I’m a graduate student studying and researching psychology so any time I want to understand something better I turn to data. As long as you collect it honestly and in a methodologically sound manner, data don’t lie. Good science is built on good data and one of the most important experiments I’m involved with isn’t funded by any grants and doesn’t have a team of scientists working on it — it’s the ongoing study of the way I work and live.
Every year I try to take a look at the data that best describes my work habits over the past 12 months to better understand whether I’m doing what I’ve set out to do. I’m trying to find inefficiencies, misguided attention, and other gaps so I can make sure I’m doing my best work as much as possible. I happen to work for myself while going to school full-time, but regardless of the details of your work situation you probably want to be operating at peak capacity as much as possible. Conducting an End of Year Review is a great way to recalibrate as you move into the new year.
The first step of any End of Year Review is deciding what questions you want to answer. This is partially dependent on the data you have available but some possible examples include:
- How am I using my time?
- What do my actions say about my priorities?
- Have I left important but non-urgent projects by the wayside?
- How much time do I spend doing email?
- What have I done in the past year that I want to make sure I never/always do again?
The answers to these (and I’m sure countless other) questions can provide very benficial information for how you’ll try to conduct yourself in 2013. The next step is to look at the data that will help you answer these questions accurately. While many people do End of Year Reviews that are nothing more than pure mental reflection on the past 365 days, I’m always skeptical of my ability to remember things accurately. One thing being a psychology student has taught me is to be intensely skeptical of my memory. We aren’t nearly as good at remembering things as we like to think. Go with the hard data whenever possible.
Sources of Data
Obviously, RescueTime is a great source of data if you’re interested in knowing how you spent time at your computer. This is the first place I start with any sort of review on my work habits. There’s nothing quite like the shock of seeing you spent over 24 hours on time wasting activities over the course of several weeks to serve as a serious wakeup call.
Other than RescueTime, other great sources of data include; your calendar, daily journal or log, digital pictures, financial information, saved text messages, archived information from task management software, personal writing of any kind, etc. All of these sources help you see where you spent time, attention, and energy.
As you look through your calendar you may remember the awesome conference you went to last February which reminds you to follow up with that promising business lead. Looking through a year of photos will make you realize you’ve accidentally distanced yourself from some people important in your life (work, personal, or both). You may look at a year’s worth of saved work files and realize the big project you told yourself you’d work on last year is still sitting forlornly in the “unfinished” file.
Using The Data
Once you have all this data and have done any analyzing you need to do to draw some conclusions (more time on work that matters, less time on Facebook, call Steve, more writing in the morning, less computer on the weekend, etc.) how do you move forward?
First, let me point out that a potentially great first step is to decide to spend a little bit more time and effort recording more data on yourself in 2013. The better the data you have, the more you can learn about what does or doesn’t work for you.
Assuming you’re happy with the data you collect, my favorite way to make changes is to focus on one major change for 30 days. For example, when I did my most recent End of Year Review I realized I was spending way too much time on mind-numbing websites. I decided that I’d severely limit the amount of time I allow myself to mindlessly surf for 30 days. At the end of that period I’ll re-assess how the past 30 days went and whether I want to a.) continue with the experiment, b.) modify the experiment, or c.) go back to the way I was before.
Obviously, you can make changes in your life without collecting data on yourself first. You could also “do science” without collecting data — but nobody would take you very seriously. Why not apply the same standards that ensure good science to the way you make changes in your own life?
If you’re like 68.8% of the US population, you could stand to lose a few pounds. Or, perhaps you’re part of the 20% of the population that gets under 6 hours of sleep a night. Chances are, there’s (at least) one substantial change to your lifestyle that you’ve meant to make, but have never gotten around to following through with.
Personally, I need to get in shape. You see, my wife published a cookbook this year. It’s all about cupcakes. Specifically, baking lots of delicious things inside of cupcakes. This is probably the epitome of “nice problems to have“, but being the default taste-tester for the past 18 months has caused me to put on some extra pounds. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been an incredibly tasty 18 months, but at this point I have more buttercream frosting flowing through my veins than I probably should. Couple that with my mostly desk-bound office job, and I’ve found myself with a lot of risk factors piling up for some particularly nasty stuff as I get older.
Making lasting changes is hard. Real hard
In many cases, you’re not just trying to form a new habit – going to the gym four times a week, for instance. You’re also trying to break an existing bad habit – like the fact that I eat a comical number of cupcakes every week. Studies have shown that even when facing clear wakeup calls, such as a heart attack or cancer, very few people are successful at making long-term lifestyle changes. In fact, further research has concluded that fear and guilt are generally the least effective motivators for behavior change. There’s a big part of the problem right there. We tend to think about the changes we should make in a less-than-positive context. “Wow, I really let myself go!”, or “I have to stop smoking or I’m going to get cancer!” Rather, change seems to work the best when it’s rooted in positive thinking, has a specific outcome, and has a well thought-out plan for reaching it.
Putting some numbers behind your efforts
Fortunately, there are a lot of ways to get scientific about it, increasing your chances for success. Thanks to new technologies, it’s easy and relatively cheap to take an information-based approach to the changes we’re trying to make.
25 35 pounds” is a crappy goal*
*It’s a fantastic aspiration, but as far as behavior change goals go, it’s terrible.
Several years ago, I made a New Year’s Resolution to lose 25 pounds. I thought I had a great plan. I set up an automated email to remind me once a week so I’d stay motivated. It totally failed. I still get those emails, but I’ve gained 10 pounds in the meantime and all they do is make me feel guilty about it. Goals like this are bad because they focus solely on a ending state (me, 25 pounds lighter than when I started) and completely step around the “lifestyle change” aspect of getting in shape. There’s also not even a hint of how I’d start to move towards that goal, short of just willing myself to do lose weight (which hasn’t worked). It’s much better to have specific, measurable goals, preferably tied to discreet actions. “Eat a salad for dinner three times a week” or “Jog every day” are things that are much easier to take the first step on. More importantly, they are things that can be easily measured.
Having more information tends to lead to better outcomes
By keeping measurements of your goal-related actions, you’ll get a good sense of your starting point, you’ll start to see patterns jump out at you, and you’ll build up a document of your small successes that can keep you going when you get frustrated. You’ll also set yourself up to take advantage of a really powerful tool. The feedback loop.
Action -> information -> reaction -> information -> repeat…
A feedback loop is a chain of cause and effect that forms a continual cycle, with the information gained from your previous action informing your next action. It’s a way of understanding how the small changes you make move you closer to, or further away from, a desired state. A great example is dynamic speed signs that show your speed along side the current speed limit. By presenting you with your current speed, in real time, alongside the current speed limit, most people tend to regulate their own driving behaviors. This same process can be adapted to support pretty much any type of behavior you want to tweak.
Feedback loops have four parts:
- Evidence – A measurement is collected (you go stand on the scale).
- Relevance – You are made aware of how the measurement relates to you (you gained half a pound).
- Consequence – You are presented with paths you could take based on what you’ve just learned. You could stay home, eat poorly, and watch tv all day (probably will result in your next measurement being higher), or you could go to the gym and eat a salad (which will likely result in your next measurement being lower).
- Action – You make a choice and act on it.
Then the cycle repeats, starting with a new measurement, context, and set of consequences and actions.
Feedback loops are great, for several reasons. First, they break things down into options that are realistic given the current situation. The options “go jogging” and “rest for a day” are a lot easier to process than “do a triathlon” or “don’t do a triathlon”. They also focus on relative change, so they’re forgiving if you have a bad week. It’s fairly easy to course-correct because you have a constantly updating baseline to improve from. They also make slow and steady progress more obvious. Finally, they put the information in your hands. You don’t have to wait for expert advice from a personal trainer, nutritionist, or a doctor. You gain a more intimate understanding of yourself based on the information you’ve collected, and become the expert about what works for you.
Feedback loops have proven to be successful in training elite athletes, traffic-calming initiatives, and getting people to conserve energy around their houses. So they make a lot of sense as a tool for your personal behavior change. One of the biggest obstacles in the past has been the expensive tools to make measurements, but there are more and more low-cost gadgets and smartphone apps that are making the job easier everyday.
Make a game out of it
Being able to define your New Year’s Resolution into measurable chunks also gives you an opportunity to have fun with it. Competition is in our nature, and once you have a steady stream of numbers rolling in, you can use them to challenge yourself. Whether you like to compete against yourself or others, there’s a ton of options for turning your personal stats into a game experience, to help you get over the fact that, sometimes, making lasting changes can actually be really hard work.
Shocker: Winning prizes is fun
Do you remember the “gold stars” that you got in elementary school? You couldn’t do anything with them, but they were still fun to get. Even if it’s just a stupid image that shows up on my Fitbit page, it feels good to get recognized for an achievement. If you’re tracking your progress towards a goal, even if it’s just on a spreadsheet, milestones will become visible, and you can use that to push yourself forward. This could be a single achievement (“can I beat my personal best time to run a mile?”), or a cumulative one (“how many days in a row can I walk more than 10,000 steps?”). Many systems have these reward mechanisms built in, allowing you to work towards rewards for everything from exercise to quitting smoking.
Competition == community
Walk by pretty much any gym and you’ll see a sign for a “Biggest Loser” competition going on. You might have had one at your office. Sure, the prizes that come with it have been proven to work for behavior change (at least in the short-term), but perhaps the more interesting reason is that competition provides a great foundation for community. When you get a lot of people together working towards a common personal goal, it becomes easier for each individual to make progress. There are more opportunities for support, inspiration from your peers, and yes, a competitive spirit. A rising tide lifts all ships, as they say. Unfortunately, the inverse is also true, as a study recently showed that having overweight friends is a huge risk factor for obesity.
Tracking your data as you work toward your resolution can provide a common context for you with a larger group. Strava.com has created a vibrant community of runners and cyclists who track their workout time and compete against each other. National Novel Writer’s Month brings together hundreds of thousands of writers every year for an intensive writing challenge. We recently did a study on NaNoWriMo, and found that people who wrote the most tended to spend about twice as much time on the nanowrimo.org community site than others.
Create some consequences for failure
While it’s fun to work towards a badge or a reward, sometimes it’s equally motivating to work against the threat of a consequence. That’s where commitment contracts come into play. A commitment contract is an artificially-constructed consequence to keep you on task. An extreme example of this is this productivity experiment by Maneesh Sethi, who hired someone on Craigslist to sit near him and smack him if she caught him wasting time on Facebook.
Websites like Beeminder and Stickk allow you to set up commitment contracts, where you pledge to give up a certain amount of money if you fail to meet a goal that you’ve defined (which they help you track along the way). It’s a little gimmicky, but effective. It sort of flips the game on it’s head. You’re no longer trying to win, you’re trying to avoid losing.
Three tips for tracking your New Year’s resolutions
1. Keep a rolling average of your daily measurements
If you have a daily goal that can be measured numerically (your weight, number of steps you’ve taken, hours of sleep, cigarettes smoked, etc…), plot it on a spreadsheet and take an average of the past ten days (which is simple to do in most spreadsheet programs). Use that number as your number to beat for the current day. That will help smooth out the noise and give you a realistic moving target.
2. Set up systems to collect data with little or no effort
There are a growing list of devices that will make the process of recording data about your efforts easier. Reducing the effort required to track data about yourself means you can focus on your goal, and not worry about whether or not you forgot to make notes in your spreadsheet after each workout. Here are some examples:
3. Set up regular reviews of your progress
Taking some time to review you progress will help keep you motivated, and allow you to spot meaningful patterns that you can use to enhance your efforts. Try to set aside a small amount of time every week to look back and reflect.
Some examples of tracking your resolutions:
Click to enlarge:
What will you be tracking in the New Year? And do you have any other strategies to help you out along the way? I’m curious to know what’s worked for you and what hasn’t.
Last month, we ran an experiment with the help of over a hundred writers attempting National Novel Writer’s Month. We wanted to understand what it takes to tackle a challenge like NaNoWriMo and actually stick with it. So we asked writers to use RescueTime to track their time for the month of November. The writers were able to use RescueTime’s productivity tools to better understand their time, and we were able to take a look at the the broader data set and see if we could spot any patterns that would shine some light on how to stay motivated for a project like this. When it was all said and done, we recorded 3,097 hours of writing-related activities, which is pretty amazing. We’ve been analyzing the data for the past few days, and have been able to boil it down to a few of the more interesting observations.
Among other things, we found that:
- Authors that logged the most writing time seemed to take regular dinner breaks
- Basically no one wrote anything on Thanksgiving day
- In addition to traditional word processing programs, many people used websites such as Write or Die to stay motivated with their writing
For more insights, click below to enlarge the infographic. If you’d like to use RescueTime to better understand your own productive habits, click here to sign up.
Obviously, we couldn’t have done this study without the help of all the writers that were nice enough to participate. Thanks so much!
If you’d like to analyze your own time and see what kinds of interesting things you can find out about yourself, sign up for a RescueTime account today.
Do you have problems setting new goals and sticking to them? I do. I’m downright terrible at it. Going to the gym, sleeping more, eating better. I have all the good intentions, but just not enough of the follow through. That’s why I’m pretty intrigued by Beeminder. They’re a service that keeps you focused on your goals by allowing you to enter into a “commitment contract” with them. Essentially, you pay them money if you fail at a goal you’ve set. It’s a way to add some real-ness to your efforts, and provide a tangible consequence if you give up.
Beeminder makes it easy to keep track of your progress by integrating with a bunch of automatic data sources (FitBit, RunKeeper, and Gmail to name a few). And today, they’re adding support for RescueTime. You can connect your RescueTime account to Beeminder and let them automatically pull in information about your productivity levels or the amount of time you spend in specific categories. This allows you to create all sorts of goals on Beeminder, among them:
- Increase your amount of productive time per day
- Decrease time spent in email
- Spend more time on software development
- Spend less time on Hacker news
Here’s my personal goal for increasing my productive time:
Basically, the yellow path represents the total cumulative productive time I’ve committed to logging for the next few weeks (units are in minutes). Measurements are automatically pulled in via the RescueTime API. If I fall below the line, I’ll have to pay $5 (you can adjust the pledge amount to make it more meaningful if you want).
It’s a great way to use your RescueTime data to motivate yourself to make meaningful changes. It’s also a great example of how the RescueTime API makes it easy to do interesting things with your data. Thanks to the Beeminder team for putting this together!
To give it a try, go to https://www.beeminder.com/rescuetime to get started. To learn more, check out the announcement over on the Beeminder blog.
Lifelogging is one of those things that I’ve heard talked about for years, seen lots of clunky attempts at, and never really been impressed by. It’s a huge bummer, really. Ever since I read Total Recall, by Gordon Bell and Jim Gemmell, I’ve been fascinated by the idea of being able to offload my memories and experiences onto digital storage and be able to have it actually work and be meaningful. Automatically funneling all my online footprints into a single stream can be done pretty well, and keeping useful records of raw physical data (steps, sleep, food intake, etc) has gotten easier and more interesting. But automatically capturing actual experiences just hasn’t really worked. There are quality issues. There’s a huge storage and organization problem since you’re usually talking about capturing images, video, or audio. Oh yeah, and a lot of the time you end up looking like this guy. Aside from the pure nerd-factor, I think one of the biggest problems is that these kind of systems have to compete with our memories which, for the foreseeable future, are ALWAYS going to be richer, more accessible, and more meaningful than anything captured on an external source.
Despite all that nay-saying, I’m pretty psyched about the new lifelogging camera from Memoto that just went up on KickStarter today. I don’t know if it will actually turn out to do a better job than anything that’s come before it, but it sure is pretty. It takes a gps-stamped picture every 30 seconds while you’re wearing it. I can think of a ton of ways that it ends up being a total mess, but it feels like a step in the right direction. I’m really looking forward to seeing how projects like this and Google Glass end up panning out.
What do you think of capturing every waking moment of your life? Overkill? Creepy? Exhausting? or Awesome?
I just came across this post on the Harvard Business Review blog. It’s a great example of how you can self-track and learn about how changes in your workplace behavior can enhance your productivity. In this case, it was wearing headphones. The author used RescueTime to keep track of his productivity levels, which of course we love, but aside from that it shows how doing experiments on yourself doesn’t have to be complicated.
I’m interested in trying this one myself. A lot of people have anecdotal evidence that wearing headphones helps them block out distractions (I’ve even seen some people say that wearing them unplugged can be beneficial, simply because it causes others to think twice about interrupting you).
I’d also be curious to explore what genres of music are more conducive to productivity. I’ve read that classical and instrumental music is the best, because your brain doesn’t have to try to focus on lyrics. On the other hand, sometimes a good dose of high-energy punk rock is exactly what I need to get excited about tackling what’s in front of me.
If you’d like to use RescueTime for you own experiments, sign up here.