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Measure What You Want to Manage.

Measure What You Want to Manage.

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.

A few years ago, a brilliant friend of mine wrote a novel, The Measurement Problem (you can read it online). One of the themes of the novel is – no surprise, given the title – the measurement problem, that is, the fact that measuring a value (or not) changes the way we act on it. As we were talking about this issue, she said, “It’s like Einstein said: 'Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.'"

That idea struck me with enormous force. That's true. But the fact is, if you want something to count in your life, it helps to figure out a way to count it. To put it another way, as one of my Secrets of Adulthood holds, “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. My friends like to make fun of my 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.

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 distracted by This American Life on your iPod? 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.

So figure out something you’d like to change in your life – more of something good or less of something bad. Then figure out a very concrete way to measure it and to hold yourself accountable for living up to it. By counting the things that count – and pushing yourself to find a way to count the things that can’t be counted – you make sure they’re part of your life.

* Via the very cool Very Short List, a friend sent me the link to Save the Words. It's wonderful -- you roll your mouse over words, each one now sadly underused, and it begs for you to adopt it in your everyday speech. Hard to describe, weirdly addictive.

* Interested in starting your own happiness project? If you’d like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. (Sorry about writing it in that roundabout way; I’m trying to thwart spammers.) Just write “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.

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