You Are Not Your Output

Maybe it’s just me, but if I look at our bug tracker at work one week and see my smiling face attached to a bunch of fixed bugs and implemented features then good lord do I feel chuffed with myself. When I manage to put together a blog post earlier than expected? Oh yeah, I’m amazing.

It’s not bad to feel proud of the things you produce of course, but the issue comes into focus when I look at Jira another week and I’ve only managed to clear a couple of tickets, or I barely manage to scrape together a blog post before the end of the month; my self-esteem plummets.

It’s honestly pretty ridiculous when I write it out like this, but it happens enough that I wanted to really take a look at why this happens. After a bit of introspection, I realised my issue; I’ve been judging myself by my output rather than my input.

To be clear, I get it. I get why people measure based on output; it’s far easier to quantify and compare what you can produce than how much ephemeral, uncountable “effort” you put in [1]. It’s also almost impossible for other people to get a true idea of how much work you’ve put in from the outside, but it is a lot easier to see what work has been completed.

The real problem with all of this though is in situations where the input isn’t as clearly linked to the output [2]. If I half-arsed the first of those theoretical weeks and only cleared a lot because they were simple bug fixes, the low input is masked by what looks like a large quantity of output. If I spent most of the second week trying really hard and grinding through a particularly difficult issue or complex feature, a high input might not translate to a high perceived output since I “only” cleared a couple of tickets.

So what do we do about this? I’d like to propose a couple of things:

First, on a personal level it’s important to judge yourself [3] by how hard you try (the thing you can control) rather than feeling defined by your output, which can be temperamental depending on many external factors.

Second, for those people that employ, manage, or work with other people in pretty much any capacity, let’s try and look beyond the easily countable things when measuring contributions. If we look again at my two theoretical weeks, I phoned it in in the former and tried hard in the latter even though it might seem like my impact was greater in the first week. Appreciating and giving precedence to input over output has the added benefit of making working on hard and/or important things more attractive options since they’re less likely to be seen as effort sinkholes, where good input goes to die.

Ever since I figured this out about myself a few months ago I’ve found that I’m far more likely to look back at my day and feel proud of how hard I tried or how focused I was rather than feeling dejected if I didn’t complete something concrete after a day of solid effort.

In the end everyone wants to do a good job and try their best. Wouldn’t it be nice if that’s what we valued of ourselves and others?


[1] While you can measure effort in hours or days, there is a stark difference between a day where you’re trying your best vs a day where you know you could have tried harder; I would consider the former “more/higher input”. Return

[2] OK, in the examples I give you you could technically argue that a greater input would have led to a greater actual output (more tickets resolved for example), but I’m talking more about the perception of that output; the effort involved for 1 big ticket could theoretically equal 20 small tickets but a lot of people would see the latter as being a larger overall output and judge accordingly. Return

[3] To be clear, I don’t mean this in a “passing judgement on yourself” sort of way but instead as a form of introspection. It’s important to be honest with yourself to see if you’re trying your best and, if not, to maybe look at that a bit deeper and consider the reasons that that might be, for your own personal benefit. Return

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