What You Can Measure You Can Improve

Measuring to Improve photo

Example #1
I’ve never been a very healthy vegetarian, getting a lot of my daily calories from cheese and pasta. It has always been obvious that I should eat more fruits and vegetables, but somehow I just wasn’t taking the step to really do it with any consistency. Small victories stayed isolated, and my eating habits stayed pretty much the same.

So I decided to challenge myself to eat at least 5 extra portions of fruits and vegetables a day. What I would normally be eating as part of a meal didn’t count; it had to be, for example, an extra bowl of carrots or an apple.

Results: So far in slightly less than 2 weeks I’ve eaten over 65 portions of fruits and vegetables that I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have eaten otherwise. It hasn’t been hard or complicated, but I know that without some metrics and way to stay accountable (see on the photo above), I wouldn’t have gotten this result.

I intend to keep doing that for at least a month to see if I can pick up the habit. If I don’t, I might stick with this system for as long as I need to. I figure that the small hassle is worth the price of an improved health (and possibly lower food bills).

Measuring to Improve photo

Example #2
As I’ve already mentioned on this site, I read a lot. It hasn’t been hard to keep a good rhythm with books because I just love reading. I don’t need any external motivation.

But with textbooks, it’s been another story. I’ve been studying Molecular Biology of the Cell (5th Edition) for a long time and making very slow progress. As the months went on, I realized that the problem wasn’t so much that it was slow-going once I was reading, but rather that I picked up this book more rarely than the 4-5 others I’m reading in parallel.

The main factors are probably that it’s bigger and heavier, so it’s impossible to read before going to sleep while lying in bed. It’s also, obviously, more technical and I have to work more for my reward. In any case, whatever the reasons, I just picked it up very rarely, which meant that it would’ve taken me an eternity to finish, and I already have a few other textbooks that I wanted to get to after I was done with this one (the MIT Encyclopedia of Cognitive Sciences, for example).

So I decided that since my problem was getting started, I would give myself a minimum of 4 pages to read in that textbook each day, and would track my progress on a piece of paper (see photo above).

Results: I’ve only been doing it for a week, but already my daily average is around 8 pages, which is pretty good since the pages are big and the fonts small, and I’ve also been devouring the excellent biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, American Prometheus by Martin Sherwin and Kai Bird.

This technique gives you both information and accountability. It’s simple enough that it actually works, and you can apply it to all kinds of things you want to do. Just pick realistic goals and make adjustments as you go along, and most importantly, stick with it long enough so that whatever desirable behavior you’re tracking becomes a habit.

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2 Responses to “What You Can Measure You Can Improve”

  1. What I’ve Been Up to Lately « Michael Graham Richard Says:

    […] Up on “What You Can Measure…” I recently wrote about some challenges I gave myself. I’m happy to say that it’s working well, possibly better […]

  2. Michael Says:

    Hi Michael,

    Trying to keep track of ” at least 5 extra … … portions of fruits and vegetables that I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have eaten otherwise” seems to me to be a pretty tricky and highly subjective thing to do, unless you eat a very monotonous diet. Why not just set a goal for a higher absolute number of such servings a day, possibly starting low and moving up to where you’re happy with coasting?

    Oh: and why would you expect this to lower your food bills? Is there some really expensive food that you expect to be displaced when you’re eating more fruit and veg?

    Hope you’re well. Live long — live young!

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