Is Metric Fixation Paralyzing Your Performance?

Photo: Sabri Tuzcu on Unsplash

Jerry Z. Muller, Fast Company:

The source of the trouble is that when people are judged by performance metrics, they are incentivized to do what the metrics measure, and what the metrics measure will be some established goal. But that impedes innovation, which means doing something not yet established, or that hasn’t even been tried out. Innovation involves experimentation. And experimentation includes the possibility, perhaps probability, of failure.

This article deals mostly with business, education and other professional areas, but many of the points he makes about “metric fixation” apply to data-heavy sports like running just as well. The two main takeaways that I’ve observed many times over as an athlete and coach:

1. Being too tied to numbers all the time (e.g. “I’m going to stay at 160 heart rate on race day—no higher”) discourages taking initiative, experimentation and risk taking, which can ultimately stymie a potential breakthrough in performance.

2. Relying on numbers as a sole measure of success (e.g. “If I don’t break 3 hours in the marathon, the race is a failure, or if I can’t run these mile repeats under 6 minutes, the workout is a waste) means you’re only playing to the numbers and not thinking about how you’re feeling, how you’re reacting to the various variables you might be dealing with, or appreciating the progress you made in other areas of the race or workout that aren’t directly tied to time or some other measurable metric.

Now, this doesn’t meant that performance metrics aren’t important or useful—they are and they can be—but the numbers you’re looking at are meant to be a guide on the path to achieving your goal, not the goal itself. Remember: You are not a programmable robot. You are an experiment. And almost every experiment worth its salt is prone to failure before it realizes success. It’s a part of the process: Analyze, understand, adjust, improve, repeat.

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