Be Careful What You Measure


Last week, Wells Fargo fired a bunch of their remote employees.

It turns out that these employees were “simulating keyboard activity” (with a program/device that automatically typed keys or jiggled their mouse when they weren’t at their computer).

Why?

Because that’s how these employees were evaluated:

Not by how many clients they brought in, nor how many relationships they fostered, but by how many hours they were active on their computers.

So that’s exactly what these employees gave them.

Remember, this is the same bank that told employees back in 2017: “Sign up as many clients to extra banking services as possible.”

The result?

Millions of unknowing customers had credit cards and savings accounts and brokerage accounts created illegally in their names, hundreds of millions of dollars in fines, and destroyed goodwill for Wells Fargo.

Why did both of these comically bad lapses in judgment happen?

Bloomberg’s Matt Levine said it well:

Two basic principles of management, and regulation, and life, are:

  1. You get what you measure.
  2. The thing that you measure will get gamed.

Really that’s just one principle: You get what you measure, but only exactly what you measure. There’s no guarantee that you’ll get the more general good thing that you thought you were approximately measuring.

If you want hard workers and measure hours worked, you’ll get a lot of workers surfing the internet until midnight.

I stumbled across this story last week, and immediately thought how this exact incentive-and-unexpected-results plays out everyday in our lives.

We download Duolingo to learn to converse with a native speaker in their language. Months later, we’re checking in daily so we don’t get yelled at by the Owl, we are desperate to keep our daily streak active…and we can only say “I found a blue ostrich at the library.”

We lie in bed, waiving our arm above our head like a madman, because our FitBit says we need 500 more steps to hit 10,000 for the day. (Here’s the history of the 10k step rule by the way…)

I once “meditated” every single day for 6 months so that I could build my meditation streak in Headspace. Sometimes I would even open the app and just let the meditation play so I got credit for it, even though I wasn’t meditating…THE WHOLE REASON I HAD DOWNLOADED THE APP.

We tell ourselves that we want to “read more,” but then we track how many books we read. This incentivizes us to read books quickly (without retaining any of it), instead of tackling bigger challenges like War & Peace or rereading our favorite books to glean more lessons.

WHY do we want to read more? To learn stuff or to be entertained! The number of books, or WHICH books, doesn’t matter:

Social media began as a way to connect with friends. These days, social media is big business and the only marketing tool for many creators. Because these companies track “time on app” and “attention”…social media is now a hellscape of outrage.

The most attention-grabbing content filters to the top: outrage inducing, factually incorrect, awful content designed to enrage and fear monger. Even most of my favorite wellness creators these days spend their time making reaction videos to the most vile wellness misinformation, because that’s the only type of content that gains any traction.

(No wonder so many people are avoiding the Dark Forest of the Internet!).

All of these things weave a fascinating tapestry of how the human brain works, and just how good our brains are at taking a metric and learning the wrong lesson from that metric!

What are you measuring?

The majority of people visit NerdFitness.com to “lose weight.”

This is the one metric that everybody is used to tracking. Every ad talks about how to lose weight fast. They see the number on the scale and let that number determine how they feel about themselves that day.

This is the wrong metric to exclusively focus on:

We don’t really want to “lose weight.” What we want is to lose fat while keeping the muscle we have (or building muscle).

If our ONLY goal is weight loss, severe calorie restriction and endless cardio might result in a lower number on the scale. BUT! If we don’t change our relationship with food, and consume enough of the right macronutrients and micronutrients, we’ll end up feeling lethargic, starved, and miserable…and then gorge ourselves as soon as life gets in the way.

If we strength train while eating enough protein and in a caloric deficit, we’ll actually lose weight slower than if we just starved ourselves and did hours of cardio. BUT, we’ll be losing fat while maintaining muscle.

The scale should only be ONE part of how we evaluate our progress:

After all, the number on the scale is going to fluctuate from day to day:

  • If we went out to dinner last night.
  • if we ate too much salt yesterday.
  • If we’re carrying extra water weight.
  • If we’re on our period.
  • any number of reasons.

So, once we know that what we choose to track is important, how do we use this to our advantage?

What to Track, What NOT to Track

Remember, that which gets measured gets improved, so let’s be smart about what we’re tracking.

We can ask, “What do I REALLY want to happen? Is this the right metric for that goal?”

  • Trying to “eat better”: Track your protein intake and number of fruits/veggies eaten daily. If those are the first two things on your plate for each meal, your weight will start to shift without your focus on it.
  • Trying to build a “beach body”? Great, let’s build some muscle. Track your workouts, and write down exactly how many sets and reps. Then, do ONE more next time. The goal? Progressive overload for the win! Get stronger,
  • Want to read more? Don’t track “books read,” which might result in you picking shorter books or speed reading, but instead track “time spent reading.” This can include audiobooks, rereading old books, whatever. Treat your reading list like a river, not a to-do list!

Finally, there are many things we probably DON’T need to track, or we should be careful about when tracking.

There’s a whole community of biohackers who are prioritizing tracking the tiniest of details across a variety of metrics, many of which don’t matter, or might result in adverse outcomes.

Here’s something we get asked about a lot:

Unless you’re a diabetic and have been advised by a doctor, you do not need to wear a continuous glucose monitor. Temporary glucose spikes after eating a meal are perfectly normal.

(This podcast from my friend Dr. Spencer Nadolsky does a good job explaining why you don’t need a glucose monitor unless you’re diabetic).

Here’s something I used to track but abandoned:

I used to track my sleep religiously with an Oura ring and AppleWatch, but then I would get anxious in the middle of the night and worry that I was ruining my “sleep score”…which negatively impacted the very activity I was trying to improve through tracking. These days, I worry far less about tracking “good sleep” and just do what I can to be in bed for 8ish hours, asleep or not.

And on a bigger, life philosophy question:

Be wary of how social media is warping the scorecard you’re using to track your progress in life! It’s really easy to get sucked into: “Work hard to make money to spend it on things we don’t need to impress people we don’t even like” Life success isn’t measured in the size of our house, or value of our car, or the number in our bank account.

Bringing it all together:

When it comes to personal development or health improvement, it helps to ask: “What am I optimizing for, and does that actually help me get the result I really want?”

We can then decide if we’re even playing with the right scorecard and keeping our focus on the right metric.

I’d love to hear from you: what’s a metric you USED to prioritize, but no longer track? And what’s the important metric that you’re choosing to prioritize these days?

Hit reply on this and let me know!

-Steve





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