Measuring Life – Life is basically one long series of measurements…
Distance to travel to work.
The time we’ll meet our friends for tea.
The time we set our alarm for the morning.
Optimum milk to porridge oats ratio.
… the list of what we measure without thinking about it is endless.
Since the 5th millennium BC we have been measuring things. In the Bronze age we used ivory scales. (Aside from the animal welfare aspect, this sounds quite reasonable.) As early Babylonians we measured length using our fingers. (This seems less reasonable, if not downright unreliable.) Without getting into a discussion about measuring horses in hands (one ‘hand’ = 4 inches) it is clear that instinctively we are all about measuring. And why not? Society would struggle to exist without a way to measure what we have, what we need, what we want, and what value we put on everything around us.
And that is where it gets interesting. The things we measure are usually the things that are important to us. Think about it. Time. Money… Porridge oats… If you are measuring something, chances are it is important to you, or at the very least important to someone you know, and pleasing them is important to you. Whether we’re working to please our children, our boss or ourselves, the things we measure aren’t usually random. What we measure is what is important to us.
The question is, what difference would it make if we flipped the equation, and instead of thinking about the things we measure and how important they are, we thought about what is important to us and how we could measure it to improve our lives and give us more of those things.
The “Observer effect” is the scientific term to describe the changes that the act of observation makes on the phenomenon being observed. The theory being that many ways of measuring the effect of one thing on another in physics terms can be affected by the way in which they are measured. And whilst this might not be useful in scientific terms (or might give results less accurate than measuring with our fingers…) this is something that might be useful to us in terms of our own self-awareness.
The reality is that what we measure, we can also improve, simply by becoming more aware of it. IBM quality expert H James Harrington said “measurement is the first step that leads to control and eventually to improvement. If you can’t measure something, you can’t understand it. If you can’t understand it, you can’t control it. If you can’t control it, you can’t improve it”. Understanding and controlling his expert field was clearly a priority for IBM, but the important part of this quote is the measurement. No offence to Mr Harrington, but improving something doesn’t necessarily require control, or even understanding. All it really requires is the commitment to measure, and improvements will follow.
Take for example running (as we quite often do…). It is perfectly possible (in fact likely) that if you run regularly, even without measuring, controlling or understanding what you’re doing, you’ll improve your running. You’ll get fitter. You’ll cover the same distance more quickly. You’ll recover more easily afterwards. You’ll make noticeable progress in what you’re doing. Improvement doesn’t require control or understanding. It doesn’t even require measurement. Your running would improve whether you knew about it or not.
But how much more quickly would you improve, and what else could you go on to achieve, if you measured what you did? If you knew that when you started running you could only run a mile, but by week 4 you could run 2, by week 6 you could run 3 miles (5k), and 6 months later you could improve your 5k time by 10 minutes?
To accomplish any goal in our lives we would be sensible to first establish where we are in relation to that goal, and next establish what we need to do to reach the aim. A sat nav system in the car is only useful to us if we tell it where we want to go, and it has enough signal to figure out where we are. It is only by measuring, and tracking our distance, that we can see how far we’ve come and how close we are to our goals.
Some things are better for lack of measuring. Time spent at the beach with family is better without watching the clock. The number of friends you have on Facebook doesn’t necessarily mean you need to make time to see each one of them to catch up once a month. But in both of those cases, there will be something about them that would benefit from your attention. Whether it is measuring the number of days per year you spend at the beach, or how often you make time to see your old friend from school.
Our lives are shaped by the things we measure. Whatever our goals, the outcomes are inherently affected by what we pay attention to. When we think about what we are measuring, how much is important to us because we measure it, and how much should we measure because it’s important?