Measuring to Change Behavior

Want to lose weight?  Start by getting an accurate scale.

For the past few months I have been using a “fitbit” to help me get more healthy.  A fitbit is a small device you wear to track how many steps you take, how far and how fast you walk or run, and how many flights of stairs you go up or down.  At night it monitors the quality and duration of your sleep.  If you are really gung-ho like I am, you can use the website to track what you eat.

Since I started using it in December, I’ve lost 9.4 pounds and increased my activity level quite a bit.  The principle is that  you pay more attention to anything that you measure, and measuring is a great way to change behavior.

A few weeks ago, however, something shifted.  We replaced the battery in our scale and because the new battery wasn’t the right model, the accuracy of our scale decreased.  I could weigh myself twice within 5 minutes and get two different results.  I was no longer sure what my actual weight was.

Without noticing, at roughly that same time that I began to get more haphazard about recording what I was eating.  I didn’t make any conscious connection to the scale not working properly.  It just seemed like more of a hassle and I didn’t do it as often.  Maybe I was busier, maybe I was just getting tired of all the extra time it takes to record all the data.  But in retrospect I think it was also something else:  my behavior changed because the scale was no longer accurate.

This experience sheds light on a key to any kind of behavioral change—it’s not just the fact of measuring, but also the accuracy of the measurement that helps make change happen.  In this case I had been wanting to lose some weight.  When the accuracy of the scale went down, I started to pay less attention to what I was doing.

The implications for leadership are obvious.  It’s not enough to have aspirational goals, and it’s not enough to measure results—you have to measure results accurately.  The fuzzier the measurements are, the less motivated people will be to perform.