What did I do with my life this year?
If you had asked me in December 2013 what filled my time, I would have strung off a list of verbs: sleep, eat, work, ride, run, walk, write, read, watch, repeat. But whenever we spend effort analyzing ourselves, it is usually wise to go deeper, because it’s likely we don’t know ourselves as well as we might suppose.
Do I really spend my life the way I think, or am I deceived, biased, lying to myself? Where does the time go? How well do I know myself?
So, this year, I did something I don’t usually do—a kind of crazy obsessive thing. I kept some detailed lists to track myself. (Check out Nicholas Felton’s website, where he has beautiful books in which he records his life in data; in 2013 he tracked every single conversation he had, 95,000 of them!)
At least at first, it wasn’t really intentional. There was no New Year’s goal to collect data. I didn’t set out to count calories or log movies I watched or books I read. But, intermittently, it happened.
In 2014, I kept track of my exercise habits for about two months (Insanity with Shawn T, if that means anything to you). In January, I saved data about how much I wrote every day. For a month when I felt under the weather, I tracked everything I ate and drank, and how much I slept. In another month I tracked calories, sugar, and carbs. I also maintained a list of all the books I read this year, as well as my favorite pieces of journalism from 2014. To test my public transportation spending, I wrote down all my travel and travel costs for a month. One month, I kept a list of all the movies I watched and games I played, and how much time I spent doing social things.
When I did these little self-studies, I tried not to change my schedule at all. Tried to stick to my routines and habits. Of course there’s some room for error, and it’s definitely not scientifically sound for the experimenter to also be the subject of his experiment (so sue me), but it definitely yielded interesting results.
And what did I learn?
In the end, I was surprised by some things and happy with others. Disappointment and irritation with myself mixed with relief.
No need to share all the nitty-gritty details, but the gist is that I sleep, travel, and socialize more than I thought I did; eat, drink, and watch less than I expected; and write less than I would like.
I learned about myself, and not just in an introspective way, but through observational, data-based means. This was mostly a good thing, and I recommend trying it out to better know thyself—Socrates would be proud.
But it was also, at times, bad. When we get caught up in the details of life, we sometimes focus too much on what’s petty. We zoom in so far that we forget the bigger picture—that we should live life more than we study it.
I’m all for having a Mint account to track budgets, and I’m certainly a proponent of keeping journals and calendars, but we’re coming to live in an age that is frighteningly invasive in its observation. GPS and pervasive pedometers allow us to track literally every step. These new hi-tech bracelet things tell you whenever you roll over or snore in your sleep. Google and Facebook are getting smart enough to know what we want before we ask for it. Seriously, how do they know?!
Again, I’m all about learning and science and quantification, but this year of self-study also taught me it can make us a little paranoid. Frankly, I don’t want to know every time I move in my sleep, and I definitely don’t want Nike or Google to be in on it.
But, after a year, I recommend you try it. Try something small to start, something you care about. Food and exercise journals are good if that’s your thing. Keep track of words or time spent writing. Record all the books you read or the movies you watch or the restaurants you visit. These are the sorts of things you can look back at and learn from, maybe even admire. And if you can make it beautiful and fun for the rest of the world to enjoy, like Nicholas Felton, please do.
After a few years spent correcting grammatical errors and writing subtle, clever headlines in a Chicago newsroom, Griffin Paul Jackson (’11) now does aid work with refugees in Lebanon. He writes about that, God, and, when the muse descends, Icelandic sheep. Read him here: griffinpauljackson.com.