The art (and difficulty) of measuring backwards

There I was, cutting the sod out of my yard one day because I had to have a path and parking spot near our newly remodeled cozy rental studio.  It had to be just right. So, I set my sights on chopping out the top layer of grass from my yard and filling the gap with hundreds of pounds of crushed rock.

This was no easy task.

The ground wasn’t clay.  I’ve dug in that while in my teens, and it wasn’t fun. But, the path was long and filled with tree roots.

I began, as you would think, facing the direction I was intending the path to go, and dug and lifted and moved sod for 3 hours.  It was back breaking and exhausting work. I was sweating, changing hands and feet with the shovel every so often, taking just a couple breaks here and there.

Every time I looked up, the end of what would be the path looked like it barely moved.

After taking another break, I turned around and decided to face where I had been rather than where I was going.  I don’t know why I did it, but the simple change made every difference in the world to my motivation.  Every time I cut a row of sod, I could see the results, and I wanted more.  Every time I looked up, I saw the path longer and longer.

It was clearly an illusion. The difference from cutting one row of sod moving forward vs moving backward is the same.

Then why did it feel so good to see where I’ve been?

James Clear recently wrote about Continuous Improvement, and in his article he mentions a simple hack: Measure backwards.

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.

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

Measuring backward means you make decisions based on what has already happened, not on what you want to happen.

Here are a few examples:

  • 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: Oh, you squatted 250 pounds for 5 sets of 5 reps last week? Give 255 pounds a try this week.
  • 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?

It’s amazing how easy this is.  And I’ve seen it’s power in my attitude, motivation, and senses of encouragement and accomplishment. I’ve done this with exercise (“just one more rep than last time” or “just 5 more pounds”), with my jobs (“I didn’t like that job, but here’s what I DID like. Time to go find a job where I can do that more.”), and so many more things.

I’ve also seen the other side of it.  The one where I sit on the couch and watch TV “just for a break from life”, and it turns into a binge watching session lasting for days.  I’ve seen it turn a bit of self doubt into full fledged suicidal depression in a matter of a month.

That 1% gain means everything.

It’s not easy. It’s difficult work to constantly try to improve. But it’s worth it.

Sometimes it feels like an insignificant improvement, but think about it this way: There’s  0.00001 second between the gold medal winner and the next best. There’s the person who got the job because they were 1% better, and there’s everyone else who applied.  The difference between complete and incomplete is minuscule.

So, 1% matters.

Move yourself 1% closer to your goal. Every. Day. (And if you fail one day, start again tomorrow and be encouraged you moved 100% closer that day.)

Nate Ritter lives in the Pacific Northwest (U.S.), popularized the #hashtag and creates web applications for a living. He also does miles and point hacking to enable cheap travel for his family. More here →

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