As I wrote last month, decades of studies have shown that goals are useful spurs to action, but recent research also shows that goals can have unintended consequences, such as diminishing the fulfillment we derive from an activity. My solution to this paradox is "to think of a goal as a powerful tow rope--it can jumpstart a stalled effort and give me a boost, but it can also drag me off course or even out of control. So it's essential to hold on to it lightly and let go of it readily."
Some of my most important goals involve daily activities: Each day I aspire to 1) wake up well-rested from a good night's sleep, 2) get some exercise, 3) meditate, 4) develop myself as a coach through some form of study or practice, and 5) do a little writing, typically on a coaching-related topic.
I've been tracking whether or not I fulfilled these daily goals since May 2011 (except exercise, which I've tracked since March 2008, and writing, which I added last June), so the end of 2012 is an interesting opportunity to see how I've done over the past year. But before I jump to the data, I want to note my appreciation for critics of tracking like Zen Habits' Leo Babauta, who wrote in November...
When you track a metric, such as hours or dollars or miles, you are saying that’s more important than all the things that can’t be measured. You put that in the forefront of your head as the thing that must be improved, at the cost of all else. What about relationships and joy? Are those less important?
Then there are other problems with tracking and measuring everything:
- It takes time to measure and track--that’s valuable time you could have spent doing or living.
- It creates a mindset that we must always improve, always measure, always manage things, always strive for better, better, better. What about learning to be happy with yourself? What about focusing on joy and compassion and people you love? When does the improving stop? Are we ever satisfied? And is that the point of living--to improve endlessly, to always make things better, and never be happy with where we are?
- It’s stressful to measure and track a lot of things, and it’s disappointing if those numbers don’t go up, or don’t go up as much as we’d hoped.
- We have to choose what to measure, and how do we know we’re choosing the right thing? Why is that thing the only thing that matters? It’s a narrowing way of looking at life.
- It doesn’t improve happiness. It doesn’t make us content. It doesn’t keep us in the moment.
I agree with Babauta's fundamental perspective--we need to spend our lives being fulfilled by doing what we love, and chasing numbers is a recipe for perpetual dissatisfaction, not fulfillment. But his rejection of tracking is similar to his rejection of goals, and it evokes a similar response from me: Any data derived from tracking our activities should inform our choices, not dictate them, and we should hold onto it lightly and let go of it readily, just as we would a goal that's become counter-productive.
The pursuit of my goals noted above is its own reward, and I don't make choices to "improve" the numbers related to those goals. When I don't achieve these goals in a given day, or when the numbers dip over a period of time, rather than feel bad about my "failure," I get curious about the choices I've been making. Perhaps I needed to prioritize other activities, and those choices were the right ones.
But I'm also well aware of the tendency for things that are "urgent but not important" to consume time and attention, often pushing things are are "important but not urgent" off my calendar. My dawning awareness of this dynamic is one of the factors that got me started tracking my daily exercise in the first place.
So while I'm grateful to Babauta and others for helping me to clarify how I want to use this data--and how I don't want to use it--I still find the process of tracking valuable. With that said, how'd 2012 go?
I got a good night's sleep 60% of the time, and I feel great about that simply because I've known for years that my sleep hygiene was poor but never did anything about it. Tracking provides me with just enough motivation to pay attention to--and actually honor--my need for sleep.
I exercised 87% of the time, up from 81% in 2011. And I'm very happy about that--not because I'm driven to "improve," but because I love to exercise, and these figures represent an ongoing commitment to take care of myself in the midst of a very demanding schedule.
I meditated 67% of the time, and I'm ambivalent about that figure. It was just 45% for the last six months of 2011, so from one perspective there's "progress"--but a closer look shows surprising variation on a quarterly basis: 59% in Q1, 85% in Q2, 74% in Q3 and just 51% in Q4. Why such a steep decline when I do find the practice rewarding? Why am I meditating less while exercising more? Curious--and something to think about in 2013.
I worked on my professional development 65% of the time, and I feel just fine about that. It's easy to get sucked into the immediate demands of my work as a coach--primarily because I love what I do--but tracking this metric reminds me of the importance of stepping back from day-to-day responsibilities to stretch myself in other ways.
I started tracking daily writing just last summer, and I wrote 25% of the time during the last 7 months--but that ranged from 90% in June to 0% in September and October. That variation reflects my demanding Fall Quarter schedule at Stanford, and while I write better when I take time off during the year, being dormant for several months was too long, and next year I'll look for ways to keep some momentum going during my busy period.
Photo by David Boté Estrada. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.