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

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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. 

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?

From 2006 through 2014, as she wrote The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, Gretchen chronicled her thoughts, observations, and discoveries on The Happiness Project Blog.

 

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