What I learned after analyzing my life for a year with data
In search of a less anxious, more meaningful, and hopefully happier and successful life, I decided to record my behavior and habits for an entire year. I called it LifeOps. It came from an idea for a system that is aware of your goals and behaviors. The system would provide recommendations and suggestions to better achieve those goals, build positive habits, and be more successful.
The idea is that behaviors that are seemingly unrelated to goals still impact them — and we don’t even notice or realize the impact. Additionally, by being cognizant of our behavior, we are always aware of shortfalls and can adjust accordingly. By recording and analyzing data, and changing my behavior, I was able to achieve goals and learn more about myself.
My day-to-day life is pretty busy, and not just regular busy — there’s a lot of context switching. I am a solutions architect at a custom software development company, which in itself requires my focus to be split among different things in a single day.
As a solutions architect, I work with problems I’m introduced to immediately without much time to research the business domain and technical landscape, or become a seasoned expert in that area. This requires rapid learning of the business domain and the problem at hand. I have to leverage my existing technical knowledge and experience, and then design possible solutions to these problems. This side involves a lot of communication, collaboration, and high level thinking.
Another facet of the role includes working with teams to solve more specific problems and designing solutions for the best possible outcome going forward. This side involves a lot of technical problem solving and working with development teams.
Thought/technical leadership is another aspect of my work. I need to create strategies and tactics (and a lot of the time execute on them) for growth in technical leadership within the organization. This means working on a high level perspective, but on an organizational level rather than on a specific business domain. I must apply an understanding of people and their goals to strengthen the credibility of the organization. I also need to mentor and motivate people to execute on strategies to strengthen the organization and to help them grow as individuals.
The last facet of my role is research and development. I need to keep up-to-date with technology trends and get my hands dirty in understanding how new technologies work and fit together. This helps me better advise both clients and teams as a solutions architect, plus it’s fun.
Aside from all this, I founded Prolific Idea in 2015. My goal was to build the ideas I have for a more productive and prolific future for individuals, businesses, and the world as a whole (yep, sounds cheesy).
I’ve always believed that building an extraordinary experience for people using technology that does something useful is key to success. I still do, but on this journey, I’ve realized that having a well-developed product is not enough. Thought and effort also needs to be put into strategy, marketing, finance management, and other business-related areas. I’m still learning and experimenting a lot in this space.
Apart from everything I’ve already mentioned, I have a burning passion to educate and empower people. I run monthly Artificial Intelligence meet ups/hackathons to empower local technologists so they can further their personal and professional projects with an understanding of AI techniques.
I also often share my knowledge at conferences and meet ups, which is great for meeting new people and learning wildly different things.
Additionally, I enjoy game development. It’s a big part of the reason I got into the tech space, so I try to experiment with my ideas when I find the time.
Another part of my life includes recreational and self-calling activities, like travelling and experiencing new cultures, people, and dynamics. I’ve always wanted to travel to different and interesting places in the world and explore possibilities.
And lastly, I’m a social being. I want to be able to enjoy time with friends, discussing ideas, collaborating, and meeting new people. But this becomes more difficult with my work, dream goals, and passions.
One of my goals from prior years was to be more spontaneous. When I discover something fun or different to do, I always evaluate all possibilities, the time I’d be taking, and the impact of doing whatever was presented.
I wanted to let go of all of that and do things that feel right. This meant that I would be doing new things and spending time with different people that disrupted my plans. But that outcome would likely be better than overthinking things and missing out on experiences that could be loads of fun, and possibly change my mindset for the better.
From what you’ve read so far, you can tell my life is really BUSY. And this doesn’t even include all the personal challenges and tasks that occupy my mind on a daily basis. Health and emotional wellbeing are big ones that I’ve struggled with but that deserve effort and focus.
An important point is that it’s not that it’s just being busy — it’s mental overhead spread across all these different things that I’m trying to achieve. Many may say “you’re spreading yourself too thin”, and I completely agree. However, I am passionate about each and every thing I mentioned thus far. There’s an itch for them all, and I needed to find a way to make it work without burning out, hating my life, or feeling anxious all the time.
So this brought me to using data to learn more about myself, so that I could attempt to optimize my life.
Metrics I recorded
The idea of recording metrics about my life is not new to me. A friend and I had the idea for that platform that knows your goals and behaviors and then provides suggestions, support, and insights to help you achieve those goals. It worked on some behavioral changes and used gamification techniques — and this was back in 2013.
After developing a basic prototype, I realized that there would be a lot more work involved in making it usable and useful. A few years went by during which I had little time to commit to the project, and development halted.
But in December of 2016, I realized that the app was not the most valuable part. The idea and what would enable was. So I decided to use myself as a guinea pig by simulating it on a spreadsheet.
Gathering the right data
I created a spreadsheet that included metrics on things I did on a daily basis to gain a deeper understanding of my behavior and my progress towards my goals.
My main problems have been:
- Context switching — Prioritising tasks and removing others from my mind until they’re scheduled to be focused on.
- Urge to do more — I often have the urge to start a new project or work on one of my other ideas before completing a previous one. There’s just so many ideas and questions!
- Learning new things — I have a list of things I want to learn, and the list keeps growing, without me actually learning anything on the list.
- Switching off — Understanding that the brain needs time off work to perform well.
- Insomnia — Which lead to not sleeping enough and feeling terrible on most mornings.
- Junk — I consumed too many soft drinks and energy drinks.
- Food — I don’t cook (I really should learn), so I eat out a lot, or get meals from the local store.
- Eating right — I usually skipped breakfast and lunch, then would have a big dinner and sometimes eat junk food to compensate.
- Self care — This is a bit overarching, but includes making time to take care of myself, my health, and understand that it’s okay to just do nothing.
I created a “fixed” schedule as a guideline for myself. The schedule time-blocked a part of each day to be productive around a certain theme. I decided to choose at most two themes per day. This allowed me to consciously know what I would say yes to and what I would say no to on a given day.
The schedule and themes changed slightly on a weekly basis, but having some guidelines helped me eliminate things from my mind which would have their dedicated time on other days.
A todo list has always been the centre of my activities. Now that I had focused themes, I could eliminate noise from the list when a task wasn’t part of the theme for the day. Wunderlist has been really helpful, because it allows you to prioritize tasks to focus on in different sections on a specific day by starring them.
After outlining my problems, and having an idea of my goals and passions in mind, I started recording the following:
- Time I woke up.
- Did I have time for self care?
- Did I eat breakfast, and if yes, what did I eat?
- Time I left home for work — traffic is pretty crazy in the area I live in.
- Time I arrived at work.
- Did I eat lunch, and if yes, what did I eat?
- Learnings or achievements at work.
- Time I left work for home.
- Time I arrived at home.
- Places I visited within the day.
- Time towards Prolific Idea, and learnings or achievements thereof.
- Did I eat dinner, and if yes, what did I eat?
- Leisure time. What did I do for leisure and how long did it take — usually gaming or TV.
- Number of repetitions for various exercises. E.g. push-ups, squats, sit-ups, planking, and so on.
- Amount of water consumed.
- Junk food consumed.
- Alcohol consumed.
- Number of cigarettes — trying to cut down (or quit) smoking.
- Weight — trying to be more healthy and fit.
- Sentiment — Feeling positive, feeling negative, or feeling meh.
- Journal — a description of the day.
I started recording each of these features of my day on 10 January 2017. I made sure that it was a ritual I completed every night: when I got into bed, I would record these observations on a Google Sheet. I also setup some calculations to give me some guidance on what was going right and what was going wrong.
In almost no time, it became second nature to capture the data. I could arrive home really late after a long day, or a night out, and still capture the data. This also allowed me to reflect on my day, and decide if my behavior that day was helping me achieve my goals. It also guided me in my goals for the next day.
I also looked at my behavior and trends from previous weeks to decide where I needed to focus in the next week.
Changes I made
By evaluating the data and setting short term goals, I was able to make some changes. These changes helped me achieve a small portion of my goals by using knowledge about my behavior.
Here are some of them:
- Time-blocking: I was able to get more done in a specific context by ensuring that the time I’d allocated to it on the calendar was used well.
- Focus: Since I forced myself to focus on a specific thing at any given time, this increased focus on the task at hand and resulted in higher productivity.
- Water consumption: By being aware of the exact number of litres of water I consumed, I was able to change my behaviour and consume enough water. I did this by taking a 1.5L bottle of water with me every day, and I made sure to finish it.
- Junk food consumption: I made a consious decision to pause and think before I decided to eat or drink something. This helped me eliminate most soft drinks and typical junk food from my diet.
- Health: By keeping track of the amount of water I was drinking, the food I ate, and the junk food I consumed, I was able to understand where I could cut down and improve. I decided that I would eat a small breakfast, but I was usually pressed for time. So I would get yogurt and muesli weekly that took little time to prepare and consume. Don’t get me wrong, since I wasn’t used to eating in the morning, some days I couldn’t get it down. But I forced myself for the greater good. Water was also a big one. I stopped having soft drinks throughout the day, and challenged myself to drink at least 1.5 litres of water instead. My meals were also changing. Instead of getting the most satisfying meal, I forced my self to eat something a little more boring and healthy when I ate out or got food from a store.
- Sleep: I noticed huge irregularities in my sleep. When I can’t sleep, I think a lot about everything, so I decided to find ways to improve this. I purchased a sleep tracking app, and created a routine before going to bed. I would take a warm shower, and I avoided my phone or laptop. This has made a difference, but there’s still a LONG way to go. The data also shows that sleep is likely the key contributing factor in following my plan for the day. It impacts energy, emotion, and motivation.
Lessons from the data
I’ve been time-blocking my days, capturing data on my life, and putting focus on only a subset of things in my todo list based on the themes for each day. This is what I’ve learned from an analytic perspective:
- Sleep: I sleep an average of 5.5 hrs. This needs to improve.
- Water: Intake achieved is 1.5 litres.
- Food: Forcing myself to have regular meals had no effect on my sentiment, but had health benefits in terms of losing weight.
- Junk food: I cut down consistently, but when I cheat, I cheat hard.
- Energy drinks: Almost all days that I had energy drinks created a negative sentiment. Disrupted sleep, and created toxic cycles.
- Learning: The days I learn more or achieve something are days I’m most happy regardless of falling short on other goals.
- Weight: By increasing water intake, cutting out regular junk food, and light exercise, I lost 9kg.
- Travel: Longer travel times meant worse days, but when I was traveling and seeing new places, my sentiment was higher.
- Productivity: Dividing the days of my work week into themed segments improved productivity and reduced anxiety. This was one of the largest successes of this exercise. I was more focused and effective by allowing my mind to dedicate itself to a single task for a few hours a day, rather than trying to juggle multiple ad-hoc themes.
After analyzing the data of my life for a year, I’ve learned that there are a few things that I need most to further optimize my life, achieve my goals, and be as highly performing as possible:
More granular goals: I can’t just have micro level data and high level goals. I need to create weekly themes and goals, as well as monthly themes and goals to create the focus needed to get something tangible done.
Thinking and ideating is great (which I do all the time), but manifesting it into something meaningful is always on the todo list for a day that never comes — this needs to change.
Get things done quickly: I often delayed trivial tasks for later — small things like taking out garbage, or cleaning my laptop. A big game changer is completing trivial tasks as soon as possible. Responding to an email, doing a domestic task, shopping for something vital, and so on.
By completing these tasks as soon as possible, you reduce the mental overhead of remembering to do them. Even if you think they’re not taking up space in your head, they are. These tasks cause anxiety whether you know it or not. Get trivial tasks done as soon as you can, and it will make you feel less lazy, more productive, and have a positive outcome overall.
More data: I need to record more data on a daily basis to better understand the exact activities I’m involved in, the things I’m consuming, and the time I use.
Ease of capture: Capturing the data on a spreadsheet is cumbersome. The goal with Misana (the software system that this is meant to be) is to make capturing this data easy. Ideally, I would automate it via phone sensors and machine learning.
Real-time analytics and prescriptions: I currently need to capture all the data for a day to understand the daily, weekly, monthly, and overall analytics via some fancy formulas in a spreadsheet. If something could provide me with real-time analytics and guidance, I could easily work towards achieving my goals without the administrative overhead.
Beyond these points, I’ve learned something that cannot be described completely or quantified. I’ve learned that by acknowledging that I can improve, and making an effort to analyze myself (along with the things I do and the reasons I do them) and compare that to the goals I have, small improvements can be made. With small changes to myself and my life, I was able to achieve things which were just “future goals” in my mind. I was able to make a difference with small but conscious changes to the way I went about my day.
Between all the goals I strive towards and the daily grind, there’s still noise in my mind about what to do, when to do it, and what value it has. Although it is improving, every new idea is there to disrupt it. Sometimes I feel like I’m fighting all those ideas.
I’m a strong believer in not being a sheep (someone who conforms to the norms of society and settles for mediocracy). Routine makes me feel like a sheep, but it’s also something that we crave as humans. On the extreme side, freedom may mean chaos and uncertainty. But for me, it means the elimination of stress and the ability to do what feels right without fear.
I’ve learned that improving my health was crucial to my cause. By making an effort to do things that benefit your health including sleeping well, eating right, and exercising, other goals become easier. You feel better, have more energy, and sometimes more motivation.
When presented with something new that makes you feel uncomfortable, consider doing it. Doing new things that take you out of your comfort zone is one of the best ways to grow.
The bottom line from this exercise is to do something different, forgive small errors, and constantly work towards the things you’re passionate about. Instead of complaining or feeling disempowered, do something small that changes the way you live, think, work, and exist.
I use the following apps to help me prioritize, understand, and complete tasks that work towards my goals. Switching between them whilst trying to maintain productivity is difficult.
- Outlook flagged emails.
- Inbox pinned emails.
- Calendar events.
- Calendar focus blocks.
- Trello boards on various projects.
- Slack messages.
- Categorized to-do lists.
- Spreadsheet with daily habits.
- Spreadsheet with overarching weekly and monthly goals.
Surely this can be consolidated into a single platform that captures the essence of being productive and working towards goals seamlessly. This is the future of Misana, an app that I hope to develop and ship in the future.
I hope you can take some of the lessons that I have learned in this process and look introspectively at yourself. I challenge you to change your lifestyle. Try to create order while being spontaneous in your daily life, your monthly ambitions, and your overarching life goals.
For me, gathering data and learning from it worked. You may need less structure and do small but meaningful acts in your routine that help you achieve your goals or do things that currently seem beyond the realm of reality for you.
Being cognizant about your behavior and goals can make a tremendous difference. Regardless of the method, do something that takes you out of your comfort zone and forces you to elevate yourself to do something that contributes towards what you’re striving for.
In response to a request after this was published, I put together an example spreadsheet that you can use and experiment with. Click here to access it on Google Sheets.