was continuing to work full time, my wife (who also worked full time) and I were raising two small children, and I was earning a master’s degree.

I say this not to brag – there are many people who have done far more impressive things – but as a testament to the power of measurement in driving major changes in our lives. Specifically, I learned three lessons during this time that I still draw on heavily today:

  • Recognize that measurement matters: Peter Drucker, the godfather of modern management theory, observed that “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.” And yet, in our professional and personal lives, we often wish and hope for changes that never come because we haven’t fully bought into the concept of measuring our progress. There are plenty of reasons not to buy into measurement. For starters, setting goals means we might not reach them. And that could make us feel like a failure, or make us look foolish in the eyes of others; so it’s safer to dream about achievements instead of actually pursuing them. Measurement can entail upfront work that we’d rather not invest in. It can also starkly remind us of how much time it can take to reach ambitious goals. The list of potential excuses goes on and on. The bottom line remains the same: measurement is the bedrock of change. Until we buy into that principle, we’re not really going to change. At age 32, I finally embraced this concept as a writer.
  • Pick the right measures: Now that I was finally committed to measuring my writing progress, it was time to decide what to measure. There were a number of options. I could, for example, pick a list of publications I wanted my work to appear in and set a timeline for publishing there. That was an outcome-focused measure. But focusing too narrowly on outcomes seemed a bit risky at this juncture in my spirituality writing career, which hadn’t even started yet. I couldn’t control which pieces of my work would be accepted or rejected, so I was leaving success in the hands of others. Alternatively, I could set an output goal – for instance, a daily or weekly goal for time spent writing, which is an approach that Stephen King swears by. This seemed likely to lead to frustration, though, because it was hard to plan on anything day to day beyond work and family time. But I did the like “output” aspect of this approach. The more I wrote the better I would get, which meant a greater shot at the ultimate goal of getting published. So, I committed to different form of output that felt more manageable: writing a certain number of personal essays a year.
  • Don’t over-measure: The next step was identifying exactly how many essays to write each year, which meant thinking about time in a realistic way. Initially, I thought maybe I could write a new piece every two weeks or every month – anywhere from 12 to 26 pieces a year. But, given my work, family, and grad school duties and the fact that I still had yet to write one piece, those measures seemed like a set-up for failure. I was unlikely to meet them, and my commitment to the entire writing initiative might fade quickly as well. Like the person who sets a weight loss goal and then steps on the scale every day, I was bound to be disappointed. The dangers of over-measuring are very real. It’s better to weigh yourself once a week so that you don’t get caught up in inevitable daily ups and downs. It was better for me to set a more modest output goal; my daily responsibilities meant there would be times when I couldn’t write at all for stretches of a week or more. In the end, I decided to write one essay every two months. That would give me six at the end of a year. Additionally, I committed to keeping up this pace for five years. At the end of that time, I would have 30 essays and a good sense of whether I enjoyed this work and was any good at it. I didn’t set any goals for publishing these pieces. If opportunities arose for my work to appear in media outlets, I would explore them. But I wouldn’t measure success on that.

Because these measures were reasonable, I was inclined to stick with them – in fact, I followed this plan exactly. At the end of five years, I’d written 30 essays. Two or three years into this effort, some of these essays started appearing in magazines on my wish list. At the start of Year 6 in this project, I decided to keep going with the same annual goal – and the first essay I wrote and published that year caught the attention of an editor at a publishing house. Two years later, my book The Messy Quest for Meaning was released.

There wasn’t a silver bullet that made all this happen. Rather, in the words that global business and personal branding guru Dorie Clark has used to describe her own career path, “it’s about small, strategic moves that compound and pay disproportionate dividends over time … you have to take action and you have to be patient.”

If you’re looking to start a new chapter in your life or take something you’re already doing to a higher level, you’re first step is creating realistic measures that stretch you – but not too much.

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