why it’s not what you quantify, but why

Quantification and tracking gets people to do more of what you want them to do, but makes doing it a lot less fun.

counting the days

Nowadays not only is there an app for what you want to do, but it can count how many times or how intensely you do it. It’s all part of the marketing pitch for the idea of The Quantified Self, an easy to follow, real-time analysis of your habits and patterns which should ideally help you be a better you with seemingly objective progress tracking showing how well you’re doing. However, does quantifying everything you do mean that you’re improving your stats at the expense of the happiness of doing the tasks being measured? Jordan Etkin from Duke University thinks it may after experimenting on 105 students and seeing them report getting less joy out of doing simple tasks that were being measured than just doing them. We know that enjoyment depends on an individual’s balance of eternal and intrinsic motivation to do something and the experiments set out to measure just how much knowing that one is being quantified affects the intrinsic rewards of doing something so we’d know how to determine that it’s important to quantify something but not destroy people’s motivation for performing the task in the first place when we do.

From a simple coding standpoint, it’s easy to record a data point to a persistent store. You can even do it behind the scenes in a way that doesn’t detract for an app’s typical functionality. But what are you going to do with that data? Why is it useful? If you can’t think of a reason why you should store it, the correct approach is to ignore it. In much the same way, Etkin measured the number of fish shapes colored by students, or the number of steps taken by them while paying the same token sum to the measured experimental group, and the free to do whatever control group performing the same tasks. In effect, she placed an additional burden on one group with quantification because the group coloring shapes had to click off when the shapes were drawn with every finished one, while the walking group had to check their pedometers. Normal, even fun activities have turned into, well, work. More shapes got drawn and more steps were taken, but enjoyment scores were lower. A follow-up experiment measuring reading in a work-oriented way and just for fun, saw the same pattern. When quantified, more done equals less enjoyed.

In some ways, this is common sense. That something intrinsically fun and turn it into something measured, analyzed, and dissected, and it’s a lot less appealing. This is why people with really, really serious cooking chops and talent may never want to become professional chefs because their outlet fro stress now becomes work and is tied to paying the bills. But if you give them the proper external incentive, like total creative freedom over the menu, or a high enough salary to quit their current jobs at a profit, their perspective may change. What Etkin did was to confirm a need for a motivation to measure something because if students who read more, or drew more, or walked more steps got bigger payments, the process would be a lot more fun since they get to look forward to being rewarded for the additional effort of measuring and logging data. Same as people trying to lose wight logging their calories and exercise, or factory workers moving as quickly as possible to crank out more widgets while getting paid on a per widget basis.

So don’t buy that FitBit because you’re curious about how many steps you take, buy it because you want to take 20% more steps than you usually do for a week and then reward yourself with something you wanted to buy when you hit that goal. And if you’re a manager and want to see an increase in your employees’ productivity, don’t just measure them and reprimand them if the numbers don’t hit your goal, give them something to look forward to, like a company lunch, or a night out, or adding free snacks to your office kitchen. Otherwise science shows that you’re not going to get much out of them, and considering the research on why people hate their jobs and want to quit, you’d actually be giving them a good reason to start calling recruiters and plotting their escape from your cube farm. Sure, Etkin’s study seems fairly obvious at first blush, but it’s downright maddening how many people don’t actually understand how to effectively quantify a task, especially in the workplace. Programmers are being asked all the time to track this or that simply because we could capture a data point. Maybe after reading about Etkin’s work, people making these requests will think twice about why they’re measuring what they are…

# science // motivation / psychology / quantified self / research


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