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How to Benefit from the Scoreboard Principle

Business is driven by metrics but we can use numbers to reach personal goals.

Key points

  • The Scoreboard Principle is the idea that measurement begets improvement—at work and at home.
  • Neurologists believe all mammals are born with a number instinct—a deeply rooted desire to seek out numerical information.
  • The moment a numerical score is introduced, we instinctively pay more attention to that area of our lives.
Photo by Sides Imagery from Pexels
Source: Photo by Sides Imagery from Pexels

It’s June. Summer is around the corner. The pandemic is (lazily) veering into the rearview mirror. It’s time for a fresh start.

Whether your goal is to master a new hobby, shed your “quarantine 15,” or tackle an audacious goal, one psychological insight can help you achieve faster results. It’s called the Scoreboard Principle, and it refers to the fact that measurement begets improvement.

Want to read more books? Track the number of pages you read. Wish you could lose weight? Track your caloric intake. Desperate to increase your focus at work? Track your daily total of uninterrupted minutes.

Business is driven by metrics, recognizing that “what gets measured, gets managed.” Yet when it comes to our personal lives, the vast majority of us are flying blind. Why?

As I explain in a new book on the secrets of top performers, the moment a score is introduced, we instinctively pay it more attention. When we see our numbers surge, progress feels tangible, sparking satisfaction and pride. In contrast, seeing our metrics plummet generates disappointment, frustration, even shame. These emotional jolts are not trivial. They lend our actions psychic weight, leading us to work harder in pursuit of a higher score.

Why are metrics such a powerful motivating force? Neurologists believe all mammals are born with a number instinct—a deeply rooted desire to seek numerical information. In the evolutionary past, attending to numbers helped keep us alive. Having the ability to distinguish a large quantity of food from a small amount ensured that our ancient ancestors devoted more attention to rewards that maximized their chances of survival.

So, what should you measure? The specific elements worth monitoring will depend on the nature of the task, your level of skill, and your ultimate goals.

3 Approaches to Measuring Level of Skill and Ultimate Goals

The first involves breaking down a single activity into multiple sub-skills. Suppose, for example, that your job involves pitching your firm to new prospects, and you want to develop metrics to track your performance. Several sub-skills come into play when you present at meetings, including memorization, delivery, body language, presence, and poise. Recording your pitch and scoring these elements individually will provide you with a clear sense of where your performance is strong and where it needs improvement.

The second approach is useful for tasks where success hinges on a single skill. Take writing client memos. Although writing is the primary skill involved, you can still harness the power of metrics to improve by scoring the particular features of your compositions. For example, you can score how well your memo grabs readers’ attention, presents memorable facts, and concludes with a strong recommendation. By turning each of these features into metrics, you create a measure that offers you immediate feedback on your performance and draws your attention to elements of your work that can be improved.

A third approach for using a scoreboard is more holistic than the first two. It involves looking beyond a particular task and evaluating the totality of your performance throughout a specified time frame.

Executive coach Marshall Goldsmith swears by this technique. He has his clients identify an ideal version of themselves and work backward, listing the specific behaviors their best self would execute regularly. Then he has them rate themselves on each behavior daily.

Goldsmith even uses this method on himself. He tracks thirty-six items that range from work-related tasks to health and hygiene (minutes spent exercising) to showing kindness and empathy to others (complimenting his wife, Lyda).

Goldsmith’s daily questions provide a modern spin on a practice made famous by legendary innovator and American revolutionary Benjamin Franklin. Franklin wasn’t always the distinguished figure many of us think of today. Back in his early twenties, he was widely known as a heavy drinker and notorious gossip, a man whose behavior was fueled less by reason and rationality than by an insatiable sex drive. Franklin was all too aware of his deficiencies. To counteract his shortcomings, he developed a list of thirteen virtues that he hoped to instill into his character through self-report.

A sample of Franklin’s daily tracker appears in his 1791 autobiography. Every evening, he would pull out his journal and review the list, marking off virtues he had failed to carry out that day. Given what we now know of his spotty reputation, it’s easy to grasp why particular virtues appear on his list: they represent the inverse of habits he aimed to extinguish. At the very top of his list is temperance (no heavy drinking), followed by silence (minimize senseless gossip), and later chastity (avoid promiscuity).

Goldsmith and Franklin draw upon the same methodology to pursue drastically different goals. Goldsmith’s measure is designed to optimize his performance as an executive coach and spouse, while Franklin’s virtues were selected to reshape his character.

These examples don't simply demonstrate the versatility of a daily tracker approach. They highlight a crucial benefit of leveraging the Scoreboard Principle and developing a list of target intentions in the first place. It’s a process that compels you to step back, reflect deeply, and identify the achievements you consider essential.

In sports, the outcomes that define success are unambiguous. To win, players must accumulate points, baskets, runs, or touchdowns. Life doesn’t work that way. In the real world, there are infinite paths to success. And the first step to winning is becoming apparent on the points you’re trying to score in the first place.

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