On Metrics and Resolve – Cal Newport


One of the least understood components of my time-block planner is the “daily metrics” box that tops every pair of planning pages. Given that we’ve recently arrived at the beginning of a new year, an event that inevitably suffuses our culture with talk of reinvention and self-improvement, it seems an opportune time to look a little closer at this under-appreciated idea.

The mechanics of metric tracking are easy to explain. At the end of each day, you record a collection of symbols that describe your engagement with various key behaviors. These metrics can be binary. For example, you might have a specific symbol to indicate if you meditated, or called a friend, or went to the gym. If you engaged in the activity, you record the symbol. If you did not, you record the symbol with a line through it.

Metrics can also be quantitative, capturing not just whether you engaged in the activity, but to what degree. Instead of simply recording a symbol that indicates that you went for a walk, for example, you might augment the symbol with the total number of steps you took throughout the day. Instead of capturing the fact you did some deep work, you might also tally the total number of hours spent in this state.

The resulting information might seem an inscrutable cipher to an outsider, but once you get used to your personal metrics, they will provide, at a glance, an elaborated snapshot of your day.

Consider, for example, the sample “daily metrics” box from above. In this case, its terse scribbles might capture the following about the date in question:

  • You did not exercise (crossed out ex).
  • You took 9000 steps (s:9000).
  • You ate clean (ac).
  • You spent three hours working deeply (dw:3).
  • You read two book chapters (r:2).

The key question, of course, is why you should bother with this tracking discipline in the first place. Goal setting and time management are all prospective, in that they look boldly toward your desired future. Metrics, by contrast, are retrospective, merely leaving a record of what has already occurred.

This latter activity, however, turns out to be closely connected to the former. The dynamics at play here begin with motivation. In many ways our motivation centers are cruder than we like to imagine. You can tell yourself a complicated story about the importance of fitness in your vision of the life well-lived, but in the end, the desire to avoid letting down your future self by having to record that shameful crossed out ex metric might prove significantly more likely to inspire you to pick up the weights.

Once you’re making consistent and disciplined progress on small things that reflect your larger values, your identity evolves. You begin to see yourself as someone with discipline; someone willing and able to do hard things in the moment to obtain meaningful rewards in the future. It’s on this foundation that you will find yourself better able to stick with grander forward-looking goals.

Tracking daily metrics, in other words, is like a training regime for your will. Like many, you might be embracing the new year with a long list of ambitious resolutions. This is great. But perhaps before you dive into your big plans you should spend a month or two first tracking the small.

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