Are You Measuring Your Success With ‘Vanity Metrics’?

The importance of measuring the right thing…

Tom Littler
Jan 20, 2021

In my 9–5, I work as a Product Manager at a tech startup. My job is to make sure that the right stuff gets built, at the right time.

One of the key responsibilities of the job is to measure whether the newest feature you’ve just built was a success or not, to understand this we often turn to metrics. For example, if I’m a PM at Spotify and I just released the ‘Wrapped’ feature, I’d probably measure the success by how many people had shared their year in review.

When using metrics such as this to assess how well a feature has performed we have to be wary of something we call ‘vanity metrics’.

Vanity metrics are metrics that give the impression of success but don’t actually speak to business success. They don’t help you understand your performance, so can’t be used for deciding on future strategies.

To make the point, here’s a couple of classic examples of vanity metrics:

  1. Pageviews on a blog. This metric doesn’t tell you anything, people could be finding your blog and then bounce straight away. It’s a vanity metric. Read time would be a better measure of success for a blog post.
  2. Instagram followers. Again, what does this metric really tell you? If the point of your Instagram is to grow a following of engaged fans, then follower count on its own is quite a poor metric. What you should be measuring is the engagement of your posts, how many people are commenting, liking, sharing?

Vanity metrics in your personal life

But this isn’t a newsletter for marketers or product managers, it’s for people who are interested in being more productive, so why am I harping on about vanity metrics? It’s simple:

I’ve noticed how many vanity metrics I use to judge my own success or productivity. From how many books I’ve read, to how many minutes I spend meditating. I’m measuring shit that doesn’t matter. And if you continue to measure success by shit that doesn’t matter you’re going to start optimising for the wrong things.

The worst thing about measuring ourselves on vanity metrics, is they give us the impression we are moving forward. They give the appearance of momentum. In the short term this can feel good, over the long run it can be a toxic way to live. Vanity metrics can lead us to feel frustrated at our lack of results — because they make us believe we are doing everything required.Here’s a few examples of some vanity metrics I’ve noticed myself measuring my productivity by:

Vanity Metric 1 — Hours worked

This is clearly a bullshit metric. It doesn’t matter how many hours you work in a day, did you do something meaningful? Did you learn something new? Did you enjoy yourself?

It’s so easy to get caught into the trap of ‘I just need to work more hours’ because the rhetoric is so prevalent. Every time I open my newsfeed I’ve got a video of Gary Vaynerchuk telling me to ‘eat shit for 10 years’ or some dickhead glorifying the 80-hour workweek as some kind of badge of honour. I’m not saying you don’t need to put in the work, only that putting in the work is a first-order effect that only matters if it leads to the second-order effect of valuable output being produced.

Vanity Metric 2 — Books Read

I’ve read about a book a week (excluding epics) for as long as I can remember. I think part of the reason I do this isn’t that I’m intrinsically motivated to read a book a week, but partly because I just feel ‘that’s what high achieving people do’.

Again, ‘books read’ is a bullshit metric. It doesn’t mean shit how many you’ve read. How much have you learned? How has your empathy for others changed? How has your behaviour changed? How much did you enjoy the process of reading?

These are all the questions we should be asking ourselves, not how many fancy looking books we can add to our bookshelves so we can subtly flex on our mates when having them around for dinner.Recently, I’ve taken a slower approach to reading, I’m not rushing through books I’m trying to absorb myself in them more, pause to reflect on particularly moving passages, and actually just enjoy the process.

Vanity Metric 3 — Minutes Meditated

Meditation has been a habit I’ve practiced for around 5 years. I’ve always just meditated 10–20 minutes a day, with the idea that the rest would take care of itself. As long as I hit those numbers — it’s all gravy.

No. While of course sitting to practice is a prerequisite, it is not the measurement of success. This has only recently dawned on me, as I’ve recognised that the past 6 months I’ve just been sitting down and daydreaming.

The reason we meditate is to become more mindful. To become less reactive and manage our relationships with challenging emotions. In short — to become happier.I’ve now taken to just setting an intention before I meditate to ‘try and achieve mental clarity’. My measure of success then subtly changes to what extent in that session I feel I’ve achieved this clarity, rather than just the minutes I’ve spent practicing.

How To Identify Your Vanity Metrics

In my experience, the root of all vanity metrics is ego. Vanity metrics are about measuring your success in a way that will seem impressive to others but doesn’t really provide you with anything useful.I went through the below process this week to try and identify my own vanity metrics, if your curious about measuring your success correctly, maybe it will be helpful for you to!

  1. Make a big list of every way you measure your success in life
  2. Ask yourself the question — if there was no one else alive, would I still measure my success in this way? If the answer is no, it’s probable your metric is a vanity metric.
  3. Apply some second-order thinking to that list, what do I think this measure of success will actually give me? Try to get to the actual measurement that matters. You will most likely find stuff like ‘How much cash I have in my bank’ translates to ‘I want to feel secure’. Measure your success by this yardstick instead.

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