The things we measure
In 2008, I was listening to the head of the World Wildlife Fund speak about the importance of collecting data: "We measure the things we care about," he said. Carter Roberts was arguing for why, when we care about saving a particular species, we can't just pour all our money into buying up habitat: we also have to measure how the population is doing.
Roberts went on to describe how, growing up, his dad would mark his height on the back of a door in their house. Every birthday, another pencil mark at the top of his little boy's head.
We measure the things we care about.
Things I measure: the temperature in my house, the temperature in the oven; the sprinkler cycle; monthly bills; how much storage I have left in my iCloud.
But that's just a drop in the bucket. The amount of data I collect on my body dwarfs every other category: my weight, hours of sleep, my menstrual cycle. I (loosely) measure how many grams of protein I get per meal, but not calories. I used to measure my mood, but then stopped (sad and irritable in the final week before my period, nothing new to mine there). I measure cups of coffee I drink, but not cups of water—except when I'm exercising, then I measure both water consumed and calories per bottle.
I measure hours per week swimming, biking, and running—but not the distance. And hours of yoga. I track the training load all of this takes on my body—and the resulting fitness.
During exercise, I take data by the second. I record my power in watts and my cadence as I bike; splits and rest intervals as I swim; my pace as I run. Each beat of my heart. I share all these data with my coach; the primary way we talk to each other is through these data.
There's a deep intimacy in these metrics. My high school English teacher once said, no matter where in the world you go, the most common beat you will hear in any culture's poetry or music is an iamb. The theory is that this kind of two-syllable beat, with the stress on the second syllable, is universal because it mimics the sound of a human heartbeat.
| A pair | of star- | crossed lo- | vers take | their life. |
| ba-dum | ba-dum | ba-dum | ba-dum | ba-dum |
When my coach and I met up last spring, we talked about a game plan for the next three to five years. There were a couple moments when he kind of gave me This Look. I didn't pay it much attention—but later that night it hit me. So I told him, "I'm not planning on getting pregnant, you know."
"What?" he said.
"Well, I'm 31 and we were talking about the next three to five years. I mean, you look at my heart rate data, so you can just ask me. About anything."
I meant it. He's looked at the beats of my heart, laid out bare across a screen. How is that not sacred?
I also measure how many minutes my husband comes home later than he said he would—though I try not to. I really really try not to. Months since I asked him to remove the tree stump that still hasn't been removed. And when I was feeling neglected, like he wasn't seeing me or being witness to my life, maybe hadn't been for months, I measured how many days he'd been away on travel. "I'm so glad you did this," he said. "Thank you for presenting our operating environment and our current LIMFACs in a way that makes me feel like I have an achievable objective."
LIMFACs, by the way, is military speak for "limiting factors." It's how we can now talk about his travel in a way that doesn't feel confrontational: "This is a LIMFAC we need to manage," I say. And he agrees, then flies to Las Vegas just for a day so we can celebrate my birthday before it turns to June.
I measure how long we've been married: short enough, I still measure in months.
I measure how many friends I keep in touch with, so I can be sure to call them periodically and try to visit.
And I measure my two kids. "I've grown two inches in the last four months," my daughter reported proudly on Friday. "I weigh seventy pounds now," said my son. I also look at the grades on their report cards and I make my son track how much screen time he's using per week. I keep telling my husband that the kids should be on an allowance so they can measure what they spend—and start to be more deliberate. I measure how many days they are with us, and compare it to what the custody agreement allots my husband.
I measure these things because I care about them.