A Data-Driven Self

14 January, 2021 - 4 min read

In tech, not a day goes by without someone inventing a new way to make something data-driven. Data increasingly supports every decision and action, augmenting or even replacing intuition at the centre of a wide range of processes. I couldn't be happier about it: at TechWolf we like to analyse how we work, collaborate and communicate not just through feedback and retrospectives, but also statistics and numbers. Getting insights from data doesn't just satisfy my curiosity -- it helps me centre myself and be more effective. So what happens when the subject of the data is you?

In September, one of my co-founders sent me this article in Harvard Business Review. It's a great piece, with a clear message: reflecting on yourself boosts productivity. The article describes how call centre employees who spent 15 minutes to reflect daily ended up being almost 25% more productive than their non-reflecting counterparts, after a mere ten days. Productivity benefits aside, research shows that reflection can make you happier and help you cope with pressure in a better way. That doesn't necessarily mean it's easy though: like with all habits, keeping up daily self-reflection isn't easy, especially when you've got a lot on your mind.

Anticipating some resistance to building this habit, I decided to keep thing simple: every day, I ask myself the same question: "Was today a good day?" I don't pay too much attention to whether the answer is yes or no -- instead, I try to describe what affected my answer to this question. Was it something that went well or did something crash and burn? Which (lack of) interactions shaped my day? It all tends to come together rather nicely in my daily self-reflection. I usually try not to read too much into my notes of any single day: just as you wouldn't train a machine learning model with a sample size of one, my insights tend to come from trends and repetition much more than anything else.

So how do I read into my notes? Maybe somewhat unsurprisingly, I catalogue almost anything I write by linking it to people, things and concepts, turning my notes into one big interconnected graph. With this structure in place, it's easy to dig down and ask questions. For example, whenever I have a day where I feel particularly tired or energised, I create another link. The same happens for so many major and minor moments in any given day. If it seems like keeping an oversimplified way of keeping a diary, that's probably because to some extent, it is.

What I enjoy most about this habit is how much it helps me to ground myself. Even for the most logical person, your current mood affects your perspective on life more than you like to admit. Are things really looking down, or are you just having a bad day? Is something structural, or are you just affected by recency bias? When I ask myself a question about these things, I like to just open my graph, select the right concepts and read. Over the past months, it has surprised me repeatedly how keeping track of things can turn the most challenging questions into a simple matter of fact.

Making things more objective in this way has the advantage of making your thoughts much more actionable. For example, I noted through my reflections that when I wasn't satisfied with how a meeting went, often this was connected to other meetings blocking out any preparation efforts. While that may not be the most shocking insight, just having it right there in plain sight raises the question: what are you going to do about it? To me, that's intrinsically empowering, and I hope to do a little bit more about it every single day.

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