What’s the right metric?

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

Committing to some verb; exercising, writing, or working often involves some metric and the metric matters. Bosses sometimes pay for getting work done, and sometimes pay for being there – and getting some work done. We’re our own bosses too and operate with the metric of our choice.

Some numbers, like dollars to retire or distance to run work well – sometimes. Other times there’s something even better.

Time is a great metric, especially for things where the process is more important than the outcome. And twenty minutes is the best anyone can work on anything for twenty minutes.

I’m trying to become a better swimmer and that means going slow to practice good form so time is a better metric than distance. I can also set a timer on my watch so that my only focus is on swimming, keeping myself totally focused.

Twenty-minutes is also a swallowable pill for less desirable work. Twenty-minutes of housework can turn into a workout with the right mindset. Whenever there’s transcription, research, or proofreading to do I set a timer for twenty-minutes, repeating it once or twice if I get into a groove.

What twenty minutes really is is an easy design hack. It shifts your perception of a situation. Any arbitrary rule can do this.

Here’s now Neil Gaiman explained his “biggest (writing) rule” to Tim Ferriss. He’ll head down to his writing cabin and “and I’m absolutely allowed not to do anything. I’m allowed to sit at my desk, I’m allowed to stare out at the world, I’m allowed to do anything I like, as long as it isn’t anything.”

No crosswords, no phones, no books. “All I’m allowed to do is absolutely nothing, or write.” Like a parent who offers their children the option of carrots or broccoli rather than fruit or vegetables, Gaiman has redesigned his environment.

Within that, he avoids wordcounts. Gaiman writes by hand using different colored fountain pens. Each color shows him how much he wrote each day.

In sitting alone in his gazebo in the woods with just his pens and notebooks, Gaiman has created an environment to write (“the most important thing about the gazebo is it’s out of wireless range”).

All metrics are like this, arbitrary. Does it matter if the goal is 100 or 98? Did you know the marathon, the fabled Greek-inspired feat of feet has changed distances over time?

The things we measure influence our behavior and we can change those measurements to change our behavior. Not just in the number but in the form.

In a recent post we noted that doing good work takes three things; the skills for the work, the motivation to do it, and the right conditions for it.

Timing ourselves is a way to frame the conditions. Do this unpleasant task for just this long. Sure.

That said, I wrote this using a word metric, not a time one. Each morning I wake up, write 400 words, and only then am I done. If it was twenty minutes I’d get distracted, fall back asleep, get more coffee, or anything else. For this task, at this time, the best metric for me is words. My morning design may be different than Gaiman’s, but it’s still designed.

We still need dollars and dates and distances for the working, creating, and running we do. But we can also use time. Most important is picking the metric that gets results. It’s not the measurement that matters, but the verb we’ve committed to. 


Thanks for reading.

4 thoughts on “What’s the right metric?”

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