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How do you measure success?

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How do you measure success? Let’s start by understanding it.

Understanding whether things are going well or not is something we've all got to do at various points in our lives.

This can't just be left to feelings: you can’t improve things unless you measure them. This goes for your personal life as well as your professional life.

Just showing up and doing the work is one thing. But ensuring the outcome is what you want it to be is another. So here are a few strategies for deciding on your goals, defining success, and measuring that success in different contexts.

First, you have to define success. And that's something that everyone will do a little differently.

Table of contents
How do you define success?
How do you measure success in the workplace?
How to prioritize your metrics for success
How to measure your own success at work
The downsides to personal success

How do you define success?

Defining what success is in the first place can be more difficult than actually measuring it.

Success, for most people, is the achievement of a desired result. The opposite of failure. The state of meeting a certain expectation.

Success, in the personal sense, is usually measured in material terms.

This could mean getting a big house. A fancy car. Lots of Instagram followers.

It could be the act of breaking records. Scoring more points than the other team. Making graphs go up and to the right. Getting a promotion.

For nations, it's mostly year-on-year economic growth that's the number one measure of success. Some countries have expanded their measurements to include the health of their populations, income equality, equal rights for different peoples, and the wellbeing of their natural environments.

For most businesses, the number one measure of success is profit, closely followed by growth, market share, return on investment, and other quantifiable financial metrics. Some work to the triple-bottom-line framework, measuring their impact on three bottom lines: profit, people and planet. This means financial, social and environmental impact all have equal importance.

How do you measure success in the workplace?

As an employee, you'll probably have a set of responsibilities that you need to ensure are completed in a certain time frame.

Success, then, can just mean doing the job you have to do. If your job is preventing things from happening (for example, system downtime) then it's pretty simple to define that success: minimal occurrences of those things happening.

If your job is to create things physically, success might be defined in the number of things you make, or the quality of them (which could be measured by the number of failures or customer returns).

If your job is in the creation of ideas or commerce, it's not so easy to define the exact boundary between doing your job and succeeding at it. In these situations, some self-knowledge and a systematic approach can help bring clarity to the situation.

We're interested in workplace dynamics, and how people become their most effective at work. One of the most important driving forces behind doing well at work is matching tasks with people's inherent motivations: the attitudes and aptitudes that define how they do things best. In order to know if you're doing well, you'll have to develop some awareness of your motivation type and what's really important to you.

Whatever your goals are, you can't do much with them without first deciding which is the most important.

How to prioritize your metrics for success

Many projects are declared successful through multiple metrics. How do you know which is the most important?

81% of effective change management projects come in at or under budget. If being at or under budget were the only goal for a change project, and it was achieved, you'd call it a success. But that's an unlikely scenario. What if the target was also to implement the change project within 6 months, with system downtime under 1%? Could you still call it a success if those goals were missed, but the first wasn't?

In situations like these, goals need to be prioritized. One way to do this is to use a framework like MoSCoW to organize your thoughts around what's really important in defining success for a project.

This method, known in the world of project management and product development, assigns four categories: Must Have, Should Have, Could Have, and Won't Have.

Using it is simple: choose your objectives, and place them into each of the four categories.

  • 'Must have' are things which are critical for the project to be a success. They are non-negotiable, and missing out on them would be classified as a failure.
  • 'Should have' are things that are important, but not necessary, for project success. They'll make results better, but success can still happen without them.
  • 'Could have' are things which are desirable, but not necessary. So they're an option, and would be a positive addition, but aren't critical to project success.
  • 'Won't have' are things which you won't need for success in this particular project. They're still worth discussing, though, as you might want to deploy them for other projects.

Remember, this is about what's important for success in a particular project timeline. If you try to use this method for generic company goals, things can get a little fluffy and non-committal. Specific time-frames are key to making this work.

This is a slight deviation from the MoSCoW method's traditional use, which is for deciding which technical features to include in a development cycle for a technology product, such as a piece of software. But you can use it to rank your project goals to create your own definition of success.

You could even use the MoSCoW framework for personal goals. Imagine setting your intentions for a new year: you could put 'buy a house' as your 'must have' goal for the year, or 'read 25 books' as a 'could have'. It's a fun and useful reflective activity for working out what really matters to you, and how kind you're willing to be to yourself if things don't totally go according to plan.

How to measure your own success at work

Whether you're a people manager, solo worker or business owner, there will always be opportunities to measure your own success. Even though you'll usually have output or productivity related objectives, success is often hidden away from these in ways your organization won't always track.

So, away from monthly sales targets or lines of code written, you can take control of your own success metrics and gain your own intel on how you're doing. Here are some alternative ways of measuring success in the workplace that you can look at yourself.

Where you spend your time. 

Software systems like Harvest can track how much time you spend attending to your different tasks, giving you a nice overview each week of how you've spent your days. This is really useful for identifying parts of your workday that don't really contribute to success but still demand your time and energy.

The idea of time tracking is pretty unpalatable for many workers, especially those in creative fields. It can seem a bit dehumanising to reduce cognitive work to simple minutes and hours, when it's the end product that's the important part.

A huge part of creative work comes from thinking. But tracking time spent thinking is impossible and pretty absurd. It's the same reason we instinctively try to look busy when the boss walks past by looking at the computer screen and clicking the mouse, when really we could be looking at a blank wall and still be 'working' because we're chewing over a tricky problem that requires a break from sensory inputs.

But measuring your time can still be really useful, because it'll highlight how much time you're wasting in unnecessary meetings, or scrolling through internet junk, or replying to emails. Knowing these weak spots gives you the opportunity to address them and upgrade your days for much better quality working time.

What others think of your work. 

Most organizations will have established feedback routines, like regular 1-to-1 meetings and performance reviews, which are pretty good at setting both goals for your specific tasks, and overall performance and career related objectives.

But these can be short-sighted and one-sided. Performance statistics can only tell one side of the story, and circumstances can get in the way of accurate results (office politics, outside economic forces, and so on).

So seeking feedback yourself will help you get a more rounded view on how successful you're being at work.

Asking for constructive criticism outside of the usual performance review processes will help you understand how your work is perceived through the organization. Informally seeking feedback on how you handle certain situations, or what you could do better, is going to set you up for success much better than simply tallying up points on a KPI matrix and guessing at what works.

How you feel about what you're doing. 

Sometimes you need to search within to figure out if you're really working to your potential. It's easy to get stuck in a rut, especially if you're a well-liked member of a team in a role that's not too demanding. 

To prevent yourself hitting a plateau, it's worth looking at the different ways you can get performance coaching. This is where a coach or mentor helps you explore your place within your organization and identify where you can best apply your strengths. 

A good coach will help you set goals that are closely aligned with your values and help you find the discipline and determination to achieve them. If your current role isn't aligned to your personal definition of success, it may be time to look at other opportunities.

How your work integrates with your life.

Are you leaving work at work? Or is the line between work and life blurred? Even if you're overachieving in your productivity, smashing through targets and piling up the bonuses, if your personal life is suffering you can't say you're truly successful. Work-life balance is now playing a bigger part than before in people's definition of success; a high salary isn't the most important thing in life anymore.

You could try to quantify this if you're a systems thinker: how much time are you spending with your family each week? How many times do you stay late at the office? How often do you get to go out and see your friends without dreading a phone call from work? Are you getting a full 8 hours sleep each night?

These are the kinds of things we take for granted, but actually taking a moment to measure them can shine a light on how much work is impacting our lives.

Measuring success can become an oddly compelling part of life when you get into it. You could even apply it to your spiritual life, such as how many people you'd think might attend your funeral, or how many times you made someone's day more enjoyable. If this sort of thing is important to you, you'll get value out of measuring it.

The downsides to personal success

You know what they say - it's lonely at the top. The more success you obtain, the fewer peers you have occupying the same position.

And not only that, but success doesn't exist in a vacuum. It can have profound effects on those around you, both good and bad. Have you ever reported a big win to a friend or family member, expecting a hearty congratulations, but instead got a forced smile and a "congratulations" through gritted teeth?

People are complicated, and so are their emotions. You can't always explain a feeling. Getting to a position of power or acclaim can provoke self-criticism from people who'd rather be in your shoes, and your achievement embarrasses them by highlighting what they perceive to be a failure. 

No matter how supportive and empathetic a colleague might be, seeing you win a promotion while they remain in their role can be disappointing, even if they're good at hiding it. Your challenge here, then, is simply to remain as dignified and humble as possible so you can keep your relationships in good form. In the words of Bette Midler: "The worst part of success is trying to find someone who is happy for you."

Achievements don't always mean an end to your work, either. Humans are rarely satisfied with their lot, and the emotional high of hitting a goal eventually fades, provoking the need to redefine success and set a new goal. It's a phenomenon known as hedonic adaptation - the tendency to return to a level of stability after peaks of happiness caused by positive events. It's often cited in terms of money: a pay rise and a bigger house might lift your spirits for a while, but soon enough you'll probably want an even bigger salary and more square footage in the family home.

This process has undoubtedly driven some people to achieve great things for humanity. But it's also the driving force behind destructive greed and consistent dissatisfaction with what we actually have. Beware the hedonic treadmill: will your goals really satisfy you, or just give you a momentary high? If you've any doubts, maybe it's time to rethink what success really means to you.

Success is getting what you want, happiness is wanting what you get” - W.P. Kinsella

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