There are a variety of quotes along the lines of “that which isn’t measured can’t be improved”.
The general gist of such quotes is that if you are working to improve something, you should be measuring or tracking your efforts.
This concept is often brought up in the context of business, but it applies just as well to making changes to how we look, how we feel, and how we perform.
Tracking isn’t straightforward, though, especially when it comes to our bodies and all the factors that influence them.
In this post, we’re going to talk about how to decide what to track in order to make sure that you’re progressing as desired with whatever changes they are that you’re working towards.
Let’s first explore the idea of lagging and leading indicators.
Lagging indicators are measures of progress, generally outcomes that are influenced by other factors, that are easy to track but not so easy to influence.
Take, for example, your weight.
To track this indicator, all you need to do is step on a scale and look at the number it spits out.
Sure, this information is useful, but you can’t just step off the scale and then step back on at a lighter or heavier weight just because you want to.
There are other things you need to do to make changes to your weight.
Another example would be your performance in the gym.
You go to the gym, you throw some weight on the barbell, and see how much you can squat.
You keep adding weight until you find the maximum amount you can squat for one repetition.
Again, this is useful, but you can’t just say “I’m not happy with that”, throw on some more weight, and immediately squat more.
There are other things you need to do in order to improve your performance.
In both of these examples, while you’re tracking something that is important to you, you’re not tracking something you can directly influence.
Measurements like your weight and strength are the downstream effects of other factors that you more directly control.
They’re what we call “lagging indicators”.
They’re the result of what and how much you eat, your training habits, your sleep, and even factors like how well you manage your stress.
They’re easy to measure but not so easy to influence.
That being the case, rather than track these lagging indicators, you might instead focus on “leading indicators”, which may be a bit more of a challenge to track but are easier to directly influence.
Examples of potential leading indicators might be your caloric intake, how frequently you train, the length and quality of your sleep, or how frequently you practice mindfulness.
If you find a way to track one of these factors in a way that you find directly correlates to progress in the outcome you’re looking for, you’ve identified your leading indicator.
One example of leading and lagging indicators would be the relationship between your caloric intake and your weight.
Let’s imagine you’re trying to put on some size.
Obviously, you’ll probably be tracking your weight.
However, if your weight is the only thing that you’re tracking, you might by flying blindly so far as all the factors that are playing a role in your effort to make gains.
One of the most important factors in manipulating the size of your body is your food intake, so you’ll want to keep an eye on that, too.
You start by keeping a food journal for a bit to establish a baseline measurement of what and how much you’re eating already, and then start to dial things up a bit.
You notice that as you dial up your food intake, your weight starts to creep up.
If you have a week or so where you don’t hit a certain amount, you notice that your weight gain stalls.
After a while, you’ve identified a reliable average weekly caloric threshold you’ve got to hit to consistently gain weight at your desired pace.
You know that if you hit this threshold, you’re going to see gains.
You know that if you don’t hit this threshold, you’re not going to see gains.
You’ve identified a leading indicator.
You can even break this indicator down to a finer resolution if you’d like.
What factors influence your weekly average?
How much you eat on a given day.
What factors influence how much you eat on a given day?
Your appetite and hunger signals.
You observe that if you consistently eat just a hair past your comfort level, you’re going to hit your target daily and weekly thresholds.
Now, you’ve got a solid indicator for how to ensure progress with gaining weight.
You know that if you eat just a hair past satisfaction, every meal, day in and day out, you’re going to move the number on the scale up.
This is just one example, but it illustrates how focusing on upstream factors might be more effective and reliable at producing results than focusing on the result itself.
We can apply this also to your performance in the gym.
Your lagging indicator – the outcome you’re working towards – is how much weight you can lift during testing.
You’ll want to keep testing this, but that’s not what you spend the majority of your time focusing on.
You might instead focus on how consistently you’re training.
How many times did you squat this week?
How much are you pushing yourself each training session?
Are you adding a bit of weight to the bar each week?
Are you executing the program that you’ve chosen to follow?
These metrics – your training intensity, frequency, and volume – are the “leading indicators” that you need to focus on to see the “lagging indicator” – your max effort lift – improve.
Now, just because you can’t directly influence lagging indicators doesn’t mean they aren’t important.
After all, they’re your end goals.
They’re the outcomes you’re working towards.
They serve to let you know whether you are focusing on the correct leading indicators.
Since there are multiple leading indicators that will influence your lagging indicators when it comes to physical transformation, it pays to know whether you’re focusing on the right things.
For example, if you’ve noticed that you’re nailing your training but not making any progress, perhaps there are other leading indicators that you need to look at.
Maybe you’re sleeping like trash.
Maybe you’re not getting enough rest.
Maybe you’re not eating enough, or enough of the right foods.
These are factors you might look at, along with your training, as leading indicators
If you notice that your lagging indicators aren’t moving in the right direction, reassess your leading indicators.
Are you doing the things you’ve identified to influence your results?
Are you doing the right things?
Identifying leading indicators isn’t always easy, as it’s not always obvious what are our limiting factors.
It might take some time to identify all of them and start getting them dialed in.
Fortunately, once you start to identify them, and focus on them consistently, they’ll become habitual.
You build a suite of habits, one after another, that move you closer to your goals.
You start with your nutrition, and as you start nailing the eating habits appropriate for your goals, consistently, they become automatic.
You look at your training, and as you make it a part of your normal routine, it no longer seems like an inconvenience or something that you have to “make” time for.
You start prioritizing sleep, and after a week or so you have no problem getting seven or eight hours each night.
These are no longer things that you have to “make” happen.
They’re just a part of who you are and what you do.
Soon enough, you see steady, consistent, progress towards the outcomes you’re working towards.
You’ve identified your leading indicators, you’re keeping them dialed in consistently, and you’re reaping the benefits.
Just don’t get hung up on them.
Don’t get caught up on your weight.
Rather, focus on your eating habits.
Don’t get caught up on your one rep max.
Rather, focus on your training and recovery.
Focus on the leading indicators as a means for improving your lagging indicators.
Here are some questions you might ask yourself moving forward.
When it comes to your efforts to get lean, strong, and healthy, are you focusing on leading indicators or lagging indicators?
Are you focusing only the number on the scale, the weight on the bar, the size on the tag, or are you focusing on your training sessions, nutrition, sleep, and stress management?
If you’re nailing your leading indicators but aren’t making any progress, where’s the mismatch between your efforts and your desired outcomes?
Is your plan appropriate for your goals, or is there a discordance?
Are you doing the right things?
Are you doing the right things consistently?
If you think you’re consistently putting in the work but not seeing any progress, then you might consider a change of game plan.
You’ll never know if you aren’t tracking these things.
Make a change to your eating habits.
See how it affects your weight.
Make a change to your training.
See how it affects your performance.
Change one thing at a time, and keep all else consistent.
Slowly, but surely, you’ll get things dialed in and start moving the needle.
This won’t happen overnight.
It will take time.
It will take discomfort.
It will take patience.
But you’ll get there.
It’s worth the effort.
You’re worth the effort.
You’ve got this.