Measuring improvement can be hard. When you can’t measure your improvement, it’s easy to feel like you’re not progressing.

Whatever the project, lack of progression can lead to lack of motivation. If you don’t feel like you’re getting anywhere, why bother?


Why measuring improvement can be tough

Measuring improvement can be tough for a number of reasons, including:

  1. The results of your performance aren’t known or you receive no feedback
  2. The results of your performance are heavily affected my random factors
  3. You just don’t get to see results that often
  4. The competition is tough so you often feel like you’re performing poorly, meaning you focus heavily on the negatives

My main experience with the problem of measuring improvement has been in my efforts to improve as a poker player. The factor that makes things difficult in poker is number 2 – results are heavily affected by random factors.

You can play well and lose or play poorly and win. Randomness (or luck) have a significant effect on results in the short term. In order to really judge your performance from your results (the $ won or lost) you really need to have played a lot of poker (building a large sample size).

Although I know results aren’t a reliable indicator of performance in the short term, without any other way to judge my performance I find myself becoming fixated on them. My progress in poker has often felt like a rollercoaster, swinging up and down with the wins and the losses.


Overcoming the difficulties

In need of a way to be objective about my performance and see improvement when it was there (regardless of my results), I started trying out methods for measuring and tracking my progress.

After a lot of experimentation, I came up with a method that works for me. Although this was initially a method for measuring my improvement in poker, it applies to absolutely any project where you’re looking to improve. This could be a sport, a game, an art or anything else. The concepts are universal.

Read on for my 3 key steps for measuring improvement.


3 steps for measuring improvement

1. Focus on one specific area at a time

A group of pencils of various colours, all focused on one spot

One major stumbling block that I’ve encountered has been my tendency to try and do everything at once. I’ve identified areas of my performance that need work and I’ve tried to improve all of them simultaneously.

Despite huge amounts of effort, it hasn’t worked.

Why? Because when I’ve tried to focus on many things at once, I’ve not had the mental capacity to really push myself. I’m trying to improve in so many areas that I’m just struggling to keep up.

In my post on learning insights from Josh Waitzkin I talked a lot about the importance of freeing mental capacity. In the short term, the best way to free mental capacity is to narrow your focus – focus on one specific item.

Further down the line, you may find that you are actually able to focus on improving multiple areas of your performance at the same time. For now, however, just focus on nailing that one super specific area.

How specific you go is up to you. In my experience, the more specific you go, the easier it is to see when you’re improving (because being specific means breaking out a small area of your performance which is easier to judge than a vaguer, larger area of performance).

Let’s take golf as an example.

You want to improve your putting so you head to the putting greens and hit some random putts. Some go in, some don’t. It’s tough to measure improvement because you’re not going specific enough – you can’t tell whether you’re getting better or if you’ve just had a run of easier putts.

Instead, you could measure out a distance, put down a marker and take putts from that same marker. You could take 100 putts and see how many you get in. Then the next day you could do the same and compare. It’s more specific, so it’s easier to judge.

If you’re struggling to judge your performance, go more specific.


2. Make your performance quantifiable

A wooden measuring rule, lying on a piece of paper

The next step is to find a way to rate your performance and then track your rating as it (hopefully) improves. When it reaches the desired level, you can focus on something new.

In order to do this, you’ve got to make your performance quantifiable. In the golf example this was easy – you can just count the number of putts that you sink. In other pursuits it’s not as easy.

Whilst the method for quantifying your performance will vary a lot based on what you’re actually doing, there’s a few methods that apply pretty widely:

  1. If you’re able to easily say whether your performance was ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (but going more specific is harder), try to increase the % of the time that your performance in your specific area is ‘good’
  2. Break your specific area down further and rate yourself on each area. Try to maximise your overall rating
  3. Have someone else rate your performance. Make sure that they’re knowledgeable enough to be able to judge you accurately
  4. If there’s one outcome which you know indicates you’re performing poorly, make your goal to minimise the occurrences of that outcome
  5. Similarly, if there’s one outcome which you know indicates you’re performing well, make your goal to maximise the occurrences of that outcome


3. Maintain a routine

A paper schedule, in diary form in a book

Once you’ve broken your performance down to a super specific area and followed one of the methods above for quantifying your performance, you’ve got a routine that can easily be tracked.

Once your specific area of improvement has reached the level you desire, you’re going to want to move on to the next area of improvement. First, however, you want to make sure that you’re keeping track.

Each time you perform your skill, start by reminding yourself of your area of improvement. What’s your desired level of ability? How close are you? How was your last performance?

When you finish performing your skill, rate yourself immediately using one of the methods above. Then note it down. I recommend keeping it simple – just a spreadsheet with the day’s date, your area of improvement, your desired rating (your goal) and your rating for that day.

Tracking your performance like this will help in a number of ways:

  1. You can see how quickly you’re progressing and whether your rating has reached a plateau
  2. You can look back at past progress and see how far you’ve come (this is particularly useful if you’re prone to doubting yourself and feeling like you’re not getting anywhere)
  3. You can periodically check your progress by returning to past specific areas of improvement and checking that you’ve maintained the level that you previously achieved
  4. You get the satisfaction of knowing when you’ve  reached your desired level. This is super important – you need to celebrate! If you don’t reward yourself when you do improve, you’ll lack motivation for further improvement


Bringing it all together

So that’s it – just the 3 key steps:

  1. Pick a super specific area of your performance
  2. Pick a method for quantifying your performance
  3. Build a routine for tracking your performance

There’s a little groundwork to be done at the beginning, but it’s well worth it.

If you give the steps a go, please let me know how it goes in the comments below!

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Also published on Medium.