Thursday, July 6, 2017

A Surprising Demotivator

I almost took the elevator up to my room today.

A year or two ago, my wife bought me one of those step-counting devices, you know the ones which tell you how many steps you've taken by counting your arm-swings (I think)?

If I remember correctly, I was pushing about 250 lbs body weight at the time. I might have been pushing over it a bit. Call me an over-achiever.

When I got my step counter, I started being more aware of my habits. I knew how sedentary I was. I knew my heart rate. I could see how badly I was sleeping. It is a great tool because it makes me aware of myself.

Along with that, I have had a few doctors, and so I have gotten some advice. I take as much as I know how and can stay mindful of, short of running or joining a gym. I'm just not a runner, and why should I join a gym when I'm never home to go there (or when I am, I have other things I need to do). Being a traveling consultant has its perks and struggles.

I walk more, I sometimes exercise, I try to be smarter with my food, all that.  I don't get my 10,000 steps in every day, but I get more of them than I used to. Some days I go well over, but most days I don't.

I've lost about 30 pounds of body weight. I need to lose about 10 more in the next couple of months. That's the background.

Today I glanced at the step-counter because it's also a watch. I was greeted by a message saying that my battery was dying. Since I use the fitness tool to measure my sleep cycles, I don't charge it overnight as I do with all my other electronics. I have to make an effort to charge it every 5 days or so. I forgot.

Then the step counter is dead.

I'm without a watch and have to use my cell phone or computer to tell time, but it's no big deal.

And here is the interesting bit: I get back from the office to the hotel, open the door and I have a choice of elevator or stairs. Normally, the non-answer is stairs. However, this time I automatically start toward the elevator instead.

Am I tired? No.

Am I carrying extra baggage so that I need to use the lift? No.

Are the stairs out of order? No.

Then why, oh why, would I move toward the elevator?

Because my fitbit is stopped.  The steps won't "count." 

Here we see the coercive nature of metrics. This isn't about bad management or numeric goals tied to pay or advancement.

This is a fact of the nature of having measurements.

When you are measured, you have an awareness that can be good for you. I lost weight and increased my activity and improved my sleep cycles.

But when you are measured, you do the things that score you points. I know that my goal is health and weight loss, but the measurements are surrogates for health, not health itself.

The measurement controls the behavior.  Do I need to stop losing weight just because the battery is drained? No, but since the steps and floors would not be counted to my benefit, I subliminally believed that the steps were not important.

We act for the benefit of the measurement alone.

This is the same risk we run with any kind of process metrics. When the metric becomes a target, it becomes a surrogate imperative.

There are few excuses more vacuous than "I can't take the stairs because my fitbit is dead."  It's dumb to me now. It was dumb when I first heard myself think it. It's ridiculous. No thinking person would fall into that trap!

And yet here we are.

Think about it. For good or ill, metrics will drive us to point-scoring and will discourage us from doing even beneficial things that "don't count."

It doesn't have to be a bad measurement to have that effect.

Will your improvements sustain beyond your focus on measuring them?

Will they really?