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I was never particularly good at science fairs; I just wasn’t. No matter how perfectly I followed the formula of steps to get seeds to grow in the kitchen windowsill or mold to appear on a piece of bread in my mom’s bathroom, the processes just never worked for me, and I always emerged from my struggle with a less-than-thrilling tri-fold cardboard summary of my failed attempts.

Sometimes, I wonder if this is how many of us experience the process of tracking our areas of personal growth. We do the right things. We start with fervor. We document, document, document, but somewhere along the way the process just doesn’t seem to work for us.

After a few applications of this pattern, it is understandable how we can easily find ourselves feeling discouraged and disinterested in trying again.

One of my theories about this phenomenon is that maybe we often start with a well-intended and curated plan, but do not fully account for failures, hiccups, and barriers to success before beginning the journey. When the plan doesn’t work or unforeseen challenges arise, we often give up altogether, or continue to haphazardly work a plan that doesn’t logistically work for our individual needs.

So, unfortunately, we show up (about March, if this is a New Year’s Resolution), with our sad little tri-fold cardboard summaries, throw our hands in the air, and try again next year.

Another theory I have about measuring personal progress is that we often fail to take into account the diversities of our individual strengths, weaknesses, temperaments, time constraints, and personalities.

We want a simple mold for achievement that we saw in action elsewhere to be a magic bullet for us, too.

This magic-bullet vein of thinking, however attractive it may be, is preposterous. The formula for success that my friend uses to read 30 books in a year cannot possibly be the exact same formula for success that my husband uses to keep our yard and garden flourishing. While they can each learn from the other, it is imperative that my husband and my friend establish their own ways of operating toward their goals.

Consider our influencer culture for a moment; people make entire livings through publicly sharing how they dress, build businesses, craft, make sourdough bread, and shape their eyebrows. And while these accounts can be incredibly helpful, encouraging, and informative, we often forget to account for flexibility when we seek to imitate these blueprints for success.

We are simply not destined to all have the same eyebrows or business plans. And that is really, really okay.

Maybe we can try some new strategies…

10 Tips for Measuring Long-Term Personal Growth

1. Utilize a mixture of quantitative and qualitative data

Let’s be honest. Data is such a boring word. It truly sends my heart straight into my stomach and reminds me of those science fair days the moment that I hear it. But in reality, data is something we are constantly, subconsciously collecting every day about the world around us. When tracking data toward a personal goal, we are simply being more intentional about documenting the data that is happening so that we can better witness our own progress.

Ben Sands of Sands Leadership writes that “metrics both guide our decision making and fuel our performance. In life, as is in business, the same thing holds true: metrics matter” [6] (Emphasis added).

One of the most important tips when tracking data toward a personal goal is to make sure that some of your data is quantitative (meaning it can be counted), and some is qualitative (it is based on more of an expression or feeling).

Without attunement to qualitative data, it is easy to feel discouraged, or “miss the forest for the trees” (see #8 on this list). But without quantitative data, it is difficult to have certainty that the needle is changing toward your overall goal. Both are vitally important.

2. Be okay with measuring differently than when you began.

You do not have to be particularly married to a certain way of measuring your progress just because that is how you started. If you find that what you are currently doing is not helping, do something different! You have not failed if you change what or how you are measuring. It could be that this is part of the process for you to fine-tune the directions you need to take to achieve the overall goal.

One of the articles I found on this subject suggests that it is important to “think of alternative routes to get to the end goal. By coming up with secondary plans, you’re less likely to be hard on yourself for missed opportunities or taking breaks.” [7]

Even counselors measure growth differently according to what theory of counseling they practice. For example, one counselor may believe that helping a client increase insight is the gateway to change, while another believes that challenging ones’ unhelpful thoughts is what creates lasting change. Chances are, you could find considerable progress with both of these counselors, despite the theoretical underpinnings of their practice.

Different ways of measuring progress points can lead to the same achievements.

3. Find ways to make the process fun and fulfilling.

A friend in college introduced me to the thrill of writing down things you’ve already done on your to-do list for the sheer enjoyment of crossing them off. I would be lying if I told you I didn’t still use this trick to find confidence while staring down a to-do list the length of my arm.

What makes measuring your progress fun for you? Stickers? Dry erase markers on your bathroom mirror? Find something that truly motivates you to continue seeing the physical representation of the hard work you have completed.

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, suggests using a tool called the “paper clip strategy” [1]. It is a simple but powerful practice. To begin, you only need two jars, one full of paper clips (or colorful beads, dry beans, etc). Each time a task is completed toward a goal, move a paperclip over to the second jar. This is not only a fulfilling way to measure consistency, but it helps measure tasks toward a goal that may not be obviously quantifiable.

I once heard a speaker discuss using the paperclip method to help her “become more daring.” Every time she did something that was courageously outside her comfort zone, like agreeing to speak at a conference, she moved a bead over. Eventually she was able to quantifiably state that “I am more daring than before,” because the measurable data was present in her jar even on days she did not necessarily feel daring.

4. Avoid placing too much reliance on informal, casual feedback from others

It is easy to give credence to the voices around you as they recognize the progress you have made, or even not made. You may be working toward a goal for months, fully aware of your growth and feeling confident in your progress, before another person ever visibly recognizes it.

While recognition can feel encouraging, it is important to remember that someone else’s comments, or the lack thereof, are not a measuring stick for how well you are truly doing.

5. Remember that the data is not your identity. This process of growth is not the summation of who you are.

Ouch. Here is a tough one. I would suggest being careful not to become so consumed with measuring data toward your goals that you forget that your value and worth does not live or die on the success or failure of this one point of growth.

6. Growth is not always linear. Measuring your consistency instead of results can help move you through the disappointing seasons.

“The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones… It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop.” -Confucius

While some goals are easily defined quantifiably, such as how much weight a person can bench press, or how many minutes it takes a barista to make a latte, others are not as easily defined or measured. Goals such as “reading a wider range of novels” or “being less judgmental” may be harder to track.

Whatever the goal, however, one thing that can always be tracked is consistency.

Omar Itani, writer and creator of The Optimist newsletter, often shares of Jerry Seinfeld’s suggestions for getting better at a task [3]. He simply says,

Don’t Break the Chain.

It is as simple as marking Xs on a calendar for every day you complete a task toward your goal. For Jerry Seinfeld, the task is to write. Every day that he writes he receives an X. Eventually, the desire to keep the chain going becomes incredibly compelling. And over time, all of that writing (or whatever your task may be) pays off in increasingly observable ways. Measuring consistency is simple, but the results can be life-changing.

7. Measure the “gain and not the gap”

Another mindset shift Omar Itani recommends practicing is one coined by Dan Sullivan, founder of Strategic Coach [3]. Sullivan suggests that, when a person measures “the gain and not the gap,” the encouragement of recognizing how far one has come (the gain) is more motivating to continue than the realization of how far is left to go (the gap).

Itani beautifully summarizes this strategy by explaining that, when one continually focuses on the gap, “what you choose to pursue will constantly elude you because your ideal is a natural moving target” [3].

I guess my college friend and his previously-completed to-do list was onto something. There is great power in the celebration of growth that has already come to fruition. This celebration can often motivate us more than the self-abasement of only focusing on the work left to do.

8. Be careful not to lose the forest for the trees

When practicing data-collecting and progress-tracking toward a goal, it can be enticing to become hyper-focused on the task of tracking itself, instead of the overall goal.

As an eating disorder professional, I have seen this become a great concern in individuals who become so committed to a certain way of tracking meals, exercise, or even meditative practices, that they lose sight of the overall goal of wellness, and have trouble separating themselves from certain tracking methods.

The focus can suddenly become so strengthened on meticulous tracking, that emotional, social, and mental health fall by the wayside.

Another common example of this is adherence to a Yearly Bible Reading Plan (which of course is a fantastic habit, in and of itself). It is easy to fall into a sudden focus on rushing through the content, therefore missing the overall goal of gaining spiritual understanding and nearness to the Lord.

Whatever your goal is, this trap is a dangerous one, but periodic evaluation of your overall intent for measuring growth, as well as discussions with a trusted confidant, can help you remain focused on why you initially began tracking personal growth data.

9. Refrain from the temptation to attempt changing every habit at once: keep it simple!

Trust me; you don’t need a 40-page business plan for how you will overhaul your life in 2 weeks. Habits, by nature, occur over time by implementing simple practices, consistently.

I am reminded of the barre class I enjoy, in which we utilize light weights with high repetitions to achieve strength in isolated muscle groups. I always enjoy observing new clients (not to call them out, but they are usually male) come in and choose the heaviest weight they can find, only to recognize that the goal is not to overhaul your muscles to exhaustion in a few repetitions, but to gradually build them toward strength through many repetitions of lighter-weight resistance. Usually, by the end of the class, let’s just say these new clients have a new appreciation for the patience and power of the light weights.

This is the kind of lasting strength that sneaks up on a person: one that is gained by small applications of repetition and consistency over time.

10. Be comfortable being bored.

Our friend James Clear writes about meeting an Olympic coach who once mentioned that the most successful athletes are the ones who practice boredom [2]. They are individuals who have passion, of course, but are also willing to continue showing up for the everyday workouts on the days that the passion has dwindled.

“At some point,” the coach said, “it comes down to who can handle the boredom of training every day and doing the same lifts over and over and over again” [2].

Successful individuals do not have a superheroic dose of motivation. They have a willingness to be bored in the tedious tasks toward greatness.

In Conclusion….

Even as a licensed counselor, I am no more a professional at measuring personal growth than any one of you. Why? Because you are the expert of your own story, and of your own life. I do not have any of those magic formulas for success or fairytale shortcuts to reaching all of your goals.

Honestly, this was an interestingly difficult blog to write, because most of the information I could find about measuring personal goals was based on vague theories and personal experiences of just another human trying to figure it all out.

I guess at the end of the day I really am still that 7th grader trying to grow mold in my Mom’s bathroom. Except now, I have a growing repertoire of experiences to learn from— experiences of my own, and experiences dictated to me by my clients, friends and mentors.

These experiences have taught me that, ultimately, growth (and how we measure it) is a process, and quite often it is not a “point A to B” kind of process, either. It’s a twisty, turny journey with countless shifting variables. Each of us has the unique opportunity to respond to these variables and turn the tide for ourselves, one small decision at a time. How I measure these decisions and these tides is up to me. How you measure yours is up to you. The good news is, I am out here in the waves right with you—not just as a counselor, but as another human moving paperclips into a jar.

I’ll close by asking you a question from a poem by Mary Oliver, a question that sat on my desktop background for upwards of 2 years as I worked diligently to complete my counseling licensure—one

hour at a time. This question stared me in the face every morning as I prepared to meet the day of clients.

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

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References:

1. Clear, J. (2020, February 4). How to stick with good habits every day by using the “Paper Clip Strategy”. James Clear. Retrieved March 13, 2022, from https://jamesclear.com/paper-clips

2. Clear, J. (2020, June 30). How to fall in love with the process to stay focused & motivated. Buffer Resources. Retrieved March 12, 2022, from https://buffer.com/resources/the-myth-of-passion-and-motivation-how-to-stay-focused-when-you-get-bored-working-toward-your-goals

3. Itani, O. (2021, August 15). The Power of Progress: Measure the gain, not the gap. Omar Itani. Retrieved March 12, 2022, from https://www.omaritani.com/blog/measure-progress-and-the-gain?format=amp

4. Merk, H. (2019, September 22). How to quantify “personal growth”. Medium. Retrieved March 12, 2022, from https://medium.com/the-ascent/how-to-quantify-personal-growth-1bb6f5b0a8e2

5. Oliver, M. (1990). The Summer Day. In House of Light. essay, Beacon Press.

6. Sands, B. (2018, February 2). Metrics that matter: How to use data to guide personal growth + fuel performance. Sands Leadership. Retrieved March 12, 2022, from https://sandsleadership.com/personal-performance-metrics/

7. Stuarte. (2021, September 5). How to measure personal growth, self-improvement without sabotaging your confidence. stuarte. Retrieved March 12, 2022, from https://stuarte.co/2021/how-to-measure-personal-growth-self-improvement/

Allison Hurst, MS, NCC, LPC

Author Allison Hurst, MS, NCC, LPC

More posts by Allison Hurst, MS, NCC, LPC

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