A friend who's in a very competitive business sent me a brochure that's intended to help me get organized and motivated for the next 12 months. It includes a page for listing short-term goals and "overall objectives for the year in various areas of your life."
This is an issue that resonates with millions of Americans. It can spark intense debate within households and at the highest levels of government. Who doesn't love a good overall objective? The tricky part comes after you've started the journey toward a particular goal. Is there a system in place for evaluating progress? Or, as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld might put it: Do you have the right metrics?
My brochure says "you can't improve what you don't measure." No argument there. To reinforce this suggestion, photos show people jogging and rock climbing. Athletics are often used as motivational examples because they're easy to measure. Politicians like to talk about sticking with the game plan or finishing the race. But many aspects of our lives can't be added up like touchdown passes or laps around a track.
Also, just because an achievement is measurable doesn't mean it's worth celebrating. One sum that recurs in my personal schedule with alarming regularity is 31. That's the number of washer loads listed on the box of detergent in my laundry room. And since I use less than the recommended amount in each scoop, I'm stretching each box out to 40 loads or more. I cannot dwell on this metric for very long without breaking into a chorus of "16 Tons" – the 1947 song about the miseries of coal mining.
I'm also thankful I'm not working for a firm called BearingPoint. Some of their employees have been toiling away in a metrics maze. As explained by a recent Washington Post article, the firm has a $2 million contract with the federal government to help support an Iraq policy that identified "eight pillars" for victory. Pillar 1, for example, is "Defeat the Terrorists and Neutralize the Insurgents."
Although the plan is now virtually defunct, BearingPoint still produces a weekly report with updates relating to each pillar. According to one anonymous official, the main value of the report is providing the State and Defense departments with identical data so "everyone is talking off the same sheet of music." I wonder if any of those people are humming "16 Tons?"
I'll hang onto my little motivational brochure for awhile, just in case I come up with an extensive list of goals. And as I ponder the mysteries of plans and progress, the role model who often comes to mind is former New York City Mayor Ed Koch.
One of his notable habits was to go out walking and greet passersby with the question, "How'm I doing?" It's a general-purpose query that I often repeat in my mind when I'm feeling contemplative, and occasionally my daughter will sneak up behind me and say, "Dad, you're talking to yourself again."
She's right, and I plan to keep the conversation going strong in 2007.
• Jeffrey Shaffer writes about media, American culture, and personal history.