What Lessons Could You Learn If You Had Analytics Of Your Life?

Over two decades ago, UK scientist Stephen Wolfram of Wolfram Alpha and Mathematica fame, started collecting statistics of his daily work activities. His archive includes emails, keystrokes, calendar events, phone calls and, in later years, steps taken, and while it sounds like a small set of movements to draw upon, when you think about it, this array actually captures a significant chunk of one’s day-to-day business — at least on a fundamental level.

Images: Stephen Wolfram.

On his blog, Wolfram breaks the data down, using graphs to visually represent his massive collection of numerical tidbits. He starts by looking at his incoming and outgoing emails, which doesn’t really show anything particularly eye-opening. The volume increases as time goes on (starting in 1989), however, I can see a subtle, yet noticeable down trend starting around 2009.

Regarding meetings, Wolfram found that those conducted over the phone started within two minutes of their scheduled times, while standard board gatherings had a “broader distribution” of starting times. If punctuality is your thing, maybe you should just hold local meetings over Skype or Google Hangouts and dispense with boardrooms altogether?

Meetings and email are interesting, sure, but for me (and evidently Wolfram) the statistics provide insight into how often, and when, Wolfram latched onto, or came up with, new concepts and ideas:

…one of the objectives is to have ideas, and hopefully good ones. So can personal analytics help me measure the rate at which that happens?

It might seem very difficult. But as a simple approximation, one can imagine seeing at what rate one starts using new concepts, by looking at when one starts using new words or other linguistic constructs. Inevitably there are tricky issues in identifying genuine new “words” etc. (though for example I have managed to determine that when it comes to ordinary English words, I’ve typed about 33,000 distinct ones in the past decade).

Imagine being able to isolate exactly when, during the day, month or year, you’re at your most productive and creative, based on samples dating back two decades? In some industries, you’d be selling your teeth, and those of your unborn children, just for a peek at this data.

At the end of his analysis, Wolfram stacks the more prominent graphs onto top of one another and, sure enough, a pattern of activity (and lack thereof) becomes clear. Loads of incoming mails in the morning, heaps of outgoing at night, with keystrokes looking almost like a carbon copy of the latter graph.

Overall, it’s hard not to see how valuable personal analytics are. It’s a shame there’s no comprehensive and simple way to keep tabs on everything you do — email is fairly easy, but some might be uncomfortable with the idea of having a keystroke counter installed. To be honest, I’m a little terrified by how my statistics would turn out. But the value? That’s undeniable.

The Personal Analytics of My Life [Stephen Wolfram Blog]

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