We cannot always see our growth in the emotional and spiritual realms. It cannot be measured by apps or spreadsheets. So how do we measure personal growth?
In over 4 years of recording my wins on a daily basis, I’ve noticed that often the big wins are in the little wins.
A year of daily meditation was built day-by-day. Publishing my work for 57 consecutive days (today) happened one day at a time, and started with creating a daily writing practice. Walking 10,000 steps a day happens one day at a time, one step at a time. And so on.
Meeting any “goal” number requires consistent action toward that goal; we can take the big number and break it down into smaller units until we have a manageable daily goal, and then create a daily ritual to lead to that result. (I’ll share more on that process in the coming weeks; register here if you want to learn more.)
Tracking Emotional States
Growth in the emotional and spiritual realms can be harder to see. It builds up over tiny moments that are often imperceptible, and when they are obvious, they often show up as painful moments that we would rather avoid.
Also, it’s not like we can track a score. Self-compassion, self-worth, self-love, self-trust and other emotional habits (and, unlike a daily writing practice, these emotions are habits — or at least potential habits, if we can build them properly) don’t have metrics.
What would you measure?
How to Measure Personal Growth
Get a Witness
One way to track personal growth is to have an external source — a coach or a friend — reflect back to you the changes they notice in you. There are three challenges with this.
First, this growth happens slowly, and people who are around us frequently often are too close to us to notice. Second, often the people closest to us tend to trigger our worst moments. We feel we’re on a good trajectory until we go home for the holidays, and then… boom. Everything falls apart. Hard to rely on those people to reflect our growth to us.
Third, growth often comes as a feeling before a behavior. Our outside world may still look like we’re in chaos, but inside, we are more calm than we were before. Nobody else can be inside our bodies to know how we feel.
Be Your Own Witness
The best way to track our progress in the emotional and spiritual realms is to look at where we are, notice how we are feeling inside, and compare this feeling to how we felt at a different point in time when similar external circumstances were present.
My journal gives me that reference point.
Journaling with the DayOne App
I’ve been keeping a daily journal for over four years using the DayOne app on iOS and Mac. I’ve always loved physical notebooks, and still do, but had previously struggled to keep a daily journal for more than a few weeks at a time. In DayOne, I journal throughout the day: a structured entry to start and end each day, with several more in between.
DayOne is where I track what I do, who I meet, and my thoughts and feelings about everything that comes up during my day.
What I love about DayOne is that, unlike a physical journal, I don’t have to search through a notebook to find where I was and what I was thinking; the app serves it up to me, complete with images and a location. Each day, DayOne offers me a quick link to “this day in history”; I can see where I’ve been, both in physical location and in my emotional and mental states. It even tells me what music I was listening to.
At this point, each day offers 5 years of history for me to review. Because I record all of my activities in the journal, I can see what I was doing that might have triggered different moods or responses. I get a really strong sense of context.
Revisiting the Past
I don’t always make the time to sit and read through the entries from the past. The mere act of writing notes about this typically is enough to create awareness of my patterns of behavior and responses.
This morning, riding the subway uptown to go to the only branch of my gym that was open today, I had the time to read my journal from last year on Christmas.
Reading what I wrote last year, I noticed that I still have some of the same struggles that tripped me up last year. Some of these things may be eternal struggles for me. For example, like many adults with ADD, I struggle with time horizons. I often set unrealistic expectations for myself of how long it will take me to do something. When it takes longer, I feel like I am “behind schedule.” This is why I have a rule of not doing anything before I go to the gym in the morning. It helps me get out the door.
Noticing the Changes
I’ve been able to improve these things to a degree, but they may never go away. What’s changed is how I’ve responded to their presence.
My emotional response is different. I felt more calm, more at ease.
Today, I left a little later than I had planned; combined with subway delays, I arrived at the gym at 8:20, instead of 8 am (when it opened). When my Inner Mean Girl started to get on my case, I promptly shut her down.
I reminded her that it’s Christmas Day. And all the people I saw already at the gym? Perhaps they lived in the neighborhood.
Then I moved on and focused on a great workout.
Recognizing True Growth
In that moment, I noticed: this is huge progress for me in the areas of self-acceptance, self-compassion, self-love, self-trust, and self-worth — what I consider the core markers of personal growth.
This is massive growth — where it matters.
It is easy to get trapped in the belief that these areas of personal growth are secondary to the material growth and typical success metrics. For a long time, I thought I could do this inner work once I completed my “real work.” I’ve since learned that these inner pieces are the “real” work.
The work must be done from the inside out.
Personal growth is the growth the matters.
How Do You Know When You’ve Grown?
A year ago, I thought I was winding down what I thought was my worst year ever, in all areas of my life. I was ready for a lift. Not just a new chapter or a new book, a new form of media entirely. It turned out that I was just getting started on the deep dive.
Today, heading into the final week of what has been, by most external measures, an awful year (there have been a few shining exceptions), as I begin my annual reflection ritual in earnest, I can feel a difference.
Even as external circumstances in my life and in the world continue to swirl in chaos, I am calm on the inside. I am centered and composed. I am more aware and awake. I am open to life and love. I am mindful of where I am headed.
Thanks to my journal, I can see the evolution of my path of awakening. But reading and seeing alone isn’t what tells me I’ve grown. What we read, we process with the mind. True knowledge is embodied; it must be felt.
And this is the ultimate measure of our personal growth: what we feel.
I may see the same triggers and hear the same internal voices, but what I feel on the inside is different. I feel my breath move through my entire body, moving through the spaciousness I’ve created on the inside, and this is how I know I have progressed in my growth.