Effective assessment of catalytic performance is the foundation for the rational design and development of new catalysts with superior performance. The ubiquitous screening/optimization studies use reaction yields as the sole performance metric in an approach that often neglects the complexity of the catalytic system and intrinsic reactivities of the catalysts. Using an example of hydrogenation catalysis, we examine the transient behavior of catalysts that are often encountered in activation, deactivation and catalytic turnover processes. Each of these processes and the reaction environment in which they take place are gradually shown to determine the real-time catalyst speciation and the resulting kinetics of the overall catalytic reaction. As a result, the catalyst performance becomes a complex and time-dependent metric defined by multiple descriptors apart from the reaction yield. This behaviour is not limited to hydrogenation catalysis and affects various catalytic transformations. In this feature article, we discuss these catalytically relevant descriptors in an attempt to arrive at a comprehensive depiction of catalytic performance.