Jamie's Blog

Lessons from a life of startups, coding, countryside, and kids

You can only change what you measure

This is a pretty familiar concept to (good) software developers but perhaps not to everyone. A bad software developer will look at a piece of code, think it is inefficient in someway, and procede to “fix” it. But without actually measuring the performance you have no idea whether the performance really was unacceptable and by how much you have improved it (if at all). Good software developers go through a measure-change-measure cycle to ensure problematic area are identified and actually fixed.

Applying this to life

I am not a metrics-driven guy by nature. I don’t particularly like dealing with numbers and I don’t naturally track every minute detail of my life but even I have started tracking a lot more areas of my life recently. Last month we started using YNAB to track our finances and budget. I’ve also bought a FitBit Zip which allows me to track my steps each day. As a freelance developer I’m currently billing by the hour and I use Freckle to track my billable time but I also wanted better insights into my non-billable time so I’m using RescueTime. Like many people, I’ve tracked my weight for a while (FitBit now but also WeightBot) — good news: it’s not going up, bad news is it’s not going down either. If you’re a programmer, The Healthy Programmer book takes a very familiar approach to “debugging” your health.

Why Measure?

  • Identify the real problems. Sometimes you think there are problems where there aren’t. Most often, you don’t even know about the areas where there are problems. I didn’t realise we needed to budget so much for birthdays until we started tracking what we spent (we didn’t even have a category!)
  • Fix the problems. Ok, so now that you’re tracking a metric you can work towards changing it. People have looked at me strangely when I said I’d bought a Fitbit (like it was a gimmick) but it is psychologically motivating in subtle ways. Instead of waiting for my wife at the garage, I walked down the road to meet her. Why? Because it’s good to be walking and because it got counted. If my Fitbit is at 8000steps that evening, you can bet I’m going for a walk to push it over the 10k mark.
  • Celebrate the wins. The best part about measuring things is feeling good about them. Whether it’s celebrating the 10k steps after a family walk or enjoying guilt-free spending on a hobby because it’s within the budget.

Even just this week I started timing my swims: On Tuesday I did 1mile in 49mins (better than my previous guesses of 50-55mins) but today I did it in 46:30. It only changed because I could check my watch and force myself to swim faster and rest less (I was aiming for 45mins, eventually closer to 30mins). Without timing my swim I wouldn’t have had the motivation to beat my previous time; or even if I’d beaten it, I’d have felt no achievement because I wouldn’t have known that I’d done better than Tuesday. Lesson learnt: measure it if you want to change it.

I’m going to write more about the individual areas and tools in subsequent blog posts