We owe our current-day obsession with metrics in large part to Frederick W. Taylor, the early 20th-century engineer and management consultant who introduced the concepts of metrics and data analysis as important tools to increase industrial efficiency. Since Taylor’s day, metrics have become omnipresent, moving well beyond the factory to intrude in almost every aspect of our daily live – how many of us wear portable devices that measure our heart rates, the number of steps we’ve taken today, or how much REM sleep we had last night? In my experience, there’s no better way to suck the joy out of a bicycle ride on a beautiful day in the country than to focus more on how many hours, minutes, and seconds it will take to finish the ride, rather than on the feeling of the sun on the face, the wind in your hair, and the joy of being outside in gorgeous surroundings.
I’m all for setting goals and milestones, so we know that we’ve achieved what we’ve set out to achieve, but I think we’ve gone too far and have fetishized metrics to the point where the measurement is more important than the goal. We tell ourselves that “what gets measured gets done,” that when we ride our bicycles “if it ain’t on Strava, it didn’t happen,” and beat ourselves up when we run 3 miles but lagged 30 seconds behind our previous time. In schools around the world, real learning has taken a back seat to scoring better on tests, and students are more concerned about getting higher grades and test scores than about developing lifetime learning habits and insights that will help them become better people, parents, and productive members of society when they graduate.
Further, we are all too familiar with examples from Corporate America when senior management is so invested in “making their numbers” that they wind up making up the numbers instead, often to disastrous ends. Enron’s senior executive couldn’t bear to report lower profits and disappoint Wall Street, so they engaged in a massive accounting fraud that inflated profits and hid losses, eventually coming to light and resulting in one of the largest bankruptcies in American history.
I suggest it’s time we all step back from the ledge, put away our FitBits, Garmins, spreadsheets, and charts, and stop fetishizing measurement, especially when it applies to our own goals of personal self-improvement. Don’t rob yourself of the joy of being fully alive and present in the current moment (which is all any of us really has) by focusing more on what your FitBit will record than on the sights, sounds, and experiences all around you right now. Yes, you should create goals for yourself and strive to achieve them, but don’t become so obsessed with measuring your progress that you become anxious, dispirited, or lose sight of why you chose that goal in the first place. Remember that, above all, you are meant to live your life fully, not to measure it fully.