Beware the easier question

Posted April 11, 2021 · 2 min read

When our minds are confronted with a challenging question, we tend to subconsciously substitute it with an easier question.

In part one of Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman names this process "substitution" and refers to it as a "mental shotgun" that is quick but often inaccurate.

Our brains don't want to overexert themselves. Instead of addressing complexity, they use this substitution shortcut to give us fast, simple answers that make us feel comfortable and at ease.

Lately I've been thinking about the reason behind my own preoccupation with metrics, and my conclusion has been that metrics are an enticing subsitution for answering the difficult questions I have for myself.

Let me explain what I mean.

A flaw with measurement

I naturally gravitate towards structure and systems in my day-to-day life.

I enjoy activities like tracking, analyzing, sorting, and storing. I often use them as a way to be accountable to myself and to learn about my own behavior.

When I set out to accomplish a goal, I instinctively determine what metrics I use to track my progress. For example, when my goal was to become healthier, I started to track my workouts, diet, and weight.

One of the biggest pitfalls with this approach, though, is that too often the metric replaces the goal.

Even though I knew that rest days were essential for recovery, I wanted to work out more. Even though I knew that skipping meals was unhealthy, I wanted to see the number on the scale go down faster.

Neither of those behaviours contributed to my actual goal of being healthier; they became confused with the metrics I was using for health.

Ness Labs has an excellent article on this issue, which they call measurement myopia:

The problem is not so much with measurement in general; it's with blind measurement and the belief that measurement is intrinsically good.

Measurements are easy.

They can be helpful indicators of progress.

They can encourage us to take action by breaking down huge objectives into smaller tasks.

But they can lead us astray if we confuse the easier question they answer with the real question.

Remember the real question

When you encounter a measurement, stop to consider the question it answers and the question your mind may think that it answers.

This is especially valuable if you find yourself unusually preoccupied with a specific metric. Sometimes, you just have to step back and ask yourself, "What's the real objective here?"

Every year I set a goal for the number of books I hope to read.

I could easily read 50 books in a year if I blazed through light fiction or sped-read the latest pop psychology books. But the point isn't to have read a certain number of books; it's to commit to the process of reading and to continue to learn more about the world.

When I check in on myself, glancing at my book count is easy. Stopping to consider what I've learned and how it's made a difference in my life is more difficult. It's also more worthwhile, and ultimately it's the question I actually want the answer to.

Beware the easier question.

Catch yourself when you're focused too much on the metric.

Accept it for what it is.

But don't substitute it for what it is not.


Julia Cooke © 2023