Key Performance Indicators for Life

Keep Score of What Matters


In another life, I had a real job (i.e. in an office with a boss). The organizations I worked for (both corporate and nonprofit) were data-driven, meaning we tracked metrics to monitor progress towards our goals. These metrics are commonly referred to as Key Performance Indicators or KPIs.

In business, KPIs are things like stock price, click through rates, monthly active users, etc. At work, our KPIs were everything. We discussed them constantly and prioritized every action against its potential impact on those metrics.

KPIs work because they are clear and objective. There was pressure to perform, and it’s motivating to monitor results in such a tangible, trackable way. I put in the extra hours and tested new ways of doing things.

When goals are (too) aggressive it’s like an unreachable horizon. I wasn’t getting results fast enough, in terms of how success was being measured, and pressure mounted. Putting in 110% meant making sacrifices, and it was starting to take a toll on my overall wellbeing. The harder I tried, the worse I felt. I realized I could work 24 hours a day and still not hit the targets. There’s a name for this — the sense that your efforts are futile — it’s called learned helplessness.

Outside of work, I participated in an experimental group modeled after Ben Franklin’s Mutual Improvement Clubs. In an effort to lead a more virtuous life Ben Franklin identified thirteen virtues that he deemed the most important — things like temperance, sincerity, and humility. He defined a measurable commitment for each virtue, tracked his adherence to them on a daily basis, and discussed the results with the men of his Mutual Improvement Club.

The feeling of helplessness was a prompt to set some boundaries. To regain some balance in my life, I set out to define in specific terms for what it means for me to have a good life. What are the indicators that I’m living well? How can track quality of life? I sat down with pen and paper and mapped out different areas of my life — family, friends, body, mind, spirit, etc.

For each one I identified a KPI to track on a daily, weekly, monthly or annual basis. Things like number of meals with my family on a week, number of visits with friends in a month, and number of new experiences in a year.

Real things that I could measure in black and white terms. Once I identified these Life KPIs, I started tracking. Nothing complicated, just little tally marks next to each item.

Back at work, we had a ritual to share an accomplishment and failure with our colleagues each week at staff meeting. People frequently took the opportunity humblebrag, “my failure was that I didn’t get to the gym because I worked too much…”

When it was my turn, I shared that I started tracking Life KPIs and for the metric that mattered most — number meals with my family — the result was zero. Zero meals with my family in a week. Saying it out loud and sharing this with a room full of people made it real, and it was devastating.

A few months later when I parted ways with this organization, some people expressed sympathy for me, “too bad it didn’t work out”. Those close to me, who are familiar with how I keep score, celebrated. They realized, as did I, the positive impact it would have on my KPIs — up and to the right.

If we’re not careful, our lives can deteriorate without us even realizing it. If we don’t spell out our own terms, all we have to go on are the vanity metrics. The data points that other people deem worthy.

We often think of our lives in terms of the big milestones, main events, and final destinations. These are wonderful and worth striving for, but they don’t make us who we are. These peaks don’t define us any more than the valleys of tragedy and failure do.

It’s the everyday that matters — those moments in between. Watching a leaf float down from a tree, catching fireflies, carpool karaoke, a potluck dinner. Life KPIs help us see the value in these things, soak up the experience of them, and feel gratitude for having lived them. It’s a tool to fine tune your attention on the right things — those life experience that bring joy to you.

I’m grateful to have learned this lesson, while my #1 is still young. I’d love to stay and say more, but I need to head out for a dinner with this little one.

What are some of your Life KPIs?

This is adapted from an Ignite talk I gave at a recent Reboot workshop at Q Labs (the brainchild of Nate Cooper) on November 5, 2016 and was published on Medium on November 30, 2016