January 23, 2013

How Do You Know What You Don’t Know?

As a follow up to my post last week on what you accomplish in a day, I was honored to hear directly from Ari Meisel, the productivity guru behind Get Leverage. Ari offered to write a guest post for my blog to address one of the questions raised in the comments on my post – why spend time tracking things? I found his response to be incredibly enlightening, and hope you do too!

Whenever I teach one of my Skillshare classes in the city I like to ask people to raise their hands quickly if they can tell me what they had for breakfast that morning. Usually 80% of people raise their hands. Then I say, “How about if you can tell me how many emails you sent two days ago? How many minutes were you on the phone today? How many hours of REM sleep did you get last night?” Needless to say the hands drop pretty quickly.

We live in a time when information overload is the norm. Anybody who is even reasonably active in society deals with emails, phone calls, job responsibilities, personal responsibilities  relationships, hunger, etc… we are literally bombarded with stuff all day and night. What most people don’t think about is that they can and should take some ownership over that stuff because it is happening to them. If we get our heads around what is happening, when it’s happening, and how it’s happening, then we have a chance to optimize it and gain some benefit from it.

There are generally two kinds of tracking, the concrete kind and the abstract kind. The concrete kind are things like tracking your weight loss over the course of a month, decreasing the time spent on email week after week, increasing the number of pages of a book you read each night, lowering your cholesterol, or running a faster mile. These are things that have clear expectations beforehand, have a specific and measurable goal, and serve to keep us motivated by confirming results. Fortunately, there are technologies that make it so we can do most of these concrete quantifications with little to no additional effort on our part. Blood tests and body scales can track your vital statistics, any number of free mobile apps can tell you if you are running a faster mile,  and finishing a book is an especially satisfying confirmation.

Then there are the abstract kinds of tracking where you don’t exactly know the benefit, or even if there will be one. However, these don’t necessarily require any more work then the concrete kind of tracking. Using one of my favorite web services, IFTTT.com every time I check into Foursquare, it adds a note to my Google Calendar. With all of the things that happen in a given day, there have been several occasions where it was really useful to go back to a certain day and see where I was at a specific time even if there wasn’t a planned appointment at that moment. The point is that when I set this up I wasn’t sure what the utility would be or if there would be any at all, but it took about 45 seconds to setup the action through IFTTT and then I never have to think about it again, so WHY NOT DO IT?

Then of course there are the things that require a little bit of effort on our parts, but those are no less valuable. Food tracking apps on mobile phones are notoriously underused because many people find it to be a bit of a hassle to take out their phone and take a photo of their meal and then designate what they ate and how many calories were in it. There’s a great app called Thryve, which takes a different approach. The meal tracking part is less important here, you take a picture and give take a few seconds to identify the food. What’s most important with Thryve is when you get a pop up a few hours later on your phone asking you how you are feeling? It’s so common to feel tired, sick, hyper, or simply out of sorts and have no idea why it’s happening. Coudl it be that the meal you had three hours early had too much salt in it, or MSG? Maybe that coffee on an empty stomach wasn’t great for your personal makeup and you’ve got the jitters. Without that information you might just accept why you are feeling weird and it would probably happen to you again and again.

Which leads me to my ultimate, “have a little faith” productivity tracking app, iDoneThis. Every night at 6pm you get an email from iDoneThis asking “What Did You Get Done Today?” All you have to do is respond to the email. It doesn’t matter where you are or what you are doing, you just have to take 30 seconds to stop for a moment and think what happened that day and then reply to the email. Some days it takes me more than 30 seconds because I need to look at my calendar just to remember what’s happened to me over the last 12 HOURS. That’s the first step, taking that moment to reflect on the current day is hugely important to our psychological development because you create a sort of ratchet effect, allowing you to continue to progress by building on a known foundation. How can you know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been, or even where you are right now? That’s where the real power of iDoneThis comes in. After using it for a few days, the email changes. Now it asks what you did today, and right below that it will see, “This is what you got done yesterday the day was XX/XX/XX.” and then right below that you’ll start to see things like “This is what you got done 6 weeks ago, the day was XX/XX/XX.” The power of that kind of information is so invaluable that you simply can’t afford not to have it. There is no more personal motivating factor than having awareness of your accomplishments and triumphs.

I’m sure that when Laura looks at her 50 marathon medals on the wall, she’s reminded that there is nothing she cannot do. When I think about the illness I suffered and overcame to compete in Ironman France, I know that nothing can stop me ever again. We all need these personal reminder of the good times, the hard times that took us from one to the next. So use a tool like iDoneThis to take a minute out of your day and realize the full extent of your ability to accomplish what you want.

In 2006, Ari Meisel was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. Ari’s case was severe, and required over a dozen daily medications and several hospital visits. After reaching a personal low point in the hospital, Ari decided he would do everything in his power to strengthen his by then weak body. Through a combination of yoga, nutrition, natural supplements and rigorous exercise (triathlon and Crossfit) he was able to fight back the symptoms of Crohn’s until he was finally able to suspend his medication. Eventually Ari was declared free of all traces of the ‘incurable’ disease, and competed in Ironman France in June of 2011. Ari has since spoken at seminars and at a regional TED Talk about his struggle against a seemingly insurmountable opponent. Through the process of data collection, self tracking, and analysis, Ari helped develop Less Doing (now Get Leverage – a way of dealing with the daily stresses of life by optimizing, automating, and outsourcing all of his tasks in life and business. Now he focuses on Achievement Architecture, helping individuals be more effective at everything.


8 thoughts on “How Do You Know What You Don’t Know?”

  1. I still don’t understand the point of abstract tracking. I can see keeping track of the big accomplishments – like how many marathons you have run over the years – but the day to day stuff? I don’t need to write down the big things I do in a day because I can remember them and as for the small stuff, it doesn’t matter. Who cares if I ate oatmeal today or went to a meeting after work? Our brains are designed to forget the small, unimportant things, otherwise we couldn’t function.

    If you are trying to accomplish a particular goal, like train for a marathon, then I can see writing down how far you ran, how long it took you, etc. But to just do it as a general matter seems pointless. It is data overload. The only people to whom all that random data is worthwhile is an actuary and actuaries usually have a purpose for collecting all that data (like insurance underwriting and rating).

    As for tracking where you went everyday using FourSquare just because you can with an app, well if it makes you happy, then fine but again, what is the point? What are you going to do with this data? How does it improve your life to know that you were at Yankee Stadium yesterday and then at Crunch Fitness today?

    You state “[t]hat’s the first step, taking that moment to reflect on the current day is hugely important to our psychological development because you create a sort of ratchet effect, allowing you to continue to progress by building on a known foundation.” I agree in part with that statement. Keeping a gratitude journal, for example, can play an important role with regard to happiness. But there is a downside. When you focus on trivial stuff, like where you go everyday, it can actually make you feel bad because you may start comparing your life to others and worry that it doesn’t match up.

    Anyway, everyone is allowed his or her own opinion and if it makes you happy and/or works for you, then so be it.

    1. Anonymous, you make some good points. I can’t speak for Ari, but for me, it’s nice to learn ways to track things without having to put any (or at least minimal) effort in – that way the data is there IF you want it, but it’s not encroaching on your life to collect it.

      That said, I am a huge data nerd, and love using stuff like the Foursquare/Timehop Abe combo to see where I was a year ago. I guess a lot of the time it is very silly, but I like to look back and see how far I’ve come, so that I better learn from my past.

      But I’ll admit one stupid thing that happened the other day: I was looking EVERYWHERE in my apartment for my snowpants, and discovered from Timehop Abe that on that same day last year, I was tweeting about how I couldn’t find my snowpants. Apparently I did not learn my lesson about finding a good permanent place to store them, because I am currently shopping for a new pair 🙂

  2. By the way, I went to Mr. Meisel’s website and when I clicked on the “blog” link, I got a virus. Luckily my anti-virus software caught it. This website in Spanish opened up and said that I needed to download Adobe Acrobat. It then tried to download a file onto my computer. I closed out of it but it still put a virus on my computer. Just thought you might want to know.

    1. Not sure if you mean me or Ari! I am just getting into IFTTT but so far am just using it for alerting me to bad weather in my area (since I NEVER think to bring an umbrella/boots/etc), and auto-tweeting my new blog posts. There is obviously lots of room for me to use it more but I’m just starting out 🙂

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