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Leading and Lagging Indicators

“Nothing comes from nowhere. Not success. Not inspiration. Not the muses. Not writer’s block. Everything is a lagging indicator. Of whether or not you did the work.” - Ryan Holiday

Pursuing goals is a big part of being a musician and artist. Whether we want to improve our playing, learn a new song, or write more music, we tend to be aiming for at least one target at all times. With any objective, we need to be able to measure our progress to know if we’re succeeding—and knowing exactly what metrics to focus on will make all the difference.

By default, we may first look at the lagging indicators, which are the end results themselves. This might include the ability to execute a particular technique, being able to play a piece at a certain tempo, or releasing an album.

While measuring these outcomes is certainly informative—and we don’t want to ignore them completely—they aren’t as helpful as we might think. This is because they generally take a while to appear, making it easier for us to become discouraged when we don’t see results immediately.

What we want to track instead are the actions we take to get where we want to go. These are known as leading indicators, and might include how often we practice, what we practice, or how much time we spend writing songs.

If you want to be able to play a new song, it can take days, weeks, or even months to complete. Measuring your success based on whether or not you can play the song at this moment can make you think you’re failing when you’re not. Instead, you can track each practice session in a journal and use this to determine how you’re doing. By acknowledging the positive steps you’re taking along the way, you’ll be more inclined to see your goals through to the end.

For whatever leading indicators you choose to track, make sure they are simple, easy to measure, and within your control.

Lagging indicators reflect the consistency and quality of our leading indicators. As Ryan Holiday explained in a recent blog post: “Hitting a personal record on the bench press is a lagging indicator of a lot of discipline and hard work. Receiving a promotion is a lagging indicator of a lot of quality work. Delivering a keynote with confidence is a lagging indicator of a lot of preparation.” By focusing on the actions you’re taking toward your desired outcome, you’ll be able to see each step along the way as a victory.


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