I love ticking boxes, but I hate box-ticking exercises - on Strava, education, and objective-setting

June 09, 2015

I must confess to being mildly obsessed with my Strava statistics. I love knowing how steep the hills are that I’ve ridden up, and how many hundreds of people are faster or slower than me.

One of the features I like is the ability to set yourself weekly goals for cycling and running.

Part of me loves this. I’m motivated by small but achievable goals. I like ticking boxes and crossing items off my to-do list.

On the days when I don’t feel like it, the idea of failing to hit my weekly target is a little bit of extra motivation to drag myself out there and put in a few miles. (The mental disconnect between metric and imperial measurements is another story, especially when the device on my bike measures in miles, but once I upload the ride, I have it set to show in kilometres.)

But there’s a downside to this, as well as the danger of becoming a tedious dullard, and the sense of being like a hamster on a wheel.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of wanting to achieve the goal for its own sake, rather than for what it represents.

For example, I’ve set myself the weekly goals of 100k cycling and 15k running. When I started, these targets were a challenge. But things get easier. In fact when I started running, 10k in a week was my target, and that was a challenge. But now, as long as my schedule isn’t overwhelming, and the weather isn’t horrible, these targets are fairly easy to achieve.

And this is where targets can sometimes be counter-productive. In some weeks, especially in the summer where it’s possible to go for a run after putting my daughter to bed, I may have reached 90% of the target distances by Thursday or Friday, and then it’s tempting to say that I don’t need to go for a big ride at the weekend, because I could hit my target by just pottering around town.

On the flip side of that, in the winter where I’m not getting out much, it’s tempting to switch on Strava when I get on my bike to nip to the shops, and leave it on while I’m walking around, just to get a few miles in. But what’s the point of that? As teachers at school would say when kids copied each other in tests, “You’re only cheating yourself”.

It’s important to keep your targets challenging, adjusting them so that they push you to try harder. At the same time, there’s no point in setting an unrealistic target. Success needs to be achievable - something that is in your reach, but requires a stretch. If you fail every time, it’s demotivating, and you’ll forget about the targets. But if you succeed without even trying, what’s the point of setting the target?

And this mentality isn’t just personal. Far too much of the education system is focused on enabling students to pass exams, rather than teaching them anything meaningful, or ideally helping them to learn the skill of learning new things.

On projects, it’s far too easy to fall into the trap of caring more about how many story points are being delivered, rather than how much value has been added to the thing.

I work for a large corporation, and of course we have objective setting, and 360 degree feedback and all that sort of thing, all recorded in a performance development portal, or some other similarly grand title for a ghastly, bloated SAP system that is in dire need of some user experience work. Setting individual objectives and getting feedback from colleagues is a great idea, but somehow the system makes it all painful, turning it from an opportunity to express your hopes and aspirations for your career into a grinding chore. Objective-setting and appraisals become a dreaded seasonal piece of drudgery, rather than a chance to take stock .

So what’s the point of this? Is there any conclusion to this ramble? Maybe just to remind myself that people are more important than systems, that education is about more than qualifications, and that just because I’ve been meeting my Strava goals, it doesn’t mean that I’m fit enough to do the big ride I’ve got coming up this Sunday.