To Measure Is To Motivate


On Tuesday, it was 9:03PM and for the first time in my life I had a window into the number of steps I’d taken that day – 9,562. This may sound a little strange in 2019, but I’ve never used an activity tracker – no FitBit, no Apple Watch. Call me late to the party. But as part of The Deep Change Project, I’ve begun tracking my activity using the Oura Ring. As I was starting my nightly wind-down routine, I thought, “Isn’t 10,000 steps some kind of benchmark – a goal most trackers try to hit?” Then another question, “Has Dewey been for a walk yet?” And out the door we went to cross that somewhat arbitrary—yet surprisingly butt-kicking—threshold of 10,000 steps. Final number? 10,468.

The saying, “We manage what we monitor,” often attributed to Peter Drucker, is the mantra in many business schools. It is, of course, true…just incomplete. What gets lost is that monitoring not only gives us the power to manage, it also gives us the power to motivate. Under normal—non-tracking—circumstances, my inner lawyer may have come up with a courtroom-worthy case for why my furry friend didn’t need a walk that night. But not Tuesday – he won the day. (Well, we both won the day.)

Why? How did mere measurement become a mountain of motivation?

The Progress Principle

Scientists are finally cracking the code on the mysteries of motivation and one of their biggest finds is something called, “The Progress Principle.” Originally coined by Harvard Business School professor, Teresa Amabile, she argues, “A person’s sense of steady forward movement toward an important goal can make all the difference between a great day and a terrible one.” Having done one of the most exhaustive research studies on what motivates people in companies and organizations, she finds that, “Small wins often had a surprisingly strong positive effect, and small losses a surprisingly strong negative one.” What Amabile has tapped into is the power of Self-Efficacy.


Self-Efficacy is the magic elixir of motivation. If you have it, you’ll keep going. If you don’t, you’ll give up. Stephen Guise, author of the brilliant book, Mini Habits, defines it as, “Your belief in your ability to influence an outcome.” It’s such a powerful force that psychological luminary Albert Bandura spent the last decade of his career trying to understand it and perhaps more importantly, how to grow it. What did his data show? No surprise – self efficacy grows when we have small wins. In some sense, self-efficacy is another word for confidence. It’s looking back on a history of small wins (in a particular domain like exercise) that gives you the confidence that you can do it again. It’s seeing success in your daily practice that gives you the fuel to keep going. On the flip side, it’s also looking back on a history of small failures that gives you a feeling of apathy.

Don’t Break the Chain

Every time I see a picture of Jerry Seinfeld, I start giggling. My neurons do a happy dance because he’s wired funny and his face together in my brain. When asked how he became so good at his craft by aspiring comedian, Brad Isaac, he recommended that Isaac print out a blank calendar and put a big red X on each day after writing jokes. He then said, “After a few days you’ll have a chain. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.” By externalizing progress and making it visual, this kind of a tracking system creates a powerful feedback loop that continually reminds us of our small wins, which then motivates us to do it again the next day. And the longer the chain, the deeper the wellspring of motivation. Harnessing the potent cocktail of the progress principle, small wins, and self-efficacy mixed into one ridiculously simple tracking system that anyone can print out from Google, Seinfeld—whether he knew it or not—created a powerful upward spiral.

Analog? Digital? Both?!

As part of The Deep Change Project, I’m trying to create my own upward spirals. So besides measuring bio and brain markers, I’m also following Jerry’s analog system to measure my morning routine and am going digital with my Oura Ring to measure my sleep, heart, and activity levels.

Here’s what my morning routine calendar looks like so far:


The four boxes in each day stand for REM – thirty minutes of Reading, twenty minutes of Exercise, and ten minutes of Meditation. Once I’ve done my routine, I check off the last box after texting my “plasticity partner” (someone who keeps me accountable). For me, this is going way better than past attempts. I know I’m still in the warm glow of New-Year’s-resolution-happy-land where most of us who’ve set goals for the New Year are still on the wagon. So time will tell if this holds. But what I’m clear on is that in seeing my progress, I feel an uptick in my motivation to stick to it. So far, so good.

As for my calendar’s digital companion, here are a few snapshots from my first week:


So far I’ve been surprised that just knowing how my sleep and activity are doing motivates me to do better. It reminds me of a neighborhood radar speed sign – when you know how fast you’re going, you automatically adjust your behavior to be more aligned with your goal. There’s no cop behind that speed signal, just a number that tells you how you’re doing. It’s this same phenomenon that gives such power to movements like the Quantified Self Movement. They’ve successfully tapped into the principle Jerry Seinfeld knew and that I’m beginning to discover. That to measure is to motivate.

So if, like me, some of your past change efforts have ended by February, try out a tracking system that helps you see the progress you're making. With an upward spiral at your back, change may be easier than you think.

UncategorizedJames Garrett