Each of us is only as effective as the questions we ask. So understanding the process of asking good questions is essential to our success.

1. Ask questions about what you care about.
A great example of the importance of questions is the  Justice Assistance Grant which gives states $400 million to fight crime. The JAG board asks for data  on how many arrests were made and how much property was seized  – questions that inadvertently encourage states to add to unacceptable rates of incarceration in the US.

The Economists suggests that asking how many defendants did not reoffend would make recidivism rates go down. And asking how many defendants went to treatment programs instead of prison would decrease costs to taxpayers on many fronts.

The line of reasoning seemed totally obvious after I read it and then I thought: how does this apply to my life?

First I applied it to my work, because I’m great at work and not so great at the rest of my life.

2. Don’t ask questions about what you don’t care about.
Netflix doesn’t track vacation time because they don’t care about vacation. They track results because they care about results. So they have a hard-core performance standard but no vacation policy.

The term for this type of thinking is key performance indicators, or KPIs. It’s a trendy way to zero-in on what you care about; my investors always ask me about KPIs. At Quistic, I measure sales, because at my last company, Brazen Careerist, I measured traffic and realized that it doesn’t matter how much traffic you get if people don’t buy stuff.

A more interesting KPI is how many people come to my blog for the first time and don’t leave. The unfortunate truth about this statistic is that as long I offer up a link to the post What it’s Like to Have Sex with Someone who has Aspergers, I don’t lose traffic. But that’s not a good way for me to keep traffic. It’s the road to hell. Then I’d have to point them to High-Income Women Get More Oral Sex, and soon I’d have a site full of people looking for porn. (Or maybe I already do. Maybe there is no one still reading this post because everyone has clicked away.)

The problem is that when I measure how often I post I never meet my goals and then I start with self-hatred. Like, I just dipped 50 cookies into my coffee when the kids weren’t looking because they are onto me about the obsessive eating.  The KPI I should be looking at is how attached do I feel to the world. Because the thing that really gets me to write is that I get lonely.

3. Good questions allow you to draw a conclusion in order to ask a better question. 
But you can’t measure loneliness, and you have to pick a KPI that is measurable, and I need to measure myself for making time to do what’s important to me.

It’s a be-careful-what-you-wish-for thing. If you focus hard on one thing that’s too small, you never get what you want. I remember when I hired a headhunter to find a husband and she told me I could have three things. I chose good-looking, Jewish and great at what he does and I got a Calvin Klein model who was totally stupid. I swapped great at what he does for smart and I got a failing screenwriter.

It might be that the people who really know what they are doing don’t actually know how to get something, but know the questions they should ask to make sure that someone gets what they need.

4. KPIs force you to define your questions in a way you can get good answers. 
I just read that half of all financial planners have no retirement plan. I think this is because they are aiming for financial stability for themselves and they realize that retirement savings will not get them that feeling of stability, which is largely emotional. In fact, I’ve known for a long time that trusting my ability to earn money is what makes my life financially stable, not what I have in savings.

It’s not surprising that I’d totally understand how financial planners get to their KPIs but I have no idea how to do it in my personal life. I tried doing a checklist for sex. I gave myself a weekly minimum. But that really only keeps my husband in the game – it doesn’t make the whole relationship. Probably a good gauge is how many posts I can go without writing about our sex life since I did promise I wouldn’t write about it.

But whatever. I think writing about not having sex is not writing about our sex life. Which is good because writing about not sex is always more interesting than writing about great sex. All great sex is the same to a reader: boring. Like a short story with no conflict.

5. New Year’s Resolutions should have KPIs.
Our January resolutions are overly-ambitious and unruly. KPIs are building blocks to a manageable New Year’s resolution.

I go back to the idea the Economist floated, which is if you ask better questions, you get better results. My only question right now is why aren’t I meeting my goals. So lame. And I’m coming to the end of this post and I need a revelation or something.

I don’t have New Year’s resolutions. Because I’m still trying to meet the same resolutions I’ve made for the last fifteen years. Save three month’s expenses. Be happier. Spend more time focusing on the little moments with my kids.

Oh. Wait. Duh. Of course I don’t really want to meet these goals if I haven’t met them yet.

So here are my KPIs:

Number of days in the month that I have money in the bank.

Number of days in the month when I do not yell at anyone.

Number of days in the month that I have a family meal without taking a phone call in the middle.

KPIs are humbling. They are not grand, change-the-world goals. They are small reminders of where you really are in this life. It’s humbling to admit what I have to track to keep myself on a good path. Maybe this is why so many companies ditch the whole idea of KPIs.

24 replies
  1. John
    John says:

    Instead of “Number of days in the month that I have a family meal without taking a phone call in the middle,” wouldn’t “Number of days in the month that I turn off the phone before having a family meal” make success more likely?

  2. Barry
    Barry says:

    I work for a company where I get unlimited vacation, and there are no KPIs. Think that’s good? No, it sucks, because it translates to work non-stop, and while on vacation, because one can never tell when you’re doing a good job. But, that’s beside the point I wanted to make.

    I think KPIs are, essentially, mini-goals that light the long term path to the goal. Like: limit total daily carb intake to 50 grants, and calories to 1,500. The pounds will fall off.

    Or, to quit smoking (which I did after smoking for 15 years, 20 years ago) when I had an urge to light up, challenge myself to see if I could make it for another fifteen minutes. Then, if I still had the urge (which I often had, by then, forgotten about) take up another fifteen minute challenge.

    Bottom line: I agree completely that too often we establish goals that are too big, too far away in time, that, given distractions and temptations, we cannot achieve. It’s human nature. So, if you do have a big goal, like lose 100 pounds, set up reasonable and small goals to get there.

  3. Savvy Working Gal
    Savvy Working Gal says:

    I just finished reading Josh Hanagarne’s book The World’s Strongest Librarian. After struggling with Tourette’s syndrome for 30 years Josh finally learns how to subdue them after working with a trainer who asks the right questions. His doctors had never asked him how he had felt. They treated symptoms. By the way his trainer has Asperger’s.

    My future goal is to become a mentor for young girls, this year I am counting how many books I can read about mentoring.

    Happy New Year P.

    • tina
      tina says:

      instead of just reading books, how about actually mentoring one? or number of mentors you will interview about mentoring? just reading about something is not enough. best wishes.

      • Savvy Working Gal
        Savvy Working Gal says:

        I saw an ad to be a mentor to a handicapped women in early adulthood. I thought this was perfect for me, but haven’t emailed yet. I feel I am not good enough. Not ready. And my husband thinks I don’t have enough time. Excuses, excuses. I bet Penelope would push me to do it.

  4. teego
    teego says:

    In most circumstances, “KPI” is just another turgid word from the “management-speak” vocabulary list. It really boils down to some out-of-touch exec making some glib wish list of what he THINKS is important and then having that trickle down through the ranks of asshole middle managers until it lands on the “objectives” list of some sad cubicle workers who then have to figure out a practical way to achieve the desired KPI number– never mind that the KPI might NOT actually be measurable, desirable, actionable, or even remotely under the control the persons tasked with moving it, never mind that if you reduce achievement to a silly one-dimensional number, you risk having people game the system to get the number regardless of what happens to the original purpose of the enterprise.

    Perhaps it is best to keep that stuff in the dysfunctional world of overpaid MBA’s who are running once innovative companies into the ground for the sake of short-term profit? Why take losing concepts from the corporate world and try to apply them to personal productivity?

    Merely having a KPI is only part of the solution. The KPI has to be chosen carefully and critically and without hubris. It must be measurable and sustainable and actually mean something. Once it is chosen, that is when the hard work really begins where one has to be committed to the purpose of the KPI.

  5. Sheila Scarborough
    Sheila Scarborough says:

    I talk about goals supported by KPI measurement all the time for clients that are working on social media, but never for my own personal goals. Duh.

    Now I have 3 solid goals for 2014 and a simple way to really know if I’m getting there or not. Thanks, Penelope!

  6. Beverly
    Beverly says:

    Love your writing, love your thought process, at last someone who puts down paragraph after paragraph that allows me to think on an intellectual level in a world of empty web content. My brain jumps around way too much to examine my goals or measure KPIs. It’s like the proverbial ‘herding cats’ but I do love the idea of examining day by day success.

    • Alan
      Alan says:

      I realized, in the middle of doing something, that the only things by which New Years is distinguished, is resolutions and drunkenness.

      Not intentionally, but I have diffused both of those activities throughout the year — A drink before dinner every day and a task list before bed every night. Every day is a mini-New Years.

  7. redrock
    redrock says:

    I tend to agree that the “you can take as many free time as you like” combined with performance standards is great for the company, but it runs the employees into the ground (or straight into burnout). Because – there is no generally accepted off-time, the person who takes no off time and works like crazy without any other things in his life will set the performance standard, which means – the rest of the crew now has to work to adhere to performance standards actually set by an outlier. That is not a workplace which is conducive to employees with families and/or kids… hell, it is not even conducive to someone without family and kids because (surprise!) even those people need off time.

  8. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    “I don’t have New Year’s resolutions. Because I’m still trying to meet the same resolutions I’ve made for the last fifteen years. Save three month’s expenses. Be happier. Spend more time focusing on the little moments with my kids.
    Oh. Wait. Duh. Of course I don’t really want to meet these goals if I haven’t met them yet.”

    I’m missing something here on the “Spend more time focusing on the little moments with my kids.” part. It seems to me you’re meeting (or at least coming much closer to meeting) that resolution (and those associated KPIs) with the homeschooling of your sons. Perhaps improvement can be made by less yelling and no taking phone calls during family meals. However, I have to believe from your homeschool posts that the little moments spent with your kids are much more meaningful and numerous than when they went to school.
    The Wikipedia entry for KPIs contained this sentence – “A school might consider the failure rate of its students as a key performance indicator which might help the school understand its position in the educational community, whereas a business might consider the percentage of income from returning customers as a potential KPI.” It’s sad and ironic to read that statement about school now after reading and researching schools, homeschooling, and how we learn and educate ourselves throughout our lifetimes.

  9. Adam Kielich
    Adam Kielich says:

    I always enjoy hearing the new business-speak terms. It’s passed off as some trendy way to identify a business trend but those terms and phrases really exist to identify the people who are “in” from those who are “out” in the business. People on the bottom of the totem pole don’t convert everything into cryptic abbreviations or attach “up” or “down” to words to create some new meaning for something that already has several real words to define it.

    Is a KPI just “goal”?

  10. Laura Hamilton
    Laura Hamilton says:

    Great points! I agree–resolutions without concrete measurements are worthless.

    Some people have a resolution “exercise more.” That’s sort of useless, because it’s unclear whether it’s being met or not.

  11. Becky
    Becky says:

    This really made me think. Thanks. (and made me cry a bit, thinking of you lonely) You are cool and wonderful.

  12. Priyantha
    Priyantha says:

    fabulous KPIs you have. the one that on the ban balance is difficult. the rest are really good one for me and like to associate with.
    I enjoyed reading this post.

  13. George Finecott
    George Finecott says:

    Cherish your point of view, finally somebody who puts down passage after section that permits me to think on a savvy level in an universe of void web content. My mind bounced around an excessive amount of to inspect my objectives. It’s like the relative ‘grouping felines’ yet I do adore the thought of looking at step by step triumph. In the end just one word “superb”.

  14. Willie Clemons
    Willie Clemons says:

    Hi have already made my resolution for this 2014 year, and as Tom Benutto said before: it is a mindset thing, if you do not have the appropriate mindset you will never succeed on anything in life.
    Thanks for the advice.

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