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Posted on: Tuesday, 22 March 2016 by Rajiv Popat

When I finally patched together a couple of android applications with some custom code that would capture what I did with every minute of my awake time, push that information into a SQL database and then extract intelligent reports out of it, I was so darn excited that the first thing I did was show the system to my wife.

She smiles and thinks I am completely nuts and monitoring every minute of my life is a little too insane, even for a nerd like me. "Why would you want to monitor your time like that?" - she wonders. For me, as a geek though, the question isn't Why, the question is 'Why Not'. I love the idea of monitoring my time because:

  1. Now I can monitor how much time I spent getting ready to go to work, eating, working, watching TV, reading and even having fun. In the scheme of my life, time is one more dimension that I can now log into a system! How cool is that?
  2. I'm excited to find out what new insights and correlations about my life the data can provide me. For example, does the amount of time I spend in getting ready to get to work change based on when I wake up? If yes by exactly what percentage? What impact does that have on the amount of stress I experience when I start my day? What impact does that stress have on the number of productive pomodoro sessions I have for the rest of the day.
  3. I'm excited to find out how those insights will change me as a human being.

What can I say? I'm a typical nerd and I love my data.

My obsession with monitoring started with my very first endeavors with Fitness back in 2009 when an extremely skinny, underweight nerdy version of myself set a big hairy audacious goal of gaining 33 pounds of body weight in a year. It was about food and fitness logs back then. How much proteins was I taking in, how much cardio was I doing, how much strength training was I engaging in and how different combinations of cardio, strength, food and sleep were impacting my weight. I did eventually end up gaining 33 pounds in 11 months. Recently, when I started exceeding my BMI I used the same monitoring and lost 14 pounds in 2 months and have not gained the weight since. I discovered that as a nerd, what I can measure, dissect, read about, study and understand, I can improve.

My long life as a developer has taught me that big changes are all about profiling the right data and making small tweaks based on the insights the data provides. Almost every time you see a manager and a developer fighting over performance, the question to ask the developer is: Have you profiled your application? Do you know what's slowing down the system? OR are you just working on a hunch?

Hunches are great, when they lead you to an answer instantly. When they don't, they send you on a long trip to an infinite loop of random guesses. But collect enough data about your code, analyze it and you realize that the fix is usually a small change in a function which hits a database inside a for-loop or something really as simple as that. The fix itself isn't hard; gathering enough data about the issue and then deriving enough insights from that data that leads you to the fix, is.

For most Nerds, me included, it's the same thing when it comes to life.

Which is why when I started collecting data about my Finances and started recording every financial transaction in my life to the very last cent in a well designed system with apps and some basic reports I used on top of the data, my savings rate jumped by more than 50% in just 3 months.

Did my life style change significantly? Not really. We still eat out and we still spend money on things that matter to us. However, we realized that we were paying for over a hundred television channels me and my wife were never going to watch, that go-daddy was auto-renewing over 30 domains on my credit card that I never used and my bank was looting me by skimming off the interest rates of my investments. Well that and a dozen other holes that had been leaking hard earned money constantly for years.

They were all little things, but when the number totals up and you see those things add up to over 20% of your actual monthly savings, you have a reason to pick up the phone and cancel a few subscriptions. And when you do that and that results in considerable savings, you get the confidence to save more and then you defer buying that fancy new electronic toy that you don't really need by a few months - not because you can't afford it - but because it's not in your planned budget and you need to save up for it.

And then it gets exciting, because suddenly before you know it, you've added some new investment goals into the system and now you're tracking your progress towards those goals and your wife has also seen the data and is actively helping and supporting you in moving forward towards those goals, even when you are tempted to spend. That's what data does to you; especially if the insights the data gives you are clear and out in the open. 'I'm spending way too much on things I don't need' is nowhere close to as powerful as 'I'm spending x% of my income on things I don't need' especially when x is large.

Monitoring turns out to be so important that, Author Gretchen Rubin, has an entire chapter dedicated to monitoring in her book, "Better than before" (which happens to be book #3 of 52 books on my list this year) - where she explains the kind of impact monitoring can have on your behavior by giving her sister's example:

Elizabeth has type 1 diabetes, which means that her pancreas doesn't produce enough insulin. (In type 2 diabetes, which is far more common, the body produces insulin but doesn't react properly to it.) Without insulin, blood sugar can spike to dangerous, even life-threatening levels, so Elizabeth must give herself multiple daily insulin injections, and to inject herself correctly, she must know her blood sugar level.

For years, she'd tested her blood sugar by pricking her finger to check her blood, but she'd recently gotten a device inserted under her skin to monitor her blood sugar continuously. I wanted to know if she found the monitor effective.

"Monitoring is key," she said. "For years, I hated the idea of having a device attached to my stomach, but with diabetes, accurate tracking is so important that I finally caved. Now I can't imagine not having the monitor."

When she told me she was getting the device, I'd imagined that it might administer insulin directly, or tell her what she needed. Nope.

The monitor merely provides a continuous record of her blood sugar levels—but that information makes a big difference.

"Without a monitor, I might test my blood sugar ten times a day, but the monitor checks it constantly," she explained. "I know where my blood sugar is and where it's heading. Also, I know the effect of what I'm doing, so I can't kid myself. Like I was eating this frozen yogurt that claimed to be low-carb, but from the readings I got on my monitor, I know that can't be true."

"Even though the monitor doesn't actually do anything, seeing the numbers makes you behave differently?"

"For sure. Without a monitor, if I ate something questionable, I might unconsciously wait a few hours to test, so I'd get a better number, but that doesn't work with a monitor. I can't fool myself."

That's why the Strategy of Monitoring works so well: no more fooling ourselves. I decided to exploit it for my own habits. If I had a better handle on what I was doing, I could focus my habit-formation energy in the right place. I suspected that in certain areas, I was giving myself more credit for good habits than I deserved.

If you want to see the kind of impact real time monitoring can have, specially given the devices and the technology we have at our disposal today, take a look at Scott Hanselman's IoT demo on monitoring his sugar. Scott's excitement of the technology and the kind of insights that it can provide is a reflection of how any geek would react when he sees huge volumes of personal data analyzed to provide insights that you never had before.

As for my time monitoring system, I realized that the system still had a lot of manual entry points, which is why I wasn't consistent with it, but that failed attempt helped me monitor windows of my time that I really wanted to monitor and that in turn has actually made me a lot more productive than before. After all, some data is still better than none. And I am still working on a system that can monitor more and more of my time without me actively logging things.

The Point? Data collection on yourself and self monitoring isn't all about buying the hottest fitness band in market. It's about building systems which have the potential of providing you insights about yourself that you never had before. And then having the courage and conviction to change based on those insights.

In the posts to come in this series I'll try to document some of my efforts at monitoring my own life in near real time and showcase how I monitor aspects of my life, how I draw correlations between the data and how I tweak my life to bring about some of these changes.

Of course, in the larger scheme of things I'm just a data point of 1, I suck at Mathematics and I'm not even a social or a data scientist, but I hope these experiments inspire you to capture parts of your life that you feel are important and then tweak them ever so slightly to get huge benefits. That's what this series of posts is going to be about.

What aspects of your life are you monitoring actively with data? Of course if it's an area of your life that needs improvement you would know things are bad and if you know things are bad you can fix them, but sometimes, quantifying just 'how bad' things are is the nudge that we as nerds need to change things. And it can teach us things about ourselves that we thought we knew before, but we didn't.

After all, most of us aren't really as mindful as we think we are but we have the gift of data and of the many things data can do, one of the most powerful is brining you face to face with yourself.