The Building Blocks of Discipline and Willpower: Measurement

By Marshall Goldsmith

Measurement is the truest indicator of our priorities—because what we measure drives out what we don’t. If financial security is your top priority, you check your net worth every day. If you’re serious about losing weight, you step on a scale each morning. If you have stomach issues, you measure the composition of your gut biome. 

In 2020, if COVID-19 was your daily fear, you might have taken to using a tiny device called an oximeter to measure your SpO2 levels (aka blood oxygen), a data point you probably had never heard of the year before.

I’m not a card-carrying member of the Quantified Self movement, a burgeoning community of scientists and tech wizards who aim to find private meaning by measuring all manner of personal data, from daily steps to weekly minutes spent socializing. 

But in years past, when it mattered to me, I’ve tracked hours slept, days away from home, times I told my kids I loved them, daily moments of gratitude, and Michelin-starred restaurants visited. Each number helped me improve, and in many cases I stopped tracking when I reached “good enough.” For many years I obsessively tracked airline miles; I stopped counting and declared victory the moment I hit 10 million miles and received my American Airlines Concierge Key card. As I write this, I’m tracking daily steps, kind words to Lyda, daily minutes of quiet reflection, time with the grandkids, how much white food (sugar, pasta, potatoes) I eat, and daily minutes spent on low-priority activities (e.g., watching TV).

Marshall Goldsmith Meme

Not every measurement that matters to us has to be a hard, objective number. Soft, subjective numbers can be just as meaningful.

Consider my friend Scott, who went on a strict doctor-supervised diet for a medical condition. Six months into the diet, Scott’s internist (who had adopted the diet himself as a preventive measure for the same condition) asked him to estimate how well he’d adhered to the strict diet. Scott said, “Ninety-eight point five percent.” The internist said nothing and moved on to the next question. The lack of feedback irked Scott. The next day he called the internist to say, “When I said ninety-eight point five percent, I felt you were judging me harshly.”

“Not at all,” said the internist. “I was impressed. I’m no better than eighty percent.” Hearing another measurement to compare against his own, imprecise as it may have been, was instantly meaningful to Scott. It made him feel better about his level of compliance.

That’s important: Encouragement and measurement are part of an earned life.

Marshall Goldsmith Meme
Linkedin Facebook Icon-twitter Instagram