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Measure Backward, Not Forward

Measure Backward, Not Forward

We often measure our progress by looking forward. We set goals. We plan milestones for our progress. Basically, we try to predict the future to some degree.

We do this in business, in health, and in life at large:

  • Can we increase our quarterly earnings by 20 percent?
  • Can I lose 20 pounds in the next three months?
  • Will I be married by 30?

These are all measurements that face forward. We look into the future and try to guess when we will get somewhere.

There is an opposite and, I think, more useful approach: measure backward, not forward.

Here’s what I mean:

Measuring backward vs. measuring forward

Each week, I sit down at my computer and fill out a spreadsheet to track the essential metrics in my business: traffic, email subscribers, revenue, expenses, and so on. I have the process down pretty well by now, so it only takes about 15 minutes.

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In those 15 minutes I get very clear feedback on whether or not I’m making progress in the areas that matter to me. I can tell which direction things are moving. And if the numbers in one area are moving the wrong way I can make adjustments the following week.

Basically, I measure backward (What happened in my business this past week?) and use it as a way to guide my actions for the next week.

I use a similar strategy in the gym. I lift every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. When I show up at the gym, I open my notebook and look at the weights I lifted during my last couple of workouts. Then, I plan my workout by slightly increasing the sets, reps, or weight from where they were in the previous week. I go for tiny increases, of course. I’m interested in one percent gains.

In the gym, just like in my business, I measure backward and use it to determine my next move. I am constantly looking to improve, but I base my choices on what has recently happened, not on what I hope will happen in the future.

The chains of habit

The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken. – Samuel Johnson

When it comes to building good habits and breaking bad habits, one of our greatest struggles is maintaining awareness of what we are actually doing. The more automatic a behavior becomes, the less likely we are to notice it. This helps to explain how the consequences of bad habits can sneak up on us. By the time the repercussions of our actions are noticeable, we have already become hooked on a new pattern of behavior.

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However, measuring backward can call attention to these invisible patterns by making you aware of what you are actually doing. Measuring backward forces you to take notice of your recent actions. You can’t live in a fairy tale world of hopes and dreams. You have to look at the feedback of what has recently happened in your life and then base your decisions and improvements on those pieces of data.

The good news is that you can now base your decisions off of what you’re actually doing, not off of what you project your future self to be doing.

The importance of short-term feedback

The best way to change long-term behavior is with short-term feedback. – Seth Godin

There is one caveat to this strategy: when you measure backward, your data needs to come from the recent past.

If I used data from two years ago to make business decisions, my choices would be off. The same is true for lifting weights or other areas of improvement. I don’t want to base my actions on what I achieved a long time ago, but on what I have achieved recently. In other words, I want short-term feedback, not long-term feedback. The shorter, the better.

Measuring for happiness

There is an additional benefit to this strategy. When you measure backward, you get to enjoy the progress you are making right now rather than yearn for a different life in the future.

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You don’t have to put happiness off until you reach a future milestone or goal. Happiness is no longer a finish line out there in the future. Focusing on how you can immediately improve over your past self is more satisfying that comparing your current state to where you hope you’ll be some day.

The idea in practice

Nearly every improvement we wish to make in our lives requires some type of behavior change. If you want different results, you have to do something differently.

The tough question to answer is what should we do differently to get the results we want?

We often respond by focusing on an outcome and setting a goal for ourselves. Goals are good and having a sense of direction for where you want to go is critical. But when it comes to determining the improvements we can make right now, measuring backward is the way to go. Let recent results drive your future actions.

Weight Loss: Measure your calorie intake. Did you eat 3,500 calories per day last week? Focus on averaging 3,400 per day this week.

Strength Training: You squatted 250 pounds for five sets of five reps last week? Give 255 pounds a try this week.

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Relationships: How many new people did you meet last week? Zero? Focus on introducing yourself to one new person this week.

Entrepreneurship: You only landed two clients last week while your average is five? It sounds like you should be focused on making more sales calls this week.

Measure backward and then get a little bit better. What did you do last week? How can you improve by just a little bit this week?

This article was originally published on JamesClear.com.

Featured photo credit: Sean MacEntee via flickr.com

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James Clear

James Clear is the author of Atomic Habits. He shares self-improvement tips based on proven scientific research.

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Last Updated on July 10, 2020

The Power of Ritual: Conquer Procrastination, Time Wasters and Laziness

The Power of Ritual: Conquer Procrastination, Time Wasters and Laziness

Life is wasted in the in-between times. The time between when your alarm first rings and when you finally decide to get out of bed. The time between when you sit at your desk and when productive work begins. The time between making a decision and doing something about it.

Slowly, your day is whittled away from all the unused in-between moments. Eventually, time wasters, laziness, and procrastination get the better of you.

The solution to reclaim these lost middle moments is by creating rituals. Every culture on earth uses rituals to transfer information and encode behaviors that are deemed important. Personal rituals can help you build a better pattern for handling everything from how you wake up to how you work.

Unfortunately, when most people see rituals, they see pointless superstitions. Indeed, many rituals are based on a primitive understanding of the world. But by building personal rituals, you get to encode the behaviors you feel are important and cut out the wasted middle moments.

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Program Your Own Algorithms

Another way of viewing rituals is by seeing them as computer algorithms. An algorithm is a set of instructions that is repeated to get a result.

Some algorithms are highly efficient, sorting or searching millions of pieces of data in a few seconds. Other algorithms are bulky and awkward, taking hours to do the same task.

By forming rituals, you are building algorithms for your behavior. Take the delayed and painful pattern of waking up, debating whether to sleep in for another two minutes, hitting the snooze button, repeat until almost late for work. This could be reprogrammed to get out of bed immediately, without debating your decision.

How to Form a Ritual

I’ve set up personal rituals for myself for handling e-mail, waking up each morning, writing articles, and reading books. Far from making me inflexible, these rituals give me a useful default pattern that works best 99% of the time. Whenever my current ritual won’t work, I’m always free to stop using it.

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Forming a ritual isn’t too difficult, and the same principles for changing habits apply:

  1. Write out your sequence of behavior. I suggest starting with a simple ritual of only 3-4 steps maximum. Wait until you’ve established a ritual before you try to add new steps.
  2. Commit to following your ritual for thirty days. This step will take the idea and condition it into your nervous system as a habit.
  3. Define a clear trigger. When does your ritual start? A ritual to wake up is easy—the sound of your alarm clock will work. As for what triggers you to go to the gym, read a book or answer e-mail—you’ll have to decide.
  4. Tweak the Pattern. Your algorithm probably won’t be perfectly efficient the first time. Making a few tweaks after the first 30-day trial can make your ritual more useful.

Ways to Use a Ritual

Based on the above ideas, here are some ways you could implement your own rituals:

1. Waking Up

Set up a morning ritual for when you wake up and the next few things you do immediately afterward. To combat the grogginess after immediately waking up, my solution is to do a few pushups right after getting out of bed. After that, I sneak in ninety minutes of reading before getting ready for morning classes.

2. Web Usage

How often do you answer e-mail, look at Google Reader, or check Facebook each day? I found by taking all my daily internet needs and compressing them into one, highly-efficient ritual, I was able to cut off 75% of my web time without losing any communication.

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3. Reading

How much time do you get to read books? If your library isn’t as large as you’d like, you might want to consider the rituals you use for reading. Programming a few steps to trigger yourself to read instead of watching television or during a break in your day can chew through dozens of books each year.

4. Friendliness

Rituals can also help with communication. Set up a ritual of starting a conversation when you have opportunities to meet people.

5. Working

One of the hardest barriers when overcoming procrastination is building up a concentrated flow. Building those steps into a ritual can allow you to quickly start working or continue working after an interruption.

6. Going to the gym

If exercising is a struggle, encoding a ritual can remove a lot of the difficulty. Set up a quick ritual for going to exercise right after work or when you wake up.

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7. Exercise

Even within your workouts, you can have rituals. Spacing the time between runs or reps with a certain number of breaths can remove the guesswork. Forming a ritual of doing certain exercises in a particular order can save time.

8. Sleeping

Form a calming ritual in the last 30-60 minutes of your day before you go to bed. This will help slow yourself down and make falling asleep much easier. Especially if you plan to get up full of energy in the morning, it will help if you remove insomnia.

8. Weekly Reviews

The weekly review is a big part of the GTD system. By making a simple ritual checklist for my weekly review, I can get the most out of this exercise in less time. Originally, I did holistic reviews where I wrote my thoughts on the week and progress as a whole. Now, I narrow my focus toward specific plans, ideas, and measurements.

Final Thoughts

We all want to be productive. But time wasters, procrastination, and laziness sometimes get the better of us. If you’re facing such difficulties, don’t be afraid to make use of these rituals to help you conquer them.

More Tips to Conquer Time Wasters and Procrastination

 

Featured photo credit: RODOLFO BARRETO via unsplash.com

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