This is part of a series on Cal Newport’s Deep Work idea. I usually like to link to something that he has already written on his blog, but today I am making an exception because it is an idea that he took from Clayton Christensen.
The idea is that there are lead indicators and there are lag indicators, and that people tend to focus on lag indicators when they should be focusing on lead indicators. One example that Newport uses is particularly appropriate to me (and most of you): many academics focus on the number of academic papers they write. So they might set a goal of writing, say, three papers in a year.
The goal of “Write three papers this year” is a lag indicator, because you can only determine whether you were successful after it is too late to change anything about it. So it could be that the year is up and you only wrote one paper. At that point, it is too late to change your behavior to make sure that three papers get written.
Another relevant example is from our students: a lag indicator would be aiming to get an A in a course.
The alternatives are lead indicators, which are things that happen early in the process. Newport writes that he stopped focusing on the number of papers he writes in a year, instead setting goals on, well, the amount of deep work he does in a week. In this case, the idea is that if you focus on deep work, the papers will follow. Also, if you are unsuccessful in doing any deep work in a particular week, you can change your behavior the following week, and the lag indicating papers will still follow. Of course, the student would be better off setting goals on the lead indicator of, say, how much she studies in a week, since she has more opportunity to change her behavior if something goes wrong.