How do I reflect on life?

Using personal data to find important behavioral patterns

6-min read

This post will eventually turn into a series as I continue to share ways in which I reflect on life — I do so often (probably too often) and in various ways.

Reflection—in life and in business—is essential. To me, it’s taking the time to think through ways in which you (or your team) can improve. Going through life without reflecting means that you’re preventing growth and consigning yourself to be a younger, less-wise version of yourself. Reflecting can illuminate important patterns that can help you maximize your potential. So, let’s jump in with today’s question:

How do I reflect on life?

There are infinite ways you can reflect, and today I will be sharing just one. As you will see below, this method can help you group certain months of your life together, identifying patterns around your mood, level of happiness, and well-being. If you keep a daily journal (a practice I have yet to establish), I’m sure this exercise would prove to be even more valuable.

Note 1: If you have an iPhone, the metrics below are actually easy to capture. If you have an Android, I unfortunately don’t have those answers readily available for you. However, seeing how Android usually has more features than iOS, I’d be really surprised if you couldn’t attain these metrics.

The x-axis is average daily steps in a given month. This is calculated from the iOS Health app, which counts my daily steps. For better or worse, I typically have my phone on me for about 95% of day (and I always bring it when I go for a run). So, I feel comfortable using this number as a strong directional indicator of my daily activity level for a given month.

The y-axis is number of items captured in your camera roll in a given month. This is calculated from the iPhone Photos app. If you go to the search box and search for a month, say “January 2020,” directly underneath the search bar the total number of photos will appear. I’m using number of photos captured as a loose proxy for “things worth remembering.” Our camera rolls obviously get filled up with… photos, but also with videos, screenshots, documents, etc. To me, if something is in my camera roll it serves one of two purposes:

  1. It’s an event I want to remember because it’s funny, beautiful, sentimental or awe-inspiring.

  2. It’s important, such as paperwork, content, or coat check tickets (I am notorious at losing those little buggers).

To me, duplicate items in my camera roll don’t skew the data because if I take a photo or video of the same thing multiple times, it’s just a larger indicator of the thing’s importance. Taking more than one photo is an insurance system, helping me to feel confident that the experience was properly saved in the right aesthetic.

Note 2: The y-axis is on a logarithmic scale as the spread of the data was quite large (from 28 items in one month to 1,156 in another).

Below, is the output of my data from the last 3 years (not including April 2017 because my phone crashed and all of my data between September 2016 and April 2017 was lost. Don’t wanna talk about it… it still hurts). The names of each of the quadrants are unique to me. If you were to recreate this grid for yourself, I’m certain that your quadrants would be set up differently: The names of the quadrants would be “you-specific” and the quadrant cut-off points would be based around your habits, which would definitely be different than mine.


Data collected from my iPhone (Health and Photo apps) and available here.

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Understanding the Grid

The more time you spend with your data—truly diving into what months sort into which category—the more you will gain from this exercise. Here’s my personal analysis of the grid above.

Major Events

All of the months featured in this quadrant featured marquee events of the last 3 years: a 2-week trip to Europe (July 2019); a trip to Mexico (December 2017); running the NYC Marathon (November 2018); my fiancé’s sister’s wedding (August 2018). These are months I won’t soon forget. They required a lot of physical activity and had strong sentimental value—meaning my feet wouldn’t stop moving and my phone was always out trying to savor every moment. This quadrant is definitely overkill in realizing that these months were important to me. Meaning, I would have obviously remembered these months as “top-tier” even without the data. However, due to this chart, I have a rough guideline of how these months are extra special: I’m walking more than 10,700 steps per day and capturing close to 4 items in my camera roll per day.

Fitness

Generally speaking, I have a difficult time staying consistent with by health and wellness habits. One month I will be hard at work training for a half marathon and the next I will be wedged into my couch eating snacks and watching Netflix. It makes no sense. I’m well aware… I’m working on it. The months where I am focused on my health, either training for a race or pursuing some fitness goal, are the ones where I’m heads down and focused on physical activity. To successfully improve on my fitness, I intentional slow down my social life and ratchet up my level of exercise. From this chart, you can see that this transition usually takes place in early spring and continues through the summer—when the weather is nice and I can trade in half-effort treadmill runs for longer runs in Central Park. There are also blips in the middle of winter where this habit kicks in (typically timed as a New Year’s resolution). This is a quadrant I love to be in, but it requires a focused and channeled mindset—one that’s exhausting and tends to get burned out by late fall.

Hedonism

This quadrant is the exact opposite of my Fitness quadrant. The opposite of dieting and exercise is birthday parties, bar nights, restaurant hopping and long-weekends away. Being “horizontal” (i.e. lounging on the couch, beach or bed) takes precedent over any “vertical” activity (i.e. running, walking, biking). I accept most invites to go out socializing with friends, increasing my time spent at bars and delicious new restaurants (where I’m not ordering the salad). I have a ton of fun in this quadrant. What’s interesting is I’ve been in this quadrant, accidentally, for the last 6 consecutive months (April 2020 will be no different) and am starting to feel it physically. I feel myself needing to go through a recalibration, re-channel my inner-focus, and get to work athletically.

Recalibration

This quadrant actually splits up into two smaller groups: Resurgence and Planning. While I’m in this quadrant, I’m usually at home thinking or working… meaning reduced time at the gym and at social gatherings. My mood sours a bit due decreased dopamine, and I take stock of where I’ve been and where I’m headed. This is the Planning group (the 4 red dots farthest down in the quadrant). These months are critical. I do most of my “deep thinking” during these times when I question and learn from prior experiences and plan ahead for the coming months. The Resurgence group (the 5 red dots in a horizontal line directly under the 118 cutoff line) tends to happen as I come out of Planning time and look to be more social and find new experiences that can help me grow. I’m slowly ramping up the number of exciting things I’m doing before also ramping up my level of physical activity.

Grid Shortcomings

There are 2 places where this grid falls short:

  1. You only gain real value from this grid the longer you sit with it, understanding what you were doing and how you were feeling in each month. The more you can understand what you were thinking, the easier it is to create themes for each quadrant. These themes are critical for understanding yourself and how you function on a month-to-month basis.

  2. It assumes your life operates on a bit of a wave, meaning some months look drastically different than others. If you live a consistent life where, no matter what, you are not missing your daily work out and always have a social event on the calendar, this grid may not make sense for you. It may look like every point on the chart is on top of each other. That’s fine! Perhaps there other metrics you can chart…

For instance, can you could look at the amount of money you are spending (in general or in a specific category), your screen time, views of your LinkedIn profile, number of new business clients or connections, distinct number of friends texted, etc. There’s infinite ways to reflect on your life with personal data, and hopefully this exercise sparked your own creativity to do so.

How does this grid land with you? Are you thinking about reflecting on your life in a different way? I’d love to see what you come up with.

Life’s only as confusing as you let it be,
Ross


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