A data driven approach to living your best life
Five time-tested methods that help me stay on track with personal goals, build new habits and enjoy myself in the process.
For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in strategic approaches to personal development. It started with to-do lists and New Year’s resolutions (that I never kept), but I quickly realised that I needed a more elaborate framework that allowed me to track important data without spending too much time on its maintenance and analysis.
Over the years, I researched, tested, modified, adopted and discarded dozens of techniques. Some required too much commitment, others didn’t provide enough data for meaningful insights and some just didn’t fit into my routine.
In addition to finding the optimum framework, I had to decide what data to gather, how often and in what format, all of which took a lot of trial and error. It’s still a work in progress, and maintaining and improving the tools that help you optimise your life is a part of the optimisation process.
Here are five techniques that served me well over the years. I hope you find them useful too!
1. Rating scales
At the end of each month, I rate my perceived satisfaction with the following eight areas of life on a scale from 1 to 10:
- Work and career
- Family and relationship
- Friends and community
- Health and fitness
- Finances and material goods
- Creativity and growth
- Emotional wellbeing
This is a quick and dirty exercise that allows me to gather quantitative data on a bunch of broad topics and see patterns and correlations. Of course, this doesn’t tell me what went right or wrong, but looking at a heat map (I view this data in different formats, but a heat map is the default) at the end of the year, I get a bird’s-eye view of what went well and what needs improving. It takes less than five minutes at the end of each month and serves as a prompt to review and reflect on the personal goals, achievements and areas of improvement associated with each of the eight metrics.
2. Monthly projects
This is a great technique for tackling broad or vague tasks that often get neglected until I find time to break them down into actionable steps. Every month, I pick a different project or theme and spend 2–3 hours of planned time each week working on it. This is best explained through examples, so here are some of the projects that worked well for me or my friends in the past:
- Declutter: you might start the month by (re)reading Marie Kondo’s famous book and making an action plan, then tackling a different area of the house each week and listing everything that doesn’t spark joy on eBay or taking it to be recycled.
- Sustainability: review how you can make more sustainable choices in different areas of your life. Try cycling to work for a week, research where your food and clothes comes from, check if you can switch to a greener energy provider etc.
- Giving back: pick some volunteering opportunities supporting the causes close to your heart, review your charity donations, sign up to GoodGym, make sure you shop on Amazon Smile and take a bag of unwanted goods from your month of decluttering to a local charity shop.
- Out of your comfort zone: spend a month doing things that intimidate you :)
As you can see, these are broad non-time-sensitive tasks that most of us add to our New Year’s resolution lists and never follow up on. Focusing on a single theme each month and knowing that you only have to do it for a set period (unless you chose to continue) will help you focus and act.
Of course, some projects may take more or less time, so you might want to adjust the timeline. Try grouping smaller projects into broader themes, for example, I reviewed my video games wishlist and attended theatre improv lessons in a single month of Playfulness. Avoid stretching larger projects beyond 5–6 weeks, as you will start loosing focus, and try revisiting them in a few months time instead.
3. Daily check-ins
I try to avoid daily commitments and streaks where possible because I want to maintain maximum flexibility on what I chose to do each day. Still, some data points need to be collected more frequently if you want to see meaningful insights. This is especially relevant for habits and skill-based activities that require discipline and commitment.
I already use specialised apps for many of the things I’m doing; Strava gives me detailed account of my training and Duolingo lets me know how my French practice is going. In addition to this, I use Daylio app to track relevant activities at the end of each day. At the moment, I track how often I draw and practice drums (new skills), as well as go to bed before midnight and take supplements (new habits), and I add and remove things from the list regularly.
4. Skill building sprints
They say it takes on average 66 days to build a new habit and 10,000 hours to master a skill. While we can argue about the exact numbers, I’m sure you will agree that both tasks require a good amount of effort, discipline and commitment.
Sprints are somewhat similar to monthly projects — you choose a skill you want to practice, pick a suitable timeframe and dedicate time to daily practice — but, of course, this is easier said than done. You have to be strategic in picking what you want to work on and realistic about the amount of effort you can dedicate to the project and the result you would like to see at the end. Even more importantly, you need to have a plan for getting back on track if, for any reason, you miss a day and lose a streak.
But when all the ingredients are right, the sprints can do magic! Be it fitness, creative, intellectual or any other type of goals, you would be surprised how much you can learn and improve when you focus and commit to it!
Since moving to live abroad, I have often struggled to maintain and nurture meaningful social connections. I’d focus on it one month, spend all my free time calling and meeting people for coffee, then feel completely burned out and retreat into my hermit shell and not speak to anyone for weeks.
Then I decided to approach the problem strategically: I have a spreadsheet that lists all the relationships I want to maintain and grow (if it’s important for me to keep this person in my lift, their name goes on the list). I call it a Contactsheet.
Next, I rate the importance and required effort of each relationship on a scale of 1 to 3 (we are talking about human connections here, this exercise is hard). So a family member or a close friend will get a 3 on the importance scale and someone I had a good chat with at a networking event will receive a 1. In turn, required effort is an indicator of how much effort I need to put into the relationship for it to survive and develop. This may depend on many factors, for example, a busy acquaintance I want to hang out with will get a top score if I feel like I need to drive this relationship singlehandedly, while a childhood friend may get a lower score if I feel that the shared history will hold us together no matter what. Now the two scores get summed and each person gets assigned a number from 1 to 6.
If you are still following along, you probably already figured out what happens next. People with a higher score (4–6) are the ones I want to focus most of my efforts on, either because the relationship is important, or fragile or both. I review this list monthly to reflect on the friendship and usually give them a call or send a message to say hello. The other half of the list, the 1–3 ratings gets reviewed every quarter.
Finally, I select up to five relationships that I want to focus on each month (I found this to be a maximum number I can commit to for any meaningful interactions) and look for meaningful ways to connect. Oftentimes, the choices are obvious: perhaps we already made plans to spend quality time together or there is a ‘good excuse’ like a friend’s birthday coming up. It has been more difficult in lockdown, but this exercise pushed me to be creative about the way I socialise online. My friends and I have done online yoga classes, played co-op video games, cooked dinners, had chess tournaments, took portraits of each other and even organised a surprise birthday party on Zoom.