Quantifying life

During a casual conversation on Monday, the wife remarked that given my interests and my profession (where I mostly try to derive insights from data), she was really surprised that I had never tried using data to optimise my own life.

This is a problem I’ve had in the past – I can look at clients’ data and advise them on how exactly to build their business, but I’m thoroughly incapable of doing similar analysis of my own business. I berate people for not using data and relying too much on “gut”, but “gut” is what I use for most of my own life decisions.

With this contradiction in mind, it made sense for me to start quantifying my life. Except that I didn’t know where to start. The first thing you think of when you want to do something new is to buy new gadgets for it, and I quickly asked the wife to pick up a Fitbit for me on her way back from the US next month. She would have none of it – I should use the tools that I have, she said.

I’ve tried logging stuff and writing diaries in the past but it’s mostly been tedious business (unless I’ve had to write my diary free form, which I’ve quite liked). A couple of days is all that most logs have lasted before I’ve lost interest. I hate making checklists (looking at them psyches me out), I maintain my calendar in my head (thus wasting precious memory space) and had nightmares writing notes in school.

A couple of times when I’ve visited dieticians or running coaches I’ve been asked to make a log of what I’ve been eating, and I’ve never been able to do it for more than one meal – there is too much ambiguity in the data (a “cup of dal” can mean several things) to be entered which makes the data entry process tedious.

This time, however, I’m quite bullish about maintaining the log that the wife has created for me. Helpfully, it’s on Google Docs, so I can access it on the move. More importantly, she has structured the sheet in a way that there is no fatigue in entry. The number of columns is more than what I would have liked, but having used it for two days so far, I don’t see why I should be tired of this.

The key is the simplicity of questions, and amount of effort required to fill them in. Most questions are straightforward (“what time did you wake up?” “what time did you have breakfast” etc.) and have deterministic answers. There are subjective questions (“quality of pre-lunch work”) but the wife has designed them such that I only need to enter a rating (she had put in a 3-point Likert scale which I changed to a 5-point Likert scale since I found the latter more useful here).

There are no essays. No comments. Very little ambiguity on how I should fill. And minimal judgment required.

I might be jumping to conclusions already (it’s been but two days since I started filling), but the design of this questionnaire holds important lessons in how to design a survey or questionnaire in order to get credible.
1. Keep things simple
2. Reduce subjectivity as much as possible
3. Don’t tax the filler’s mind too much. The less the mental effort required the better.
4. Account for NED. Don’t make the questionnaire too long else it causes fatigue. My instructions to the wife was that the questionnaire should be small enough to fit in my browser window (when viewed on computer). This would have limited the questions to 11 but she’s put 14, which is still not too bad.

The current plan is to collect data over the next 45 days after which we will analyse it. I may or may not share the results of the analysis here. But I’ll surely recommend my wife’s skills in designing questionnaires! Maybe she should take a hint from this in terms of her post-MBA career.

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