The Good Side of Quantifying Everything

25 Apr. 2012 | Comments (0)

You manage what you measure. We all know that abstractly, but it can be revelatory to see just how much impact measurement has on one's own behavior.

My story: I finished my run Tuesday morning and was a little disappointed not to have Joan Benoit Samuelson congratulating me over my earbuds for my longest run yet (I was about a tenth of a mile short). But when I plugged my iPod Nano into my laptop I got a surprise: comic actor David Koechner informing me in a video that I had reached the "orange level," meaning that I had now run more than 30 miles with a little Nike+ sensor crammed into my shoe.

"You should probably wear something orange today," continued Koechner. "And if somebody asks, say, 'Oh, it's just a level. I'm an athlete.' "

So I did wear orange, or at least orange-ish red:

orange trou.jpg

Sure enough, lots of people at work asked me about it (I had previously worn those trousers to work only on Halloween and the day of the office Christmas party, when such questions were superfluous). And while I didn't quote Koechner verbatim, I did always get around to Nike+ and my (extremely modest) running accomplishments.

All this is, first of all, evidence of my extreme suggestibility. It's also testament to Nike's success in building what Mark Bonchek has been describing on hbr.org as an "orbit strategy" with Nike+. My wife and son gave me the Nano and the Nike+ attachments for my birthday at the end of January. I was initially dubious, since my running shoes are Reeboks and I had to shove the Nike+ thing into the laces. That's worked out okay, although when I next buy running shoes I imagine I will look first at the Nikes that come with a cavity in the sole to hold the sensor. Score one for that orbit strategy

But what really gets me is that despite the mass-produced nature of the praise I receive from Joan Benoit Samuelson, David Koechner, and whoever Nike + throws at me next, I pay such close attention to it. I think that's because while the praise is fake, the things I'm getting praised for not only aren't fake but are documented with great precision. After a hiatus of about 25 years, I started fitfully, occasionally running again two years ago. Now, thanks to electronic tracking of my performance and acknowledgement of its improvement, I seem — without really intending it — to be adopting a regular training schedule. This is a big deal.

We're all already supposed to know that taking small steps forward is key to getting things done in life and feeling good about it. What my running experience is teaching me, though, is how important measurement is to that process. When you're making incremental progress, it can be hard to tell if you're actually progressing unless you keep close track of what you're doing. How to do that with, say, work in a modern office environment isn't as easy as buying an attachment for your iPod. But technology is moving in that direction.

A few weeks ago, scientist/entrepreneur Stephen Wolfram described his approach to personal analytics in a blog post at Wired.com. For years, he's been keeping track of his every computer keystroke, scanned document, and email; more recently he's taken to wearing a pedometer all the time as well. It's apparent that Wolfram still doesn't know quite what to do with the masses of information he's generating, other than make cool charts. Still, he's hopeful:

As personal analytics develops, it's going to give us a whole new dimension to experiencing our lives. At first it all may seem quite nerdy (and certainly as I glance back at this blog post there's a risk of that). But it won't be long before it's clear how incredibly useful it all is — and everyone will be doing it, and wondering how they could have ever gotten by before.

Of course, the burgeoning of personal analytics also means a growth in the ability of others (employers, police, spies, crooks, Facebook, Google) to track our every movement and deed. Call-center workers are already subjected to this kind of scrutiny, and it doesn't sound like fun. As Thomas W. Malone, Robert J. Laubacher, and Tammy Johns wrote in HBR last summer, knowledge work is increasingly being broken down into hyperspecialized bits that will allow employers to track much more closely what we all actually accomplish.

So okay, the future is scary. But it's worth remembering how helpful this kind of information could be to us in organizing and improving our own lives. If data and occasional positive reinforcement from the sportscaster from Anchorman can turn me into an "athlete," imagine what better measurement of, say, my e-mail habits might do for me.

This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 04/10/2012.

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  • About the Author: Justin Fox

    Justin Fox Justin Fox is editorial director of the Harvard Business Review Group and author of The Myth of the Rational Market: A History of Risk, Reward, and Delusion on Wall Street.…

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