Measurements are getting cheaper, but the amount getting done is not keeping pace. Why is that?

Nearly 150 years ago, William Thomson, the physicist better known as Lord Kelvin, said during a lecture in 1883:

“I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of science, whatever the matter may be.”

(H/t to Al Bredenberg at A Thinking Person’s Blog)

It’s this idea that measurement can lead to understanding that was behind my desire to begin measuring my life more systematically. From what I ate to my exercise routine and how much time I spent on projects to the quality and quantity of my sleep.

A few weeks ago though, I noticed that while the number of activities I was recording continued to grow, I wasn’t able to do anything with that information. I was paralyzed by the quantity of information and did not have the time to make sense of it all.

Behind my ability to record so many different aspects so as to reach the point of paralysis has been the precipitous drop in computing costs in the intervening years since Lord Kelvin first spoke about the relationship between measurement and understanding.

If you want proof, look at the rise of the smart watch and activity trackers. FitBit, one of the leaders in the industry has 15 different products that track activities like steps, stair flights, and sleep quality. Even ten years ago, this level of constant, passive accumulation of information was not possible. Now, it’s commonplace.

As the flood of data continues to increase in size, I’ve noticed an accompanying clarion call for restrain trying to be heard over the torrent. Data has never been sufficient, but now, it’s volume can be paralyzing. Where we used to ask what can we measure, it’s now necessary to ask what we want to measure and ensure that it serves a purpose. The tables are tilting toward delivering the right data, at the right time, to the right person. If any leg is missing, the results can be disastrous.

“What gets measured, gets done.” – Management maxim

Lord Kelvin’s sentiment, or the pithier, “What gets measured, gets done” is still right. But now, we must contend with an overload. Space is cheap. Computing is cheap. Time, however, is as precious as ever.

When evaluating what we want to measure, it’s good to remember that more is not always better, and to ensure that the object of our attention should serve a purpose.

Our decisions do not have to be static either. Yes, historical data is helpful, so insights take time to emerge, but priorities shift. This is particularly true in our personal lives where what we measure can (and should) change as our circumstances do.

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