Forget Metrics—Goals Are What Matter
A chapter a day adds up to quite a number of books a year—only, exactly how many I never really tracked until early 2017. I'd opened Goodreads, was prompted to add a reading goal for the year, and went back to see how many books I'd read in 2016. Lo and behold, add in paper books, and I'd likely read 20 or so volumes in the year.
I could do better than that. Suddenly I had to read 30 books in 2017.
And so I kept reading as normally, a chapter here, a book there on longhaul flights. Pages added up and the goal felt realistically achievable even without reading a crazy amount every day.
That is, until Ta-Nehisi Coates listed his favorite Civil War books—and Battle Cry Of Freedom jumped out as one I should read and add to the 25 or so I'd read already.
Great idea—only Battle Cry Of Freedom is over 900 dense pages long, enough that Kindle kindly suggested it'd take me over 25 hours to read the whole book. Suddenly the goal of thirty books in 2017 was less achievable.
Everything in life begs to be quantified. It started in the workplace, with key performance indicators and net promotor scores and daily active users being the deciding factor in every thing we do. Sure, we can talk about the things we can't measure being most important—but it's hard to live by that with the graph's trending downwards.
Smart devices and social networks brought that to our personal life to an unprecedented degree. Suddenly everything could be tracked. We knew we should stay active—but now we knew if we didn't walk 10k steps a day, and we'd try to exercise just to fill in those rings. We knew a weighty volume would take a while to read—but now we were told up front how much time it'd take (and our friends would automatically be told when we finished reading it). We hoped we were popular with our friends—but now we could see exactly which jokes fell flat, which photos people actually liked, and who was more jealous of us than happy for us.
Everything turned into a numbers game, so much that you might choose which food to order based on how many Instagram likes it'll get, or try to listen to more indie tunes to look cool. Exercising at home? Nah—much better to run at a park so you can track it and keep your spot on the exercise app's leaderboard.
It's not all bad. Exercise apps push many people to work out more than they would otherwise, social networks do make it easier to stay in touch and have helped many hone hobbies or careers, and so on. It's that the numbers aren't all that matters.
In fact, numbers don't matter at all. The goal is all that matters.
So take apart your goal. Want to read 30 books this year? Or what do you really want? Perhaps you want to learn more things, to read more from your favorite author, to expand your reading into subjects you're less familiar with. You might want to read more, read better, keep reading regularly—and the number can help. If the raw number of books is all that mattered, you could raid the kid's section of a bookstore and get your thirty books read in an afternoon. But the number's not the goal. Or, at least, it shouldn't be the goal.
You get what you measure. Strive to read a specific number of books—or to get a number of visitors to your site, or to make a specific number of revenue—and you might hit that at the loss of other metrics you're not tracking. Maybe you'll choose to read less impactful books just to read something. Maybe you'll cut back on customer services, make worse products, make false promises—all could offer short-term revenue gains with far greater long-term losses.
The Battle Cry of Freedom taught me more than most of the books I read this year. It nearly kept me from my raw number goal—but it more than achieved my unstated goals of learning more through reading, expanding my viewpoints, and reading a wider variety of content. It was well worth nearly missing a number goal for the greater good.
And so it goes in the workplace, too. Set goals and metrics at the beginning of the year or quarter—but always keep in mind the value behind the goal. Is more visitors really what you want—or would more engaged readers of your blog be more value? Is new blog posts what you need, or would your time be better spent updating the older, more valuable content you already have? Should you make a new sell, or help keep an existing customer happy?
In the end, I finished my reading goal with a little extra effort. Metrics are hard to shake off. But it taught me, as other lessons from work in 2017 had as well: Don't just make your goals numbers. Make a better goal, something greater you wish to achieve. Then stick a metric to it as a guidepost to help you know how you're doing. You might surpass the metric, or your might come up short, but deep down inside you'll know if you actually hit the real goal or not.
Such goals are harder to quantify—but far more valuable.
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