Developing A Fitbit for the Soul: Learning From My Say to Do Scores Since 2011
This is not a story about cleaning house, but it started out that way.
It was 2011, and my room was a cold mess. Describing it as a hot mess would have imbued it with more fun than the pathetic dumping ground was having.
Boxes. Shoes. Books. Papers. Piles and piles and piles. Repeat.
For years, I had been promising myself I would change my habits: put things away instead of dumping them on the floor and then dashing out the door, finally devoting a weekend to cleaning up. It fell off my to-do list over and over.
I’d been working on a three-person bootstrapped startup, had a long commute, and life was work and sleep and little else. I was just a couple years out of undergrad, and I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do with my life, either. My room had started with a little mess, but soon the floor itself was no longer visible. Inviting people over to visit? No time. Decorations, personal touches? Barely memories. Finding your keys in under five minutes without digging through piles of clothing, papers, and books? The stuff of dreams.
After the startup finished, my “I-have-no-time” excuse evaporated. Now what? What to do next in life loomed large, but my room was such a mess it was physically blocking me from getting out the door each morning.
As I began to clean up the room, I was struck by all that had been taken for granted, improperly utilized, forgotten. It felt terrible. I realized the room was part of a lot of things I’d shoved aside for work; I had been breaking promises to myself for a while. But with every box sorted and trash bag that I threw out, something inside me got brighter, stronger, more determined.
This room was part of something bigger; I needed to reestablish trust with myself. There were so many things I wanted to do in life, but I had lost my own respect. I kept promises to others but not myself. You know those people with a quiet self-confidence, the ones who have gotten themselves out of tricky situations, done crazy hard things and come out victorious — but who are so good they don’t need to brag about it? How could I become like that? Basically, how could I gain my own trust and a well-earned self-respect? I reasoned that if I could keep promises to myself, I’d be even better at keeping promises to other people.
A plan began to form. Still fairly fresh from MIT undergrad, I gravitated toward a numerically driven system: I would track my own Say to Do score.
The Say part would be a system of promises: I would dream about the kind of life I wanted and then set a series of goals to accomplish that dream. The Do part would be a measure of how much I actually got done. If I did everything I said I would, my Say to Do score would be high. If I accomplished less, it would not.
With objective measures, with a way of actually tracking my Say to Do score, I could go beyond vague impressions and a bias toward generalizing from memorable events where I exceeded or failed my own expectations. We’ve got trackers for our steps, our heart rate, our finances…why not our personal integrity?
The question was how to do it
My professional work has been split between neuroscience research and developing software, so I Frankensteined together measurement methods from the lab and project management techniques from companies. Then, I mixed and salted to taste.
Initially, I called the system Scrum Life. It was in honor of the Scrum software project management system. I created burn up and burn down charts to track my own progress in the major projects in my life. From the neuroscience side, I used an operant conditioning treatment commonly used to train lab rats: rewards and punishments. Deciding what to do involved visualization techniques pulled liberally from the traditions of psychotherapy, and habit change techniques came from addiction research, behavioral economics research, and from “addictive product design” (software companies again).
My room improved.
The room was just the start, though.
It would take many posts to explain the ins and outs of the system that I created. But, in short, it included the following: a buddy check-in system — an accountability buddy that met with me in-person and over the phone/Hangouts/Facetime. I supported my buddy, she supported me, we held each other accountable to the promises we made on a scheduled basis. That schedule was: annual, quarterly, weekly. We ran through what we had said we would do and what we had actually done, had our scores reviewed, received our consequences (rewards and punishments). Then, we said what we would do next. Scoring was a weighted score of the % of tasks I accomplished across Personal (40%) and Professional (60%). Sub categories within Personal included health, relationship/romance, friends/community, home/personal space, and spirituality. Sub categories within Professional included Cash (the % of revenue generating activities that I did such as earning money on an hourly or salary basis that I said I would do versus what I actually did) and Credit (the % of activities that I did related to professional development that I said I would do versus what I actually did) and Time spent (the % of hours I actually worked versus what I said I would).
To track my time and manage my concentration levels, I chunked my time into small time-chunks. Since I was working for myself during that time and wanted to maximize my productivity per hours worked, I tracked my hours using freelancer software.
To track it all, I tried out dozens and dozens of different systems. What I discovered was that there was real value in creating my own system from scratch using just Google Docs, Google Forms, Google Sheets, and Google Calendar.
Dreaming up my dream job, my dream relationship, my dream life…and getting them!…Then, realizing they were the wrong dreams… re-dreaming again, better…rinse, repeat…
As I said, the room was just the start. At that point in my life, I needed a full overhaul: professionally and personally. Within a year of starting the system, I had gotten exactly the type of job, home, and relationship I had dreamed about. Did everything go perfectly and I lived happily ever after, The End? Of course not. Life is full of odd surprises and you don’t always know what you really want. Well, I don’t, anyway.
Want to see a video about this stuff? I gave a presentation at the Quantified Self conference a few years back. Check it out here: https://quantifiedself.com/show-and-tell/?project=1097