Choosing a North Star Metric is the most important decision you can make when planning your journey towards personal and professional growth. Aiming towards nowhere, in particular, is a sure way to end up falling short, even when creating systems to achieve success, which is why it is essential to have a goal to strive towards.
Born in the start-up scene, a North Star Metric is the core goal or value you want to achieve in your journey, the one that all plans are created and based on. It is the one metric you keep track of to confidently and quickly gauge if you are making progress or not.
While it is mainly used in the entrepreneurship world, the concept can also be applied in the field of self-improvement, to make sure you are heading in the right direction.
The North Star Metric was coined by Sean Ellis, from the Growth Hackers blog. It is mainly applied in the field of start-ups, and it is the main metric they follow to achieve growth. The idea is to identify the organization's overall purpose and ambition—the North Star by which it is navigating—as well as stakeholder promises, guiding beliefs about the future, and strategic assets (1).
Focusing on and optimizing company-wide efforts to improve your NSM is key to driving long-term sustainable growth in your company (2). For AirBnB, for example, their North Star Metric is nights booked, while for Facebook, it is daily active users.
In the field of self-improvement, the North Star Metric is a general goal you strive towards, the indicator that your journey is progressing.
Embarking on a journey towards Self-Mastery can be daunting at first, and full of distracting pathways that will lead you to nowhere. In fact, the journey will be full of crossroads that can derail and distract you from your main goal. Choosing a NSM, a goal that you can observe at any moment to quickly know if you are on the right track or not is key towards planning and making the said journey.
Planning for a time frame of years can be difficult. The closer you are in time, the more details and information you have, which leads to more concrete actions and steps. Creating a plan to achieve a goal in two months will always be more detailed and precise than making one to achieve a goal in ten years, for example, for this exact same reason.
Any journey or betterment of oneself needs a goal to strive towards, even if you are familiar with the benefits of thinking in systems vs thinking in goals. While there is a discussion to be made on the benefits of both, the general idea is that creating and focusing on systems is a better bet to make than setting and focusing on goals.
The key concept of goals thinking vs systems thinking differs in what constitutes success, and why one of the strategies is a surer way to achieve it. When thinking in goals, you either achieve them or not. Say your goal is to lose 10 lbs in two months; even if you lose 5 lbs at the end of the period you have failed. Failure leads to discouragement and to abandoning the pursuit of losing weight, which is the ultimate failure and can reverse in re-gaining the weight.
Thinking in systems, however, is focusing not on a particular goal, but on building the foundation to achieve many goals down the line, and creating the habits and actions needed to achieve them. Creating winning habits is key towards your journey in pursuit of Self-mastery, which you can read more on here.
On the example of weight loss, focusing on systems would be to improve one’s nutrition instead. Losing 5 lbs or 10 lbs is a result of improved nutrition, both being a positive side effect of creating the system, which can lead to a further weight loss down the line if pursued.
The consensus in the self-improvement literature dictates that focusing on systems instead of focusing on goals is the better bet towards success, as systems lead to achieving goals and prove a more efficient way to achieve them. However, thinking should never be black or white. Can you really focus on creating a system without any goals or results you want to achieve? Will you create a system for nothing? How can you tell if your system is working?
Continuing with the above example, wanting to improve your nutrition is not born in a vacuum, it is born from wanting to improve one’s health, or for fitness pursuits, or for aesthetics and confidence, etc. No one wants to improve their nutrition (or anything else) for no reason at all, there is at least some general goal or reason behind taking those actions.
Let’s go a step further in this thought experiment and ask the following question: how can you measure that the system you are creating is working? Improvement should be quantifiable in some way or form, or else it can lead to procrastination or loss of focus. When creating a system or systems, it is key to both have a general goal to strive for, and a North Star Metric to gauge the progress in their creation.
The key benefit in choosing a NSM is that it helps immensely in maintaining clarity and in keeping focus. The value in it is akin to that of the elevator pitch, but instead of helping explain your value proposition, it provides clarity when making decisions.
An elevator pitch is a common business term, born out of the idea of having to explain your new business or start-up idea to a potential investor in the time it takes to use an elevator. The main goal of the elevator pitch technique is to provide for a solid 30-second presentation of your idea, avoiding the fluff and only providing the key information. The NSM aids in moments of uncertainty in the same way the elevator pitch does: it clarifies and it saves time.
Say that, after planning out your path towards Self-Mastery and the actions needed to make sure you are successful, you find yourself in a crossroad. Both (or more) of the crossroads have their pros and cons as to why you should take them and not the others. When this situation presents itself, having a NSM to follow immediately helps in reducing the noise to signal ratio: which path will take me closer to my North Star?
When it comes to decision making, improving clarity and reducing the noise to signal ratio is essential, as is the study of mental models and metacognition, which you can read more here.
While there are many positives to choosing that one metric to keep track of and which proves if progress has been made or not, there are many downsides to it that should be mentioned.
For one, the main danger of focusing on a North Star metric is that it is easy to fall into the fallacy of only paying attention to it and ignoring all other metrics, due to having deemed them ‘not as important’ as the NSM.
When creating a strategy or a blueprint for your life, it is important to be open to readjusting efforts, goals and actions when presented with new information. As mentioned above, it is impossible to know every detail or plan the journey you will take since the start. New information, opportunities and goals can and will show up throughout your journey, and it is paramount to take them into account and readjust when needed. Focusing exclusively on the NSM can lead to ignoring new and potentially beneficial pathways.
Another downside of over-relying on only one metric is related to thinking in systems vs thinking in goals. If every action taken is done so to make progress on one metric, it can lead to actions that are taking you closer to your goal on paper, but not in reality. There are many actions an individual needs to take which may not directly take you in the direction of your North Star, but are still essential and needed as a base for other actions to come.
While there is the danger to over-relying on one metric to track progress, having a North Star Metric to follow in times of uncertainty or quick decision making is key towards achieving Self-Mastery. Even when focusing on creating systems, you do so to achieve goals, and a general goal to strive towards is elemental to gauge if progress is being made or not.