The metric that matters

The Metric That Matters

What’s the best way to measure progress toward long-term goals? For some goals, like “Read 100 novels in 2020,” it’s easy to measure your progress as you go, and you’ll know pretty quickly whether you’re on track to complete your goal. But if your goal is to write a novel, it’s not clear how to decide how far along you are at any given moment, or how much progress you made in a single day. How much more editing will your draft need? How many more query letters will you need to send out before you get an agent? And if your real goal is not just to publish a novel, but to make a living as an author, how many books will it take before you’re successful enough to write full-time? For goals like these, where the time-scale, the steps in the process, and the result itself are all uncertain, the right metric for measuring your progress is expected fractional outcome.

Let’s say you’re trying to learn French, with an initial goal of being able to read Jules Verne’s Voyage au centre de la Terre (“Journey to the Center of the Earth”). How should you measure your progress? Here are two less-than-ideal ways, followed by my recommendation:

  • Pages of Voyage read. It is good to break down the one big goal into a couple hundred smaller goals. However, if you’re still learning basic vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar, it’ll be pretty discouraging to make “zero progress” according to the “pages read” metric.
  • Time spent learning French. This is better, because you can start measuring your progress right away, and it emphasizes the fact that it’s going to take a lot of consistent time investment to learn a new language. However, it can also reward busywork, like endlessly reviewing what you already know instead of expanding your knowledge and comprehension.

Measuring time spent is a way of measuring your input to the process, whereas measuring pages read is a way to measure the outcome of your learning. (Or if you prefer to think in terms of whole books, the fractional outcome.) The problem is that there are other necessary parts of the process before you get to even a little bit of fractional outcome, and possibly the actual book reading will be the short final stage of a lengthy Journey to Reading Books in French.

That’s why I recommend measuring not the actual fractional outcome, but the expected fractional outcome, your best guess at how much your input is contributing to the final outcome. For the French goal, that could be:

  • Time spent learning French, as a fraction of time needed to finish Voyage. You’d start by making a guess at how many vocabulary words you’ll need to learn to start reading (1,000?), how many basic grammar rules (25?), how much time those will take (5 minutes per word, 20 minutes per rule?), and how long it’ll take you to read each page of Voyage once you’re ready (10 minutes per page, counting the extra vocabulary you’ll encounter?). Add up the time that’ll all take: I estimate about 132 hours, or roughly 25 minutes a day for a year. Then go ahead and measure the time you spend as progress.

This sounds a lot like measuring input. However, what you are really measuring is how far along on the whole process you think you are, which is why I call it expected fractional outcome. The catch is that expected fractional outcome should really be your best guess, and as you go your best guess will change as you learn more about how long things really take. You might find that learning vocabulary is faster than you think (5 minutes is really a long time to spend on a single word) but the actual reading is slower (maybe more like 20 minutes per page?) So initially, your estimate of time remaining will fluctuate, but eventually it’ll settle down as it becomes more accurate.

Measuring expected fractional outcome this way keeps you from rewarding busywork: if it takes you 20 minutes to learn each new vocabulary word because that’s how often you figure one out from the French subtitles for Friends, then you’re going to have to either revise your time estimates upward a lot, or find a new method. At the same time, using expected fractional outcome lets you feel like you’re making progress from the very beginning, even if starting on the nominal goal itself is a long way off.

How about you? Do you have long projects where all the work-before-the-work makes you feel like you’re not making progress? What could measuring expected fractional outcome look like for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

(Photo credit: Nicole Wilcox on Unsplash)

2 thoughts on “The metric that matters

  1. This is really cool (especially the penultimate paragraph)! You explain that very inefficient ways of learning will mean that you should revise upwards your total time estimate (thereby decreasing the total proportion of the journey that you have so far completed). But conversely, finding more efficient ways to learn (especially near the beginning of the process) will be one of the most effective ways of accelerating yourself through the percentage points to completion.

    Hmm, should your time estimate take into account the time spent on estimating the time and optimising the learning process?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I do think that finding out how inefficient you’re being can motivate you to look for more efficient methods, but more generally, it makes the cost of your inefficiency something that you can compare with its benefits. (Getting vocabulary from subtitles may be slow, but it may also be more fun, and maybe that’s worth the slowdown!)

      I also agree that it’s best to take into account the estimating/optimizing part of learning, as with any other activity you find you need to add to your time estimates (perhaps you discover that it’s best to separately estimate time spent learning new vocabulary and time spent reviewing old vocabulary). In particular, it’s possible to overoptimize, spending more than 1 minute looking for a speedup of less than 1 minute, and keeping track of time spent optimizing can help keep you from going overboard on it.


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