mt. solitary a weblog

XXX.

This is a photograph of spring in Tel Aviv, into which I emerged from the coronavirus lockdown a little bleary-eyed and with a newfound addiction to chocolate krantz yeast cakes.


1. Examining your life

The unexamined life is not worth living.

I’ve always been drawn to this quote, usually attributed to Socrates. The original meaning of the quote is to emphasise the need for a personal philosophy, a way of thinking about yourself, that uses reflection to build a better future self through reference to and critique of the past self. Today, the quote brings to my mind the quantified self movement, a group of people who are devoted to the idea of collecting information about themselves, reviewing it and drawing insights from it to improve, or at the very least understand, their lives.

I’m not sure what Socrates would have to say about this modern “data-driven” philosophy, but I have become more and more drawn to the idea over the past couple of years. I thought it might be interesting to share some of the things I’ve noticed over the last five hundred days about myself, in the hope that this might inspire others to consider paying closer attention to their lives. There’s another reason for sharing too: I think there is a certain aesthetic value inherent in the topology of life one can see writ in the charts, the moving of a line along the page tracing some weird average of the thousands of variables that make up a day in anyone’s life that nonetheless contains some sort of signal.

Sleep

The older I become the more convinced I am that sleep is one of the most important, perhaps the single most important, factor in remaining balanced, peaceful and energetic throughout the day. The chart below shows the hours I slept every night, together with a moving 7-day average, over the last five hundred days. I don’t use any fancy sleep trackers, I just write down in a spreadsheet every morning how many hours I slept the previous night.

Sleep

There are several periods of my life which are clearly visible on this graph. The most striking is the birth of my son, in February this year, following which there were understandably a few weeks of very little sleep. There are periods of greatly increased variation around holidays I took. And at the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown I used the time I saved not commuting to and from work every day to catch up on some of that sleep I lost in February.

Alcohol

The quantified self movement is convinced that sleep, alcohol, other drugs and caffeine (in that order usually) have the biggest overall impact on mood and general contentment in life. I track all of these metrics, and when I looked at the plots I generated I wondered whether I really wanted to share the graph below, in which a black bar represents a day on which I consumed alcohol over the last five hundred days.

Alcohol

It’s pretty clear from the graph above that I drink too frequently (I thought about colouring the bars by the number of drinks, which I also track but ultimately went for the simpler version). I also notice the correlation between consecutive drinking days (usually a beer or two or a glass of wine in the evening) and stressful periods in my life.

Work

While I was writing XXVII and XXVIII I was looking for a metric that shows a visible effect of the COVID-19 lockdown and the best one I could find is of my daily working hours (these are the hours between the time I count myself as starting work and the time I count myself as finishing, so they include time like lunchbreaks, coffee and chatting in the office when I wasn’t strictly-speaking “working”. I use Rescuetime to track actual bum-in-seat computer time at work but I think that’s a less interesting chart).

Work

I like the healthy amounts of vacation time, and on second thoughts I think the effect visible from February (after my return from a too-short paternity leave) is probably more to do with being a first-time parent than the lockdown per se.

Anxiety

The holy grail of self-tracking, of the reflective data scientist, is an answer to the question “am I happy” based on actual data from your life. For me the answer to the question “am I happy” on a day-to-day basis can be approximated with the answer to the question “how anxious am I feeling today”, and to that end I tried my best to track my general mood and feeling of contentment (10) or anxiety (0) at three points throughout the last five hundred days.

Mood

Notwithstanding the concerns about the accuracy of the data the way I collected it (upon reflection the morning after, all three data points for the previous day at the same time, and with vague definitions of the cutoffs between the three sections of the day) this is a really interesting graph to look at over a timescale like this. My favourite feature of the graph is the easily visible section in June 2019 where my evening mood is vastly better than my day and morning mood; this is because I was on holiday with my friends and in the days recovering from the hangovers caused by the evenings. There’s also the rise to almost universal happiness around the birth of my son and the accompanying few weeks of time at home, before the uncertainty and panic around COVID-19 in mid-March put an end to that.

I noticed that there was something interesting about this graph when I looked at it during an “end-of-year review” process at the end of 2019, so I decided to start tracking a few more metrics related to anxiety. The most interesting, and most striking I think, is the “state of my fingernails”. It’s a simple 0-10 scale.

Fingernails

I’m not very proud of it, but I’ve been biting my fingernails for as long as I can remember. It’s absolutely a manifestation of anxiety and tension and I’m very aware that during difficult or stressful periods of my life I bite my fingernails more. It’s a habit that I would very much like to be rid of and I hope that understanding it is the first step to being free of it.


Of course, none of this means anything if you don’t have the ability and the drive to actually act on the things you observe. That’s the next step for me, to try and improve the metrics in these graphs over time, to use my synthesised understanding of my past to influence the topology of these graphs in the future. Maybe that’s just a long-winded way of saying “examining yourself”: looking at yourself critically and trying to do better, or at the very least understand when you could do better and why you didn’t. I hope this post will go some way to making me accountable to myself, and hope to revisit these metrics and whichever new ones I start collecting throughout my life once a year to see how things are going.

2. Reading, watching and listening

Reading

Watching

Listening