Make time count by counting time.

If I could go back and change one thing to live the good life it’d be to make data collection and analysis a priority. I’m talking about analysing my life. I’m talking about habit tracking like its about to go out of fashion..

According to Pearson’s Law – when performance is measured, it improves; when performance is measured and reported, it improves exponentially.

For 28 years, I didn’t track a single thing. The thought of collecting data about my habits and actions made me feel claustrophobic. Measurements felt like a self-imposed prison cells. I just wanted to be free and happy.

Like many things in life, often the things that bring us results are counter-intuitive. This is no different. Though habit tracking feels like it would be restrictive, it actually liberates you.

Though we think we love spontaneity and chaos, what we really love is habit and structure (you can learn more about how to make your habits stick here). If our worlds aren’t predictable, they are painful.

What Sparked My Habit Tracking?

I would have continued to track nothing if not for my job. As a growth marketer, I have to get down and dirty with the data to discover what’s really going on. I have to make breakfast in bed for that demanding data to get it to really open up. And I do this begrudgingly, as I’m not a naturally analytical guy. 

However, the insights I gained when I started measuring and analysing were profound, powerful, pertinent. The guess work was gone and all that was left were: 

Cold. 

Hard. 

Facts. 

The results chipped away at the begrudgery. The numbers were there all along and as soon as I acknowledged them, they worked with me, making everything I did more effective.   

I wondered if I could gain similar insights in my personal life by habit tracking. If I treated myself as though I were a product I was trying to hack growth for would my life get better or worse?

Only one way to find out!

To begin with, I started tracking how I spent every minute of the day. You must first collect and analyse data before you start thinking about what to change and how to change it.

Why? 

Because there are only so many hours in a day and only so much motivation in a man, there are only a small number of changes you can successfully action at any one time. Given this, it is essential to rank the possible changes in order of importance. Here is the formula I use to rank possible changes:

           (Impact+Ease+Enjoyment)/Time

With an acute awareness of your finances, what you eat, how much work you do, how much time you devote to maintaining and developing your relationships etc. you can see what changes are likely to be most impactful. 

What to Change First: Quick Wins 

I would advise starting with some quick wins. For me, a quick win was reducing phone screen time. I was averaging around 3 hours of screen time per day at the beginning of this experiment. 21 hours a week – that’s 18.75% of my time awake. This was a colossal waste of time. 

The average US smartphone user spends over 4 hours on their smart phone per day. If you live for 80 years, that 4 hours a day will account for 16 years of your life. Add the average Americans lifetime tv usage (just over 15 years) to this number and you have 31 years of your 80-year life, or 39%, accounted for. Let’s add sleep into the mix just to make this truly terrifying: on average we spend 33% of our lives sleeping. So, 72% of the Average American’s life is spent in some form of unconsciousness.

Before habit tracking I knew I used my phone more than I’d like, but I probably would have ballparked my usage at around an hour and a half per day. And this is precisely why getting analytical is so important to growth. We tend to underestimate how often we indulge in negative behaviours and tend to overestimate how often we implement positive behaviours.

We Exaggerate Our Wins & Minimise Our Losses Without Tracking

An example of a positive behaviour I overestimated how much time I spent implementing is working out. Any time someone asked me how often I worked out, I’d say 6 times per week. I was certain of this. But upon analysing the data, it became clear I only exercised 6 times a week once or twice a month; the rest of the weeks I went between 0 and 3 times. This averaged out to every second day – or around 3 times per week (I was half as effective as I thought.)

I believed that greater knowledge was what stood between me and strength and muscle development.

I was wrong.

Here I was focusing on the 0.5% improvements when I had a whopping 50% improvement that could be easily implemented without any additional understanding!

This is the problem with the standard skill acquisition strategy: it focuses on the many minutia of things, the 80%, that give tiny, incremental returns for huge investments in time, money, resources, cognitive bandwidth, effort and so on. What’s overlooked are the one or two easily implemented things that will give you massive results.  

Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t look to capitalise on the 1 or 2% improvements. We absolutely should. But the clock is running, and it makes no sense to spend time on those tiny improvements when there are still hugely impactful things yet to be implemented.

Stop Playing Hide & Seek With BULLS*!T

So, a key benefit of habit tracking is that there is nowhere for the bullshit to hide. You either did what you said you would do, or you didn’t. And the things you don’t do will forever be present as a data point on some colourful graph or cell in a table.

An added benefit of habit tracking is it gamifies the process. You get excited to turn excel cells green and you avoid red cells like chlamydia (well I hope you avoid chlamydia). Additionally, having your habits laid out in front of you as you go about your day keeps them in the forefront of your mind so there is little risk of incompletion due to forgetfulness.

Tracking Every Moment of the Day

To get a gauge on my average day, I tracked every single waking moment, from going to the toilet to checking Facebook, from answering a colleague’s questions to playing pool. No action was too small to avoid scrutiny. 

This sounds incredibly anal. 

And it is.

But it must be. You see, it’s like death by a thousand cuts – any cut looked at in isolation is not particularly worrisome, but, looked at as a whole, the situation is terminal. The same is true of those thousands of microscopic actions you take every day. They seem harmless because we view them individually rather than collectively. 

Checking Facebook for 30 seconds won’t stop you getting your work done, but checking Facebook for 30 seconds every half an hour may (especially if we consider how ineffective humans are at task switching). If we then consider the interruptions by our well-intending colleagues, and bathroom breaks and snack breaks, and those quick glances at our phones, and surfing the web for ‘essential and urgent’ things; we realise our productivity is not what we thought it was.

But the advantages of tracking everything you do doesn’t stop there. 

Don’t Be So Shallow!

Not all tasks are made equal. There are shallow tasks and there are deep tasks. And it is dangerously easy to confuse the shallow for the deep. So just because you’re highly productive, doesn’t mean you’re highly effective.

Imagine 2 swimmers going head-to-head. Swimmer A’s strokes are smooth and effortless. There is very little disturbance in the water’s surface. Swimmer B’s strokes are wild and ferocious. Without any other information, who do you put your money on? 

This is the precise reason most of us struggle to gain monumental levels of success in life: we confuse effort for effectiveness. We displace energy all over and think that flurry of activity means something.

It doesn’t. 

Success requires focused effort. Effort on the right things at the right times. 

Tracking everything will provide you with that 20/20 vision only hindsight provides. You’ll discover how much thrashing you’re doing, and how much deep, impactful work. 

And awareness is the first step toward change. 

How Long Should You Habit Track for?

I would recommend trying this intense form of tracking for a week. 

This will provide you with a good assessment of your current daily routine. Then you can stop tracking the miniate, and work on just tracking your daily habits with an eye on reducing time leaks discovered during your assessment.

Or you can do it once a quarter to reassess your daily routine and uproot the weeds that inevitably regrow without the weed killer that is measurement.  

I intend to do it perpetually. I spent too much of my youth wasting time and thinking the problem was motivation. The problem was in fact an over reliance on poor systems. 

‘I will act when I’m motivated.’ 

This is a poor principle from a senseless system. 

An effective system works with the actors within it as they are. An effective system does not wish people were different. It does not wish they were infallible and rational. Instead, it creates an environment that leads its actors to be effective and productive despite their many shortcomings.

And consistent habit tracking allows you to identify weak spots in your systems fit for refinement.

But ultimately, how often you should track is a question with an answer unique to you. If more habit tracking gives you better results, track more, but only if you can maintain what you start. Begin as you wish to continue.

The Ego is the Enemy

As always, it is always better to start with a pathetically small habit and slowly work your way towards an impressively large habit over months or years, then to start with an impressively large habit and then quit after 4 days. A tortoise and the hare situation. 

Don’t let your ego decide what you do (you can learn how to strip the ego here). Your ego loves making big plans and following through on exactly 0 of them. It’s your ego that goes crazy for promises like ‘6 pack abs in 30 days!’ and ‘2 weeks to financial freedom!’

Your ego is like that friend or partner of yours that constantly says ‘this time will be different, I’ll show you, just please can you lend me another £5000 so I can get out of debt. I promise I won’t spend it on hookers/drugs/gambling/superfluous, expensive fashion items.’ It’s the boy who cried wolf. It’s the boy who continues to cry wolf, and we are the muppets silly enough to continue to fall for it hook, line, and sinker.

This is why I find it so effective to see myself like one of the products I market. All the things I work on require comprehensive, consistent tracking. Any changes to a given product must be justified by some discovery gleaned through analysis of collected data. My ego doesn’t get a say. Data is king. Habit tracking provides a serene clarity and rationale to your life that is truly freeing.

Tracking is Truth and Truth is Success

I truly believe that living the good life requires a good grasp on what’s real and true. We rarely find success – at least not long-lasting success – without first finding truth. We rarely find happiness – at least not long-lasting happiness – without first finding truth. And data is certainly closer to truth than ego. 

I just want to point out that habit tracking is not supposed to limit. It doesn’t mean you can’t hang out with friends or go to the cinema or watch tv or look at your phone or take a dump. Tracking is supposed to liberate you and if it doesn’t, you need to change how you’re doing it or stop.

You can still do all the things that bring you happiness. In fact, you’ll almost certainly be able to do more of those things, because you’ll be cutting the fat, getting rid of the waste. 

There are things you are doing right now that you would stop doing if you knew how impactful they really were. And in stopping those time-sapping, negative behaviours you would free up time and mental resources.

This is about bringing unconscious behaviours into conscious awareness, and thereby giving you back control. 

Only you can decide what success and happiness mean to you. And so, it follows that only you can decide what actions are desirable and what actions are undesirable in your pursuit of success and happiness. 

Leave a comment below telling me whether you’re going to try habit tracking. I’d be interested to hear how you find it and how you’ve made it work for you.

Stay cool,

Yasin.