If You Want More or Less of Something in Your Life, Measure It.

You know how when you become interested in an idea, it seems as though everything in the world relates to that idea? For example, for a long time, I kept remarking, in every possible context, “The days are long, but the years are short.” Everything reminded me of that idea.

A good friend of mine had a preoccupation of her own. She called it “the measurement problem” — the observation that measuring a value (or choosing not to measure it) changes the way we act on it. She’d quote Einstein: “‘Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.’” She explained to me, “If you want something to count in your life, it helps to figure out a way to count it.”

This idea struck me with such force that I made it one of my Secrets of Adulthood: “You manage what you measure.”

That’s one of the key reasons that my Resolutions Chart works so well. Setting myself a concrete task, and measuring each day whether I’m complying with it, makes me far more likely to stick to my resolution.

Difficult-to-measure resolutions like “Find more joy in life” or “Be present in the moment” are tougher to keep than “Once a week, make plans with friends” or “Don’t use my iPod when I’m walking to work.” It’s hard to tell if you’re getting more joy out of life, but it’s easy to score yourself on keeping a weekly outing with friends.

In my own case, with my workaholic tendencies, I realized that if I didn’t measure certain values in my life, I’d neglect them. It sounds ridiculous to make paradoxical resolutions like “Force myself to wander” or “Schedule time for play,” but if I don’t put these things on my calendar, and score myself on my Resolutions Chart, I just won’t do them. (If you’d like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, email me at grubin at gretchenrubin dot com.)

Now, some people make the point that measuring isn’t necessarily a good thing. Measuring something stifles it, they argue, or it encourages you to focus on measurable aspects at the expense of more elusive ones, or the fact that you’re measuring an experience shows you’re not experiencing it deeply. After all, when you’re fully immersed in an experience, you don’t stop to measure it.

That’s true. So I suppose I’m talking about how to get to that point. How do you lose yourself in contemplation of the clouds if you’re listening to the audiobook of Freedom? How do you throw yourself into dancing at a club if you never step away from your computer? In my case, measurement allows me to make sure that such values don’t get pushed to the side – otherwise I’m too preoccupied with answering emails or taking notes, because these are tangible items that can crossed off my to-do list.

Even reading. Reading is my very favorite thing to do — in fact, if I’m honest with myself, it’s practically the only activity I really enjoy — and when I’m reading, I lose all track of time or sense of measurement. Nevertheless, one of my resolutions is “Find more time to read.” I measure my reading time to make sure that reading doesn’t get crowded out.

Maybe there’s something you’d like to change in your life — to get more of something good or less of something bad. Try this: figure out a very concrete way to measure and track it. By counting the things that count — and pushing yourself to find a way to count the things that seem as if they can’t be counted — you make sure they’re part of your life.

How about you? Have you found that measuring something has helped you manage to get more (or less) of it in your life? How did you measure?

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in — no need to catch up, just jump in right now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

* I love time-lapse photography, and was especially pleased to see this short video of time passing in New York City, where I live. New York City! It makes me happy every day. I love it.

* Sign up for the Moment of Happiness, and each weekday morning, you’ll get a happiness quotation in your email inbox. Sign up here or email me at grubin at gretchenrubin dot com.

  • Cam

    I’m glad you suggested this tip, Gretchen. Do you secretly have a degree in psychology as well??? I’m working on my doctorate in psychology and many of the advice you give is right on par with psychological research. In regards to this post, in psychotherapy we measure the client’s progress through meeting goals and objectives. We make sure the objectives are measurable, because this is how you know if you have reached the goal or not and have made enough progress to end therapy. For example, a goal of “improve relationship with daugher” might translate to the objective of “spend positive, quality time with daughter once a week” and “reduce conflicts with daughter to two or less fights per week” or something like that. I would echo your post, and encourage other Happiness Project readers to make their goals measurable! Me, I’m working on “going to the gym 4 times per week” and “getting 8 hours of sleep per night.” Make ’em measurable!

    • gretchenrubin

      No secret psychology degree! HAPPY minds think alike.

      • Mellen

        Is it true?
        Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way ~Leo Tolstoy

        • gretchenrubin

          I don’t think so. I’ve thought about that a lot — I read a lot of Tolstoy.
          What does everyone else think?

          • jenny_o

            I think that both happy AND unhappy families are happy or unhappy in their own ways. My logic is that individuals are happy or unhapppy in their own ways, and families are collections of related individuals and therefore share the same capacity to differ from each other while overall fulfilling the definition of happy or unhappy. But maybe I’m missing something. Anyone else have an opinion?

          • Breathejustbreathe

            I agree. Every family is different, happy or unhappy. Plus, I would venture to say that most families fall somewhere in the middle of the happy-unhappy scale. Tolstoy’s quote has always bothered me, partly because I don’t like to divide people into only two groups, and partly because it seems so dismissive of happy families, like there is nothing interesting to report about them.

          • gretchenrubin


          • bee

            I have always thought of Tolstoy’s remark as referring to the difference between writing about conflict & ease; not as a slam against happiness being boring, although I know some [perpetually discontented] people who can’t stand the idea of “contentment.”

            It’s so much easier to dramatize the crisis, the disagreement (and the disagreeable persona) than the comfortable, relatively bland and static landscape of contentment and happiness. How many novels & stories have you read & what films or TV shows have you seen that focus on happy contented people without pain, struggle, drama and some form of snarling disagreement?
            Writing courses typically teach that the basic formula for a narrative is conflict, crisis, resolution. You don’t see many film/TV offerings free of shouting, screaming tantrums of some kind. They may be presented as “comedy” but in aggregate they present an ugly view of the world where it’s “natural” for a character to react with hostility, aggression or at least vehement irritation to anything or person who impedes his desires. As a result I no longer go to Hollywood films and haven’t intentionally watched TV since junior high school (which was before black & white TVs had vanished) and I think I’ve been much happier for it as it gives me time to read, to learn useful things & improve my skills, to meditate, to get more sleep.

          • gretchenrubin

            Your point about the dramatic possibilities of unhappiness is so true. I’m
            drafting a post on that very subject, I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

            One of my favorite quotations about this is from Simone Weil:
            “Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous,
            barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new,
            marvelous, intoxicating.”

            On TV, that’s why I love to see something like the Pam/Jim marriage on THE
            OFFICE. It is thrilling to see two people who consistently choose the right,
            loving action with each other. It sounds boring but it is RIVETING.

  • Hi Gretchen, I love the idea of measuring the things you want in your life. I want more positive, healthy friendships and although I know that and I know the steps I need to take to remove the negative people from my life. I cannot figure out how to increase my intake of positive friendships. So I’m working on myself and wondering if an increased number of positive friendships might not be a measure of something else. Maybe I am seeing the trees, maybe positive friendships mean I want more joy in my life. I think I just had an aha moment. I’m still working on that one but thank you, Gretchen.

    • gretchenrubin

      Ancient philosopher and contemporary scientists agree — one of the KEY
      elements of a happy life is strong relationships with other people. So
      having more friendships is something that will absolutely boost your
      happiness. But if you think that this stands for other elements that you
      also want to change, also an important recognition.

      • Libby

        I’m confused. Are you saying “More Friendships” (as in quantity not quality is what matters)? I ask because Ms. Rattigan says she has a “few friends” who really understand her. I haven’t studied this subject in depth as you have done – but it seems counter intuitive that quantity and quality are what matters.

        • gretchenrubin

          We need close friends, not just casual pals. People who give us support AND
          to whom we give support (also very important for happiness). The more close
          relationships we have, the happier we tend to be.

          So it’s quantity and quality.

    • Kathy

      I, too, found myself longing for healthy friendships…at least that’s what I thought I wanted. What I discovered, though, was what I wanted was to feel OK about being an introvert. I’m not completely buying the idea that we need lots and lots of friends to make us happy. I’m happy with my few friends who understand me. Since I’ve allowed myself to admit that, I have been much happier.

      • gretchenrubin

        Different social situations are different for different people, though
        studies do show that having 5 or more close friends makes a person more
        likely to report being “very happy.”

        Sometimes people frame the issue as “lots of superficial friends” vs. “a few
        intimate friends,” but I think that’s a false choice. Friendships come in
        many varieties and many intensities, and are different at different stages
        of life.

        As always, the question is what is right for YOU. If you are happy with the
        friendships you have, then that’s right for you. Feeling lonely is a huge
        and very common happiness challenge, so it’s an important element of life to

  • supernalsteve

    Thanks Gretchen – I enjoyed reading this article. It’s so true that we often make broad statements like “I want more joy – more love – more peace etc. in my life” – without looking at how we can achieve this. I love the message that we actually have to ‘do’ something – put in some action i.e. if you want more joy in your life do things that bring you joy, including bringing joy to the lives of others. On the measurement I prefer to think of it as planning – but it’s the same thing really – and really important. Planning can help us bring balance to our lives – particularly these days with all those competeing priorities!! Thanks for sharing this – made me think this morning – which is always good!

  • Thanks for the very interesting article Gretchen. This is something I’ve thought a lot about, whether we should set goals and measure them or if we should go with the flow?

    I’ve noticed that naturally happy people who seem to just be at one with the rhythm of life often don’t measure everything and follow specific goals. At the same time, goals and measurement seem to be ubiquitous in personal development literature, (maybe a cross-over from business thinking).

    So I’ve tried both! What I personally found is that goals/measurement really does work but only when trying to set up new habits that are alien to me. If I continue too long it starts to suck the joy out of the goal and I wonder why I even wanted it in the first place. Now I try to pepper my life with goals and measurement sparingly just enough to get the new neural pathways set up.

  • I think that’s really good advice…it makes it real and more visual (for those of us who think that way). I’ve been trying to write more, to finish a draft of a book, and telling myself I need to do “more” is just to vague (and open to excuse making)…as opposed to noting I put in, say 5 hours this week, and could I bust out 10 next week?

  • Katiebird

    So helpful! I complain all the time about not having enough time to do what I want to do…but if I really look at how I use my time, I waste a lot of it in silly things that are easy but which I don’t actually love…like aimless computer browsing. The fact is, there just is not enough time for everything – so if I measure how I spend my time – I can spend it where it matters most. Time for a chart! Thank you so much!

    • gretchenrubin

      This is such an ongoing challenge — to make sure that time isn’t sucked up
      by low-value activities, that somehow creep into the day.

  • LivewithFlair

    I have realized that my happiness often relates to whether or not I have a “willing spirit” about the tasks before me. I want more willingness, and I can measure that by my attitude. If I”m being stubborn, bitter, or resistant to my work, I need more willing and less stubborn. Here’s what I was thinking: http://livewithflair.blogspot.com/2010/11/am-i-willing.html

  • I wanted to cut down on my grocery bill, so I simply paid attention to what I spent. I recorded what I spent and where (i.e. at which grocery store). I kept it very simple, as I didn’t want it to become too cumbersome. This little exercise led to more awareness of what I was buying and where the best place to buy it was. It also led me to make better choices in the store. It really worked! My monthly grocery spending went down. After I stopped the exercise, it slowly climbed again. That’s ‘proof in the pudding!’

    • gretchenrubin

      A friend of mine did something similar, and was staggered to discover how
      much she spent on dry-cleaning. She had no idea. she was able to cut way
      back on that expense, without much effort.

  • Juliebush

    Gretchen, are you aware of http://trackyourhappiness.org ?
    It’s researchers who send you surveys three times a day to ask various questions about what you’re doing, your mood and focus, and then give you graph results to show what actually makes you happier. I love it so much.

  • This is awesome! I have been struggling with how to feel as if I am accomplishing things like “more joy”, “appreciating my money”, “loving my children”…..it all seems to go back to the “doing” thing. This is a constant theme in love as well. Those who have good relationships are those who are “doing” and those who don’t have love are those who have this “idea” of love which is only just an “idea” with no action.
    But anyway, yes, if i schedule some activities that mean certain things and do them then I can measure…I can feel accomplished.

  • As a health psychologist, I am fixated on measuring things. There are many studies that have proven the benefits of this activity.

    read more here: http://repsych.blogspot.com/2010/10/did-you-eat-your-apple-today.html

  • Anna

    Reading your post about how reading is your favourite thing to do (as it is mine) reminded me of an interview I watched this week with Alain de Botton on the BBC website (their ‘5 minutes with..’ feature). He stated that (in his opinion) reading and writing is a response to anxiety. This really gave me food for thought – I think it might be true…

  • Diana Burgess

    I now use the iphone app “habits” to track what I want to do more of. This includes concrete things like “flossing” and “exercise” and “prepare for meetings in advance” as well as more elusive things (“give proofs of love”–from The Happiness Project.”) Even when I don’t do the habit, just checking it off on my phone ensures that I am reminded of it.

  • You can measure the most crucial commodity we have that is time. Measuring where your money is being spent is the first step to creating a budget and increasing your cash. If you can’t measure your goal then it indicates that maybe you haven’t yet broken the goal down into actionable steps. If you can’t be bothered measuring then maybe the thing isn’t really that important to you and perhaps it’s better to simplify your life and bin the whole idea.

  • In my management role, we always used the “what get’s measured, get’s done”, which is the same idea. I think that one of the most powerful tools we have in creating change in our lives is a pen and paper. If we write down the things we want to measure, it will guide us to doing those things.
    On a little different take, one of the best ways to get control of your spending or eating habits is to track them, to measure them. By seeing exactly WHAT you are doing, it can help you to make the necessary changes.

  • Debradylan

    My calendar and my online diary are hugely important to measuring all kinds of things in my life. I give myself stickers for exercising/adventures. When I don’t a month full of stickers something has really gone wrong. This process not only reveals my struggle with chornic pain, it has also led to other discoveries about mood, hormone fluctuations, etc.

    I, too, need to get back to my nighttime routine which includes flossing, reading and getting to bed at a decent hour. I hate it when I waste valueable time that could have been spent reading, only to stay up to late because I need my reading fix.

    I think you will like this lecture for its wisdom and her need to literally measure within her research parameters.


  • Breathejustbreathe

    Interesting how the Universe works: Just as I started to read your entry on measuring goals, a coworker stuck his head in the door and asked me if I wanted an extra desk calendar he had. So now I’m all set to start some measurements!

    • gretchenrubin

      That is so funny. Perfect!

  • Eileen

    I have a chart I fill in every night before I go to sleep. Some of the things I fill in (either time spent or simply yes/no) are, did I…read? write? sing? dance? play piano? play guitar? bike? I love it when I have all of them filled in as Yes!

  • Posy

    To me, the Einstein quote means just the opposite of what you all seem to think, so it’s very interesting for me to read all of these comments. I always thought it meant (and still do), that there are just some things that defy measurement. I can’t measure how much I love my children or how good a glass of ice tea tastes on a really hot day. But those things “count” in my life. I think Einstein is telling us to realize that quantity is not what those things are all about. Nevertheless, they deserve our appreciation. We can quantify how often we drink ice tea, or how often we hug our children, but we’re not counting those feelings, we’re just counting our own behavior. They re not the same thing. Of course, our behavior affects our feelings — and can change our feelings. But… they are not the same thing (to me, anyway).

  • I think we have to be very careful about measuring things that “count”. If we become so entrenched on the quantity goal we lose focus on why we wanted to measure it to begin with. It becomes a check off list that must be accomplished regardless of the joy it brings us. Trust me, I actually enjoy check off lists…the more checked off the greater the happiness at the end of the day which quickly fades when the kids are hungry, the laundry needs folding, and there are dirty dishes in the sink.
    So I combat my desire to measure by reflecting at the end of the day and checking off that my attitude is still one of gratitude. Have a blessed day!

  • Eric35

    “Reading is my very favorite thing to do — in fact, if I’m honest with myself, it’s practically the only activity I really enjoy –”

    Sometimes I worry about what your children and husband think when reading these posts (assuming they read these posts).

    • gretchenrubin

      I meant, in terms of a pastime. They all love to read too so they get it.

  • in education, they say “you treasure what you measure.” it makes sense that anything you’re paying close attention to is going to thrive more.