Using personal data to find work/life balance

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Belle Beth Cooper. She is the co-founder of Exist, a kick-ass personal analytics platform that we recently launched an integration with. If you have ever wanted to examine the relationships between your RescueTime productivity stats and other data points such as mood, sleep or fitness, Exist is a great option.

Balance
I love the word balance. It implies that you have enough of everything. You’re not wanting for anything, or drowning in anything. When we talk about work/life balance, it means you’re getting enough work done, but you’re also spending enough time resting, relaxing, and attending to your family, hobbies, and interests outside work.

For those of us whose work tends to blend into our lives it’s even more important to find this balance. For my co-founder Josh and I, we find ourselves working in some form or another every single day. Which means if we’re not working we tend to feel a nagging sensation that we should be, because it’s become our default state.

Not to mention the ever-growing mountain of side projects and volunteer activities we want to take on, and new skills we want to learn.

I’ve always been keen to fill up every day with learning and practising new skills, but I’ve never been great at making sure I get enough exercise. Maybe you have a particular area of work or life that gets neglected. My ongoing imbalance was the impetus for me to start tracking my activity and other areas of my life.

I started out with a simple activity tracker on my phone, and graduated to wearing a Fitbit all day, every day. I use apps like RescueTime to track what I do each day, and put as much of this data into Exist as I can.

Exist is designed to help you find meaning in the data you track. There are three big reasons it’s helpful for finding that balance between work and “life” activities: it uncovers hidden correlations and trends, it has built-in mood tracking, and it creates personalised goals based on your data.

Data insights

Tracking data about my own activities causes me to ask myself questions like “Am I improving?” and “Have I been doing x more or less this month?”. Exist helps me answer these questions by surfacing insights into my data. For example, I recently had this insight on my dashboard:

Walking less this week

8,545 average steps, 1% decrease

Walking less isn’t something I want to make a habit of, but thankfully I only dropped by 1% in the past week. And knowing that my overall average steps is around 8,000 per day, I’m pretty happy with that average from last week.

I also noticed these sleep-related insights recently:

Sleep insights

For some people, going to bed later and getting less sleep would be a bad thing but those sleep numbers are pretty good for me. I have a tendency to oversleep some days, just because I don’t have a set time I have to start work, and it tends to set my day up badly. Knowing this, I’m putting in a conscious effort to not stay in bed too long in the mornings, and these insights show that it’s working.

Averages

Seeing what my average is for each type of data can be illuminating, too. Exist breaks down averages by day of the week, as well as showing my overall average for each data point.

Exist averages

(Note: I used a Jawbone UP between my Fitbit Force breaking and the Fitbit Charge being released, which doesn’t track floors. I haven’t been wearing my Fitbit Charge long enough to increase my floors average yet)

It’s good to see, for instance, that my average mood is 4/5. It’s also pretty obvious, looking at this chart, that I tend to rate my mood higher on weekends.

I can also see that I tend to walk more on Fridays, and that my average steps is just over 8,000 per day.

My productivity tends to dip on weekends, and jumps up most on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. This makes sense, since Monday is our catch up day at Hello Code, so Tuesday is when I start to really get stuck into my work for the week.

I like knowing these averages, because it helps me calibrate my own goals. If you’ve ever used a fitness tracker or a pedometer app on your phone, you’ve probably been confronted with a suggested (or enforced) 10,000 steps per day goal. Although this might be suggested as a healthy amount of exercise for adults, it’s ridiculous to expect someone who walks 3,000 steps per day on average to suddenly jump up to 10,000.

8,000 steps per day has been my average for the past six months or so. I know this is the amount of exercise I get without trying too hard, so if I want to increase my activity levels I’ll know to start by aiming for around 8,500 steps.

Correlations

Seeing the correlations between different data points is one of the most surprising and useful parts of Exist. Although correlation doesn’t imply causation (i.e. just because two things are related doesn’t mean one causes the other), correlations can still give us useful clues into our existing behaviour and how different things affect us.

I’m especially interested in what affects my productivity (tracked with RescueTime) – both negatively and positively. I’d like to learn from my correlations so I can set myself up for the best chance of being productive each day.

Here are some of my current productivity correlations:

You are somewhat less likely (35%) to be productive when you walk more.

This is a fairly obvious one. The more I’m exercising, the more time I’m spending away from my desk. If I had a treadmill desk I might be able to turn this correlation around…

You are somewhat more likely (26%) to have a better day when you're productive.

I’m pleased to see that I have a better day when I’m productive. I’d be in a tricky position if being productive put me in a bad mood!

You are slightly less likely (22%) to be productive when it's warmer overnight.

Although I don’t work at night, a warm overnight temperature usually means less sleep (or lower quality sleep), which doesn’t bode well for a productive day. It also means it’s likely that the next day will be warm, which makes me uncomfortable and less likely to get work done.

I can also see from my correlations what affects my mood, and when I’m more likely to exercise:

You are somewhat less likely (22%) to have a good day when you climb more floors.

Lots of floors climbed could either be walking up and down hills (yuck) or staying home all day where I go up and down stairs a lot.

You are somewhat less likely (27%) to walk more on days after you've gone to bed later.

You are somewhat more likely (24%) to be walking when it's raining or snowing.

I don’t purposely go out walking in the rain, but I guess it just happens to catch me often.

Mood tracking

Exist has built-in mood tracking that works via a simple email. Every night at 9pm you get an email you can reply to including a rating for your day from 1-5 (1 being terrible, 5 being perfect) and a note about what happened.

Exist mood email

Mood tracking is a really simple way to make sure you reflect on what happens each day and how you feel. We’re adding mood tracking to our mobile apps (currently in beta testing) to make it even easier: each night at 9pm you’ll get a notification that will take you to a simple form with five numbered buttons and a box to type your note into.

Exist mobile apps

Although I tend to dread the effort of thinking back over my day and choosing a rating for it, I’ve found mood tracking to be so useful that I’ve kept it up for over a year now. As I go about my day, I tend to be more mindful of how things affect me because I always have in mind that I’ll be rating my day later and making a note about what happened.

My favourite part of mood tracking is that in the nightly emails we’ve added a feature called “Looking back” that shows you the mood entry you made on this day one year ago, or a random old entry if you don’t have one from exactly a year ago. It’s fun to open the email wondering how I felt and what I was doing this time last year, and to reflect on the notes I left to myself.

looking back

This reflective feature also makes me more mindful each night of what I enter as my note. Knowing that I’m essentially leaving a note to my future self each day helps me think about what was most important about my day, and what I’d want to know about it on this day in the future.

I also love comparing my old mood notes with my partner Josh to see what he wrote on the same day. We’ll often find we both mentioned something fun we did together, or the weather or some big news that was happening at the time.

Using averages as goals

We dropped goals from Exist a few months ago. One of the problems we’ve always had personally when tracking our behaviour, especially exercise, is working to hit a particular goal every day and losing motivation to do so after a while.

These days we use averages as goals. It works like this: if today is Monday, we create your steps goal for today by finding the average of your steps for every Monday in the past 90 days. We do this for productivity goals, too. So if you’ve been working late on Friday nights in the past few weeks, your RescueTime data will reflect that and your productivity goal will be higher on Fridays.

Averages as goals

And here’s why it’s awesome:

I don’t need to waste any time setting goals. Exist does it for me, and each goal is personalised to me.

This also means I’m competing against myself. Every goal is created from averages of my own data, so I’m only ever competing against “past me”, rather than aiming for a goal set by someone else.

And lastly, it’s always up-to-date. When I moved house recently my average steps per day dropped as my situation changed, and after a few weeks my averages started to reflect that. Because we only use averages based on the last 90 days of your data, your goals will always reflect what your activity has been like recently.

This affects each daily goal, as well. If you play in a sports team on Wednesday nights and get lots of steps those days, your Wednesday average will be higher than other days. Exist will create a goal for you, then, that will be higher on Wednesdays than it will on other days. This makes sure your goal is always as appropriate as it’s based on your existing behaviour.

I tend to get number fatigue really easily, so aiming for a set goal every day didn’t motivate me for long at all. One thing I really enjoy about having a new goal created for me each day is that I need to check Exist to see what my goal is. The simple act of checking my goal is a good reminder to be more active or productive.


With just RescueTime, mood tracking, and an activity tracking device or app, you can get a lot of useful data. Exist connects to other service like Twitter and last.fm as well, but just a few data points are enough to start seeing insights and correlations that will help you improve your work/life balance.

You can try it yourself with a 14-day free trial (note: we start you off with a set goal and switch to averages as goals once we’ve collected enough data).