Wednesday, April 15, 2020

The Next Big Thing in Self Improvement?

Recently the idea of personal analytics hits me more and more. What is personal analytics? It’s a way of making decisions in someone’s life based on numbers. You measure certain aspects of your life, analyze the results, and make decisions based on them.

Over time I find more things pointing to this direction. All these make me wonder: is personal analytics the next big thing in self improvement?

It started about two years ago when I read an excerpt of the book Super Crunchers. The book talks about how smart companies “act by numbers.” Instead of making decisions based on intuition, they make decisions based on what they measure and calculate. For instance, they use mathematical models to accurately predict how the customers will behave in certain situations and adjust their operations accordingly. This way the companies can directly make the right decisions without wasting their resources. The book even says that those companies know about your preferences better than you.

Reading that made me think: is it possible to apply that at individual level? Can individuals live by numbers? Can someone make decisions for his life not based on intuition but based on facts? If we can apply that, that will be a great leap forward. Just like the companies, you will be able to optimize your life to get the most out of it.

As it turns out, some people already do that. They already live by numbers to optimize their lives. My favorite example is Jim Collins, the author of Built to Last and Good to Great. Here is what The New York Times wrote about him:
And in a corner of the white board at the end of his long conference room, Mr. Collins keeps this short list:
Creative 53%
Teaching 28%
Other 19%
That, he explains, is a running tally of how he’s spending his time, and whether he’s sticking to a big goal he set for himself years ago: to spend 50 percent of his workdays on creative pursuits like research and writing books, 30 percent on teaching-related activities, and 20 percent on all the other things he has to do.

These aren’t ballpark guesstimates. Mr. Collins, who is 51, keeps a stopwatch with three separate timers in his pocket at all times, stopping and starting them as he switches activities. Then he regularly logs the times into a spreadsheet.
That’s not all. From the same article:

Oh, he sleeps with vigor, too. He figures that he needs to get 70 to 75 hours of sleep every 10 days, and once went to a sleep lab to learn more about his own patterns. Now – surprise, surprise – he logs his time spent on a pillow, naps included, and monitors a rolling average.
“If I start falling below that,” he says, pointing to the short list on his whiteboard, “I can still teach and do ‘other,’ but I can’t create.”

Isn’t that amazing? He carefully measures certain parts of his life in order to improve them. He makes his decisions not based on memory or intuition but based on numbers. Jim Collins is the best example I’ve found so far of someone who is living by numbers.

But will personal analytics be a common phenomenon?
Well, there is one difficulty here: the data-gathering process. A company has a lot of resources to measure almost anything in its operation. It can set up a separate division to do just that. But an individual has limited resources. You have only yourself to do everything. I’m sure many people won’t be patient and diligent enough for that. Even those who do must be careful not to spend too many resources on it at the expense of the real, productive work. Because of these difficulties, only a few people like Jim Collins apply personal analytics effectively.

Fortunately, it may change in the future. There are new products coming out that make it easy for you to gather data. One good example is the Nike+ system:

Veronica Noone attached a small sensor to her running shoes and headed out the door. She pressed start on her iPod and began keeping track of every step she took. It wasn’t a long run – just 1.67 miles in 18 minutes and 36 seconds, but it was the start of something very big for her.

Since that day, she’s run 95 more times, logging 283.8 miles in about 48 hours on the road. She’s burned 28,672 calories. And her weight, which topped 225 pounds when she was pregnant, has settled in at about 145.

Noone knows all of that thanks to the sensor system, called Nike+. After each run, she can sync her iPod to the Nike+ Web site and get a visual representation of the workout – a single green line. Its length shows how far she’s gone, and the peaks and valleys reflect her speed.

Products like Nike+ make data gathering effortless. We can expect more and more products like that emerge in the future. When that happens, you can easily measure many aspects of your life and use them to optimize your life.
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