Duncan Gans


How Data Forced me to Achieve my Goals

& how it can help you achieve yours

All of us want to be successful. We want to get good grades. We want to be rich. We want to have meaningful relationships. All of us imagine the fulfillment of these dreams. We imagine having a great body, imagine singing in front of thousands of people, or imagine receiving a healthy paycheck.

Dreams and aspirations are great, but the problem is that we focus on the outcome. We focus on the result of our skills and abilities instead of on the work that goes into them. We are obsessed with the 1%. The other 99%, the hard work that goes into our goals, isn’t what we dream for, and isn’t where we put in the effort. The 99% matters. It’s the path to our goals. It’s what takes us to where we want to be. Hell, it’s what takes up 99 percent. If we focus on the process, the results will follow. However, the 99 percent is hard. It takes discipline to do what is difficult and perseverance to continue doing it without immediate benefits. My goal was to make this easier.

Daily Tracking

I began this method by tracking my new year's resolutions on a simple excel sheet. If you don’t have excel, you can use any other spreadsheet/graphing software; Google sheets is free and works reasonably well. I began by tracking four activities that I wanted to make a part of my life. These were meditation, practicing piano, reading, and pushups. These four habits would force me to improve myself, and coincided with my New Year’s resolutions. So I began. Every day, I would open my excel sheet, and enter in what I achieved that day. This data was after day four, right before my new year's resolutions would officially begin.

The first four days.

Immediately upon starting, the .xlsx file was already changing my behavior. Until that point, I never struggled through more than 50 pushups in a day, I never meditated, and practicing piano and reading for pleasure were an uncommon event. Although 5 minutes of meditation isn’t a dramatic accomplishment, it’s something. As confucius said, “It does not matter how slow you go, as long as you do not stop.” And this excel sheet made it so much easier. Every time I did another twenty pushups or finished meditating, I was able enter in a higher number for that day. Each small step in my path towards fulfilling my new year’s resolutions was met with a small, yet significant, dopamine reward.

Already convinced of the power of this simple tracking mechanism, I decided to make two adjustments. Primarily I added more aspects I wanted to make paramount in my life.

Online Productivity: An objective measure of how productive my time spent on the computer is. Using the app rescuetime I would divide my productivity percent by the total time spent on distracting sites to calculate the online productivity score.
Homework/Work: Time spent doing homework or working as a tour guide.
Habitica: An online to-do list/game to practice habits. A score of 1 is finishing 100% of my daily tasks.
Misc: Simple stuff like showering, brushing teeth, wearing my retainer, anything else.

A selection of my productivity in January.

Finally, I added the centerpiece of my productivity sheets. The Productivity rating. Using a relatively simple equation, I managed a way to factor in all of these scores to get an overall productivity level for the day. For each cell:

((Given Cell/cell’s column average) x (weight of aspect’s importance))… [do this for all columns and sum them] / (Total weight of all cells/5)

In the actual excel document, the Productivity rating looks like this

As you can see, every aspect has a weight(importance) of 1 except for homework and habitica. The averages (The Cells L2 through R2) are stored in a separate cell.

The magic of the entire system dwells in that one number. The nature of the equation makes the productivity rating truly special. Primarily, it’s easy to understand. A 5 on the productivity score is completely average, and all other numbers are based off of it. A score of ten reflects that you are twice as productive as your average day, and a 2.5 means you’re only half as productive. Furthermore, since the formula is based on averages, it automatically scales to a nice difficulty. If you are solidly scoring above 5, the system will make it harder and harder to score well, further challenging yourself. On the other hand, if you become more busy and achieving high scores is a challenge, the system will automatically begin to make it easier, and give you slack. The productivity rating system changes with every piece of data you enter. For example, this graph represents how much 50 pushups, 20 pages, 5 minutes of meditation, 10 minutes of piano, 2 miscellaneous points, an online productivity of .5, 100 minutes of homework, and half of my to-dos are worth throughout the past year.

As is evident, at the beginning when I continuously scored high, it made it more and more difficult to earn a high score. After a short amount of time, the system settled in on a nice and appropriate rating system with only minor fluctuations based off of changing habits. With enough time, the subjective, volatile rating system turns into a more objective, constant one.

Although the overall productivity system ends up fluctuating only minorly, the value of individual aspects varies greatly. This matters. In order to ensure you are making all aspects a part of your life, the value of these aspects change. When you start neglecting an aspect, the value of that aspect increases, giving you further incentive to complete that specific goal. This graph represents the the value of meditating for 5 minutes.

Conversely, when I began this year, I was very unproductive online, and so the value of online productivity was high. Yet as I improved, the importance of being productive online decreased because it wasn’t as much of an achievement.

Value of being productive online decreases as I continue to improve upon it.

This is what makes the productivity sheets so special. They adapt. It isn’t an objective measure that forces you to compete with others, but rather a finish line that's always reachable, yet far enough away it’s a noteworthy goal. Although the formula is relatively simple, it’s able to dynamically change the value of various aspects to ensure you establish every aspect as part of your life.

Why it Works

The productivity sheets are a neat experiment, but even more importantly, they work. The process of entering in a series of numbers each day forces me to remember my goals. I’m constantly aware of whether I’m moving closer to my goals or slipping backwards. The constant reminder instills powerful habits. Although motivation can get you started, habits will keep you going. These habits have changed my life. I’ve become a stronger person. I’ve become a more musically talented person. I’ve become a more well read person. I’ve become a better person. The growth I’ve witnessed in the past year is in no small way attributed to these sheets. This simple excel document has fundamentally changed who I am.

It’s possible I would have kept as good track of my goals without this constant reminder. It’s possible I would be as thorough with my homework even without being rewarded for taking my time. It’s possible I would have remained as disciplined in achieving goals without a productivity rating to aim for.

It’s possible, but it’s unlikely.

Obviously I can’t show statistics from before and after tracking my goals, because there were no statistics before. However, after I began tracking certain aspects of my daily life, there was an enormous uptick in those aspects I valued.

On to the data.

If the excel sheets themselves had no actual bearing on my productivity, you might expect my productivity scores to somewhat a binomial or t-distribution. This would mean all I’m doing is going through my day normally, and indifferently charting my progress. However, this isn’t the case.

Graph represents what my productivity rating was when I earned it that day.

This happens because the data is in my control. If I’m currently at a three or four, I can meditate for a dozen minutes, read more of my book, or go to the gym to push myself into the five category. The graph demonstrates this. There are two groupings. The first group, in the zero to two range, makes up a decent chunk of the data. For the most part, these days occur when I am not thinking about the productivity sheets, and simply go about my day as normal. This is the closest approximation of how I would act without the productivity sheets. Positioned between these two mountainous groupings exist a valley between three and five. They occur infrequently because a productivity score in the three/four range is high enough it rarely happens accidentally. However, if I am cognizant of the sheets, I will likely work harder to make it into the second grouping. The second grouping consists of days where I’m cognizant of the sheet, and to some extent attempting to get a decent score.

This is what is particularly cool. If you believe that the first grouping (from zero to 3) demonstrates what would be my production without the sheets and the second grouping (from five up) exhibits my production with the sheets, then what you can deduce is insightful. The productivity rating works in a very simple manner. A score of 10 is twice the productivity of a score of 5, and a score of 8 is four times the productivity of 2. From this, we can show that my productivity triples or quintuples when I am aware of my productivity sheets.

Luckily, when I started using these sheets, I arbitrarily decided that I should get a miscellaneous score of at least 1 if I opened up the sheets that day. This became essential in showing the power of the simple excel document.

The left set of values represent days where I entered my aspects the day after.

To be fair, the miscellaneous variable didn’t only track whether or not I looked at the sheets. So although all the numbers on the left were definitely days where I didn’t look at my sheets, there are likely some days on the right side where I also didn’t check sheets, but entered other miscellaneous points the day after. That said, I rarely give myself miscellaneous points the day after and you’ll just have to trust me. Although it’s hard to deduce a ton from a graph this simple, it’s still obvious the difference between the two sides. The correlation is clear. If I checked my sheets on a given day, my productivity rating would be 3.5 points higher. To put this in more concrete terms, a productivity rating of 3.5 points translates to 940 pushups, meditating for 22 minutes, or doing homework for 3.5 hours. This difference is significant. If you aren’t convinced, the following graphs exhibit my productivity score when I checked sheets that day, versus mostly days where I did not check sheets. The two graphs also demonstrate the two groupings mentioned earlier.

Represents almost exclusively the days I checked sheets
Represents the productivity on the days I did not check my sheets

If you’re really into graphs check out this one.

All these graphs are simply data about collecting data…

What’s so special about these sheets is that they are something I created. They’re just a set of numbers reflecting what I did throughout the day. I’m not actually rewarded in any way when I score above a ten on a productivity rating. I don’t receive a sum of money; I don’t receive a congratulations, I don’t receive a pat on the back. No one knows, except for me. But, this arbitrary data strongly influences my actions. As Ghandi said, “Your actions become your habits, Your habits become your values, Your values become your destiny.”

Thanks for reading! My other article about the data analysis I used on this data can be found here.

If you’re interested in creating sheets of your own, I have created an easy to use system already, including a dozen modules to do your own analysis of your productivity. Please shoot me an email at dgans@bowdoin.edu, and I would be happy to send the documents.

If you have any questions, please email me at dgans@bowdoin.edu



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