I have touched upon this fleetingly a few times in past essays, and felt it was important enough to make explicit: metrics are for work and not for our restful lives.
We measure our work because of the demands of managerial theory: productivity and efficiency are not, under this theory, concepts that exist in the abstract, instead they are things which are brought into existence through measurement.
Modern managers measure and tie their existence to the outcomes that can be argued to arise from this keen observation of their workers. The CEO that fails to make the line go continually up is the CEO who isn’t long for this world. But toxic capitalist growth culture is a topic for another day.
The manager’s preoccupations quickly become the source of workers’ anxiety. Employees are reduced to units that are valued only for their production of measurable outputs. This is obviously depressing enough as is, but becomes down-right dehumanising when this habit oozes from the professional-sphere into our non-working lives (or what I am tempted to call our actual lives).
This is wrong: we should absolutely not approach our lives with a notion that things should be reduced to quantification so as to facilitate and enable measurement, metrics and data. To invite the spectre of metrics into one’s life is to blur the delineation between our working hours and our living hours and set ourselves up to fail.
Doing such a thing puts one on a path that leads to the conclusion that productivity and efficiency are relevant factors to one’s personal life. And as soon as even the beginnings of this way of seeing the world enters our thoughts, it becomes exceedingly difficult to avoid the logical next step and start behaviours that are aimed at optimising and increasing those numbers.
Then we get to a very sad place where it is not enough to read a book, but instead we must read 52 books in a year, as if reading for the pleasure of reading is somehow inadequate. Or we want to visit 30 countries before we turn 30, or play a game a week, or publish a video essay that gets one squillion views.
When we apply and pursue metrics outside of work, this corrupts and warps the underlying purpose behind what we are doing, which is usually to relax, to unwind, to create or to learn. When we measure our lives our noble goals become subordinate to the measurement itself. Instead of focusing on enjoyment, reflection, growth, and fulfilment we become focussed instead on productivity, efficiency, and completion.
This immediately sets us up to fail—things like productivity, efficiency, completion are not goals that can ever be completed, they are not binary states. Goal-setting is another thing that has leaked out from the corporate world into our personal lives with deleterious effects. Goal setting, contrary to the managerial mantras, has been found to contribute more to feelings of failure and inadequacy than it has the ability to motivate us.
Here it is worthwhile addressing personal projects, such as these ever-evolving collections of essays. You may notice there are no google analytics attached to this page, nothing ferreting away your data to produce a useless dashboard for me to look at and nod sagely towards once a month.1I apologise for the redundant expression: dashboards are, of course, inherently useless. My current platform does, regrettably, capture views which I can access via a menu somewhere, but I have trained myself to simply not click. As someone who works with data in their professional life (as I suspect many of us do, which perhaps partially explains why so many of us are inclined to let data invade our personal lives) it is difficult to fight the temptation, but it is an important temptation to resist. We should pursue personal projects because they bring meaning to our lives, and not let the success of these projects be judged by anything other than the growth and meaning they bring to us.
And here I need to be a little more precise than I usually am: metrics may be appropriate where the project has professional aspirations. If you’re looking to start a career as say a youtuber, then I suspect some degree of regard to metrics may be useful.2“Start a career as a youtuber” is the single most dystopian sentence I have ever written and, boy, I have written some doozies across the years. Imagine tying your life to something as arbitrary and uncaring as YouTube? But even then: only some regard. All metrics do is tell you how to approach and approximate the mediocre, rather than providing a path to the unique, brilliant, and memorable. In my (media) choices I am far more attracted to that which takes risks rather than that which is safe, and following a predictable metric-informed path3For instance: I will never click on a video that features a YouTube react face. It’s just gross.
Time and time again it has been revealed that devotion to, and pursuit of, metrics can destroy (young) creators’ mental health, and indeed prove deeply harmful to workers generally. Yet we do not always think that step further and realise that metrics are manifestly unsuitable and unhelpful for our personal lives.
A fundamental principle of mine, and indeed the foundational prompt for starting these essays, is the line attributed to old mate Socrates: an unexamined life is not worth living. Shouldn’t I, therefore, be in favour of metrics in all parts of my life? In fact not. Metrics are dangerous because they offer the illusion of control and utility, when they really offer neither. Take views on this website: if one essay gets 30% more views than the last, does this mean the essay was 30% better? Better how and to who? Should I write more essays like the one that got more views? Should I write 30% more like it? What happens if I liked writing that essay 30% less than other less view-attracting essays?
Metrics are, then, the path to madness and are a distraction from actually reflecting on our lives, such as by asking ourselves how does this behaviour serve us? Is it helping? Is it hurting? As I said, metrics give an illusion of control, and of understanding how often impossibly complex systems operate. And like all illusions we are not well served by the fantasy of control.
We should relax, create, play and explore with unconscious abandon. To track, measure, and optimise every aspect of lives is a sad thing and denies us the opportunity to grow and nurture who we really are.
- 1I apologise for the redundant expression: dashboards are, of course, inherently useless.
- 2“Start a career as a youtuber” is the single most dystopian sentence I have ever written and, boy, I have written some doozies across the years. Imagine tying your life to something as arbitrary and uncaring as YouTube?
- 3For instance: I will never click on a video that features a YouTube react face. It’s just gross.