Keep an eye on a few key measures – or else

Posted by on Jan 17, 2017

I should’ve known better. My work involves performance and process improvement, so I’m well aware that meaningful measures and objective data really do matter.

But for an upcoming half marathon, I decided to go rogue. I’d run without my watch and without looking at the posted times on the course. It would be a test of sorts for 13.1 miles. I’d remain oblivious to time and see what happened, instead of closely tracking time like I’d done in all my previous races.

On race day, the early miles seemed to fly by. I felt so good that at mile 4, I picked up the pace. At mile 9, still feeling strong, I sped up some more. And with a few miles to the finish, I raced forward with confidence.

When I crossed the finish line, I had no clue what time I had logged — but I knew it was good. Perhaps my best time ever.

Except that it wasn’t. Not even close. For all the half marathons I’ve run over the years, it was my worst time ever.

As I dug into the official post-race numbers, I discovered what had happened.

Those first four fly-by miles were easy because I wasn’t flying at all. According to the data, my pace had been 14 seconds slower than my leisurely per-mile pace for long training runs. For whatever reason, my internal pacing mechanism was giving me a good report, but it was way off. Without a watch, I had no accurate reality check.

When I dialed up my pace at about mile 4, I felt like I was really hitting the accelerator. But the data told a different story. From that point to mile 9, my pace was only 46 seconds faster per mile — a measly 7.5% pick-up. Without any objective feedback telling me otherwise, I was relying on my internal pace clock, and it was again giving me a deceptively rosy report.

In the last four miles, I shaved another 33 seconds off my per-mile pace. I passed 482 runners — while being passed by only 19. All that passing surely boosted my confidence, further convincing me that this race could be a personal best. But because I had so dogged it early on, the quicker pace was nowhere near enough to get me a good time.

Did I have fun during the race? Absolutely.

Would I have run a faster race if I had been wearing a watch and tracking my pace? Without a doubt.

A few time-based data points early on would have right-sized my confidence — and propelled me to a faster pace in those crucial first few miles. Additional checks later on would have pulled me harder to the finish line.

I’ll be back to wearing a watch for my next race. But this story is less about running and pacing — and more about numeric reality checks and their impact on performance, especially at work.

When you’re busy with anything that involves a process or performance or both, your intuition and instincts will give you feedback on how you’re doing. But don’t count on it being accurate. You don’t want to get all the way to the figurative finish line, full of inflated confidence, only to find out that you produced so-so results.

If the outcome really matters to you, or to the people you serve, be sure to have some form of external feedback to complement your internal feedback. Keep it simple. Two or three objective measures can serve as an effective reality check.

So get clear on what you’re tracking as you go about your work. The race will still be fulfilling — and you’ll be far better informed every step of the way.

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By Tom Terez • Contact