The Quantified Life: Days 0-60

Authors note: Anything you see in any of my blog posts that is underlined is either a cool external link to help you learn more or internal links to my own related content.

New Project: The Quantified Life

*Note: The Google Sheet link to John’s Quantified Life data can be found HERE.

In my last blog post, I described how I’ve designed my life around a few carefully chosen, interdependent goals. I also described, at a high level, my strategy and tactics for making progress towards those goals.

However, having inspiring goals is worthless if you don’t actually do the day-to-day hard work required to make real progress towards your goals. If last blog post was akin to “talking the talk”, this post is about actually “walking the walk.” After I wrote the True Goals vs Fuel Goals blog post, I realized that merely having goals was NOT going to be enough to ensure success. To continuously improve, I realized that I need constant monitoring and daily, objective feedback.

Legendary management consultant Peter Drucker famously said, “What gets measured, gets improved.” I largely agree with this statement and so, as of October 1, 2018, I have embarked a new project that I’m calling Quantified Life. The goal of Quantified Life is to collect data on my own personal Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) related to my goals, analyze the data, and use the insights to improve my rate of personal growth.

Richard Feynman said “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.” When it comes to making progress towards your goals, the best way to ensure that you’re not fooling yourself is to have good data on your own progress (or lack of progress). Knowledge really is power in this case, and today’s modern technology - namely smartphones and wearables - make collecting and analyzing your personal data something that anyone can do.

The Quantified Self movement

This project was directly inspired by the Quantified Self movement. You can think of Quantified Self as the marriage between personal data and self-improvement. Here’s the description from the Quantified Self Wiki page:

“Quantified self, also known as lifelogging, is a specific movement by Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly from Wired magazine, which began in 2007 and tries to incorporate technology into data acquisition on aspects of a person's daily life. People collect data in terms of food consumed, quality of surrounding air, mood, skin conductance as a proxy for arousal, pulse oximetry for blood oxygen level, and performance, whether mental or physical. Wolf has described quantified self as "self-knowledge through self-tracking with technology".[1]

My first step in this new project was to convert my goals into measurable data points and start tracking them daily. Below is a diagram from my last blog post that I created to visualize my goals. These are the essential goals/tasks that I’m trying to convert to measurable data points for this Quantified Life project.

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Here are some apps I’m using to collect/track this data: Fitbit, MyFitnessPal, Goodreads, Insight Timer, and Google Sheets.

The Key Metrics

What makes this project particularly interesting to me is trying to come up with ways to quantify goals that don’t typically lend themselves to easy quantification, especially personal relationships. As of right now, I’m currently tracking myself on over 30 metrics. This was my first attempt at converting my goals to quantifiable metrics and I’m certain that these goals will need to be tweaked over time. Most of the health goals are based on common health indicators and most of the non-health metrics are frequency-based. Below is a break down of many of those key metrics by goal type:

Great relationships

-Fatherhood: spend at least 60 minutes/day bonding/playing with our new baby boy

-Marriage: Have monthly date nights with my wife and do surprise “extra” chores (that she typically does) for my wife twice per week

-Son: Visit my parents every 2 weeks, on average

-Brother: Do 3 “sibling-only” meals per year with my brother and sister. No kids, spouses, or parents allowed.

-Others: Do 1 random act of kindness per week

-Network: Add 1 new, quality relationship to my network every month.

-Also, I am currently experimenting with 3 different personal CRM apps (Ryze, Cultivate, and Garden) which set up automatic, customized reminders for me to keep in touch (texting, calling, or in-person) with my family, friends, and other people in my network. Cultivate seems to be the best one so far.

Improving the World

-Donate annually to Effective Altruism-type charities. Currently, I am partial to de-worming and anti-malarial charities: Deworm the World, Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, and the Against Malaria foundation.

-Keep up with news/debates within the Effective Altruism community via the EA Facebook Group and EA community forums. (Not currently tracked)

Skills/Knowledge/Platform

-Read a book per week, on average.

-Release 1 podcast episode per month

-Publish 1 blog post per quarter

Wealth

-Maintain a specific personal savings rate %. (The rate itself is private, but I will include this as a monthly pass/fail goal as part of my Quantified Life)

-Achieve longer term salary/cash flow, investing returns, and net worth goals. (Private, and tracked outside of this project)

Physical & Mental Health

-Drink 1 gallon of water per day

-Meditate daily, for at least 10 minutes per day

-Do my 5 minute Journal daily

-Lose 40-50 ish pounds to achieve goal weight of 150lb

-Track a variety of diet metrics (net calories, net carbs, sugar, etc)

-Track running and fitness metrics (running, push ups, pull ups, etc)

-Track steps, heart rate, and blood pressure

Going Public With My Data

Am I crazy for making this data public? Maybe, but I actually don’t think so. All things considered, these data points I’m making public are pretty benign. I’m confident that the added benefits of making my commitment to improving these metrics public and of sharing that journey with all of you outweigh the risks of personal harm from making this data public. So, here you go internet…my Quantified Life database for the first 60 days. Enjoy!

Early Observations and Takeaways

After 60 days of tracking, here are some things I’ve learned:

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  1. Doing extra chores, meeting new people, and doing random acts of kindness are WAY harder than spending quality time with my family and friends. It’s not exactly surprising that I unperformed on those goals because I thoroughly enjoy spending quality time with my family & friends, but I find chores and meeting new peoples deeply unpleasant. However, it was nice to see the data confirm this weakness of mine. I will have to double down on my efforts on these particular goals.

  2. I was surprised how much sleep I’m actually getting with an infant to take care of (6.5 hours on avg). This probably means either our son is sleeping pretty well, or possibly that I’m not exactly doing my fair share of late-night baby duty.

  3. Although I’ve been very inconsistent on my diet, it was nice to see that I did lose about 7 pounds or so during the first 60 days. However, almost all of that weight loss occurred in the first few weeks, and I haven’t lost any weight in the past month or so. That is a trend I must break.

  4. My daily ritual of inputting new data points every morning and watching the graphs update really has a gamification effect that makes me much more motivated to keep striving than I otherwise would.

Goddart’s Law

One important concept that I’m a bit weary of is Goddart’s Law:

"When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure." “Any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes”

While it is certainly true that linking rewards/punishments to any metric increases the risk of unintended consequences resulting from the incentive to meet that goal, I think the benefits of self-monitoring outweigh those concerns. I’ll have to be careful that I don’t cheat my own incentive system!

Future Updates

I plan on releasing an updated version of this data every 3 months or so and sharing whatever insights I gain through this blog. I expect this will be a fun project, that will reveal my own strengths and weaknesses, and help me on the path towards self-mastery.

“If you can master yourself, you will find yourself in control of a great empire.” - Publius Syrus

Thanks for reading,

John


True Goals vs Fuel Goals

Authors note: Anything you see in any of my blog posts that is underlined is either a cool external link to help you learn more or internal links to my own related content.

 

I’ve spent the better part of the past 6 years trying to examine my life goals, my motivations, and the “WHY?” behind each of them. After reading of hundreds of great books, spending many hours per week in states of self-reflection and meditation, and having deep conversations with some amazing people...I’ve developed some principles that work for me. While, my own personal life design framework certainly isn’t guaranteed to work for everyone, I think some of the ideas I've gathered can help people and are therefore worth sharing on this blog.

One of the key insights that I’ve gained from all this introspection is the difference between what I call “True Goals” and “Fuel Goals”

Defining True Goals vs Fuel Goals

True Goals (aka deathbed goals) are the things what truly matter the most in life, they are the things that you will actually care about on your deathbed. These are also the things that, should you fail to accomplish, you would probably consider your own life to have been a failure.

Fuel goals, while very important, are not goals you’re likely to care about at the end of your life. Examples of common fuel goals are money, fitness, and education. You will not give a shit about your retirement fund, your personal best 5K time, or your number of advanced degrees on your deathbed. However, without some level of wealth, health, and skills, it will be damn near impossible to accomplish your true goals.

Fuel goals are the means to an end, but are NOT ends in of themselves. True goals ARE the true ends. In the end, the goal is to optimize your life for the True Goals. It is critically important not to confuse your True Goals with your Fuel Goals. 

True Goals may vary greatly by individual and can take years or even decades to fully discover. They should be very few in number, and you should have the utmost conviction in them. Fuel goals tend to shift more frequently as changing life circumstances alter the way to best optimize for your True Goals.

Designing a Life

Below is a diagram that shows the relationships between my actual personal life goals. A critical feature of this life design is the complex inter-dependencies of each of these goals. Growth in one goal area (skills for example) tend to enable more growth in other goal areas (wealth for example) which tends to enable even MORE growth in more areas (Improving the World for example). This virtuous cycle is similar to the Matthew effect. 

I am posting my goals and the thought process behind them publicly not for you to copy my goals, but for you to consider how they relate to your own goals and their inter-dependencies. Develop your own unique goals that make sense for YOU!

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The diagram above shows my two core True Goals (Great Relationships and Improving the World) and my three core Fuel Goals (Skills/Knowledge, Wealth, and Health). Within each box are the key sub-components of each Goal. This particular diagram focuses on the strategy, without going into the tactics to achieve those goals.

The diagram below is similar to the above, but replaces those sub-components (strategy) with the actual day-to-day activities and projects (high-level tactics) that actually lead to improved outcomes in working towards my Goals.

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Now that you've seen how I've designed my life, here are my very brief explanations for my thought process and some sources that influenced this design.

TRUE GOAL #1 - Cultivating meaningful relationships is very broad but generally is about being the best spouse, parent, child/sibling, friend, neighbor, collaborator, and citizen you can be. You do this by adding value to those people’s lives and helping them flourish. This is simple, but not easy. Quality time, acts of service, words of affirmation, and the sharing of skills/knowledge/resources are the best means of accomplishing this. Relationship quality is devilishly hard to quantify, but critically important. Your primary goal in any key relationships should be to help the OTHER person achieve their own life goals in whatever way you're best capable of. The two books that most influenced by thinking on relationships are The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman and Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi.

TRUE GOAL #2 - Improving the world is also hard to quantify but Effective Altruism is by far the best framework I’ve found. Breakthrough innovation and social change can be also be very effective, but only for the most talented and influential 1/10th if 1% of us. The rest of us, myself included, are probably most useful Earning to Give (EtG).

Although far less effective than the top EA charities (deworming and anti-malarial bed nets), local volunteering and community service does have a place. The latter should be the focus for donating your time and talents, and the former the focus for donating your money. The book Doing Good Better by William MacAskill had a tremendous impact on my views in this domain. I did an entire podcast on this book which you can listen to here.

FUEL GOAL #1 - Skills/Knowledge - Quite simply, the more valuable you can make yourself > the more people will pay you > the faster you can accumulate capital > the wealthier you’ll become (Fuel Goal #2) > the more you can donate/help other’s flourish > the more you can improve the world.(True Goal #2) Being skilled/knowledgeable helps you know how to add value to the lives of those key relationships that make up True Goal #1. So go read some great books like these and learn some valuable skill like programming.

FUEL GOAL #2 - Wealth is a potent form of power. It's the most impact way to contribute towards Improving the World (True Goal #2), it gives you the resources to assist your family, friends, and collaborators achieve their goals (True Goal #1), it can pay for high-quality food, athletic trainers, and even free time for leisure and rest. (Fuel Goal #3). Once you’re financially independent, getting much richer doesn’t do much for your happiness, but giving it away actually does. Of course, getting to that critical level of wealth in the first place can be quite difficult. If you don’t own a business, it really comes down to whether you can acquire valuable skills/credentials that people are willing to pay big $$$ for AND then also living far below your means. (Fuel Goal #1) Then you use that high rate of savings/investment to gradually transition from wage laborer to owner of assets.

FUEL GOAL #3 - Health - Of course, if you’re sick, unable to function, or dead...you lose the ability to keep that virtuous cycle moving, and therefore lose the ability to improve your relationships and/or improve the world (True Goals 1 & 2). So you must keep your mental, physical, and emotional health at a decent minimum level. Some may disagree, but I strongly believe there are diminishing returns to increased health. The goal is to optimize the true goals, not the fuel goals. So ultra-marathons and 400lb bench presses are overkill in my view. The huge time and energy required to train for an ultra-marathon could probably have been better invested in relationships, skill building, or wealth generation. A simple, moderate exercise/diet/sleep/leisure/meditation regimen seems likely to produce about 80% of the benefits of good health with about 20% of the time/energy should keep your body and mind at a level where you can perform well when it comes to your relationships and wealth accumulation.  So be healthy enough to live long, have high energy, and be emotionally positive, but do be weary of overkill. 

Opportunity Costs and Trade-Offs

Whatever YOUR goals are, bear in mind that life is one big series of opportunity costs. There will always be trade-offs between career, friends/family, leisure, charity, health, skill development, etc. Whenever possible, always remember to make the decisions that optimize for the True Goals over the long-term.

Also remember to steer clear of activities that don't contribute to your goals at all. For most people, TV and video games are probably the biggest unnecessary wastes of time. If you can replace screen time with active leisure like reading, exercising, or honing skills, you'll put yourself at a HUGE advantage over most people. As Warren Buffett once said, "The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.” You must learn to say NO to the non-important things in life.

In the End

Someday when you are lying on your future deathbed, as the cancer (or whatever you have) is eating your body away, you’ll look back and ask yourself whether or not you lived your brief life the right way. If you optimized for your True Goals, employed your Fuel Goals as a means to those ends, and generally said NO to the unimportant things...I can’t imagine you would have any regrets about your life.

In the end, you will look back at those True Goals you accomplished, and be able to die truly satisfied...and if you are lucky, maybe even die with a smile on your face.


 

I read 100 books in 2017. Here are my Top 4 recommendations.

Authors note: Anything you see in any of my blog posts that is underlined is either a cool external link to help you learn more or internal links to my own related content.

 

I read 100 books in 2017, which is more than double the 46 books I read in 2016. My breakdown was 90% non-fiction, 10% fiction in 2017 vs 100% non-fiction, 0% fiction in 2016. If you're curious, you can view them all HERE.

The two factors that helped to double my reading volume were: 1) I started a podcast that combines books, booze, and interesting conversations and 2) I began using Goodreads, which I highly recommend because it enables you to easily track books you've already read and books you want to read in the future.

Here are the 4 books I recommend everyone should check out:

1) Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

by Yuval Noah Harari

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Of the 288 books I’ve logged over the past 6-7 years…THIS is the best book I’ve read. Sapiens is a mind-blowing, ambitious, and deep reflection on the past, present, and future of Homo Sapiens. I am literally going to force my family and friends to read this book.

The book breaks human history into 4 parts: 1) The Cognitive Revolution, 2) The Agricultural Revolution, 3) The Unification of Humankind and 4) The Scientific Revolution. From our humble beginnings as insignificant primates to our takeover of planet earth, Yuval Noah Harari takes you on a mind bending journey that explores human evolution, inter-subjective realities, expanded definitions of religion (including referring to human rights and money as religions), and sapiens unquenchable desire to innovate and conquer. Harari masterfully weaves it all together into one of the most remarkable single volumes of history ever produced.

Harari is not shy about confronting some of the big questions and dark realities of our human nature including genocide, environmental destruction, and the fact that, despite incredible innovations and global domination…sapiens STILL don’t seem to be any happier than they were in previous points in history

He ends the book by musing on his predictions for the future of humanity, which includes sapiens turning themselves into gods via AI, genetic engineering, and nanotech. Technology resulting in a “useless class” of people, the collapse of liberalism, humanism, and capitalism, and the rise of religions that worship technology.

He ends this masterpiece with an incredible quote that sums up humanities future:

“Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”
 

2) Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

by Sebastian Junger

This short, thought-provoking work focuses on community. What is community? How do groups of humans typically interact, both historically, and today? 

Junger argues that human community is more or less defined as a small band (approx 50-150) of humans who, in the face of existential threats (war, famine, natural disaster) depend on each other for their collective survival. Tribes are "the people you would share the last of your food with." Imagine a tight-knit band of hunter-gathers killing a saber-toothed tiger to protect their tribe. That image, per Junger, is essentially how humans evolved to interact with each other. This is why so many humans find deep meaning and sense of purpose fighting for and defending their tribe or community against dangers and disasters. 

During times of crisis, like 9/11 or the Fukushima nuclear disaster, people are at their VERY BEST. In times of crisis, suicide rates, crime rates, and substance abuse rates drop dramatically, and feelings of unity, community, and self-esteem reach otherwise unheard of levels.

The thing is, according to Junger, humans don't mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society, however, has perfected the art of making people feel unnecessary.

In today's affluent, safe, stable Western nations, much of society has been liberated from the common day-to-day dangers that our ancestors faced, such as extreme violence, famine, and disease. While all these advances are great achievements, it's also true that we pay something of a price for our affluence and safety - namely - that you no longer DEPEND on the people around you for your day-to-day survival. Without that dependence true community essentially vanishes. What we end up with is a hyper-individualized society with increased anxiety, alienation, and depression. 

If Junger's thesis is even partially true, this may help explain why Western countries seem less happy than less developed countries. It may help explain why many veterans consider their experience in war zones to be highlight of their lives. 

We should not, of course, forget that tribalism, in-group-out-group bias, and dehumanization of the "other," are root causes of some of the most vile human atrocities. Nor should we forget that individualist thinking has liberated billions from the shackles of monarchy, state religion, and collective punishment. We should, however, acknowledge that with our modern society we experience very real trade-offs between: individualism and community, between solidarity and alienation, and between affluence/safety and meaning. 

Junger, admittedly, doesn't have an easy solution to the negatives of this apparent trade-off between the liberation of the individual vs the destruction of community, and between the precious gifts of affluence, abundance, and safety vs the truest of human bonds that can only be formed when people truly depend on each other for their day-to-day survival. Perhaps the best we can do is, carefully, try to create small "tribe-like" special interest communities like running clubs, professional organizations, or Ben Franklin-style Juntos that include as much of the positive aspects of the tribal community, and as little of the group-think and out-group bias as we can.

3) War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning

by Chris Hedges

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An amazing, powerful book on how humans are seemingly drawn to the narcotic of war and the horror that results. Everyone should read this book.

The central idea that war is a very potent drug – the biggest high you can get – often peddled by historians, reporters, and other myth makers as exciting, glorious, and heroic. In reality, war exposes the evil that lurks not far below the surface in all of us. Despite its horrors, humans seem to find great meaning and purpose in war, and of killing the evil “other” for the “greater good.” Humans are very often seduced by the power to destroy lives.

Self-worshipping national/cultural myths that cast “us” as the victim, and “them” as the evil aggressor, tend to suspend critical thought, lead to dehumanization of “the other,” and violence naturally follows.

However, once the war actually arrives, those who experience the terror of battle and death firsthand realize how awful and regrettable it is. They realize that our national myths are almost always false or exaggerated, and the pain of killing others and/or losing friends/relatives never heals.

In war, morality turns upside down: indiscriminate slaughter becomes a virtue, and honest inquiry becomes vice. The chaos of war almost always leads to the executing of women and children, rape and torture, and people displaying other people they’ve killed as trophies. You are often forced to commit atrocities or risk having your allegiance questionedwhich could possibly put your own life at risk.

Hedges tries to recommend compassion, humility, communication, and love as the possible solutions, however it must be acknowledged that while humans have little problem being compassionate, humble, loving, and communicating with those they view as part of their "tribe", humans are remarkably UNSUCCESSFUL at maintaining those virtues around "other" people/groups that they disagree with or have labeled as the enemy. Until that changes, it is doubtful that we can eliminate war and violence from the human experience.

4) Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and How You Can Make a Difference

by William MacAskill

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For much more drunken jabbering on this book and the topic of effective altruism, check out the podcast episode on it that I did with my good friend Billy Ray Taylor HERE.

If there's a common thread between Tribe, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, and Doing Good Better, it is this: human happiness, well-being, meaning in life - or whatever you want to call it - comes almost exclusively from contributing to a group or cause that is bigger than yourself. 

The big, perhaps controversial, idea of Doing Good Better is effective altruism, a philosophy and movement that advocates using science & data to analyze the effectiveness of charitable organizations, emphasizes cause neutrality, and recommends ONLY donating to the most effective charities in the world. As a corollary, you should NOT, as most people tend to do, donate to organizations based on your emotional connections or personal attachments. Your no local church? NO WAY! Your local food bank? NEVER! Your alma mater? SCREW THAT! Most of the data suggests that causes like intestinal deworming, malarial bed nets, vitamin supplementation, and direct cash transfers in the poorest parts of Africa and India are 10-100x more effective per $ donated than whatever local charity you're emotionally attached to. Given such a stark difference in effectiveness, many effective altruists would consider knowingly allocating your charity dollars to ineffective charities instead of uber-effective charities morally unconscionable. Some would argue you even have a moral obligation to choose to donate to the more effective charities over less effective alternatives, even if they make you feel less "warm and fuzzy" inside.

What makes this whole ideology both awesome and daunting is the extreme difficulty in objectively quantifying  "good" or "well-being." Measurements like Quality-Adjusted Life Years (QALYs) are probably the best we have right now, but our ability to collect and interpret the data is constantly improving. Despite the difficulty, it is absolutely possible to approximately compare and contrast the effectiveness of various charitable causes. I think we, as a society, need to invest serious time and energy into improving our ability to quantify the effectiveness of charitable organizations and quantifying human suffering in general. 

After much research, my wife and I (married just over a year) made our first annual effective altruism donation in December 2017. It made us feel REALLY good that for the rough equivalent of one month's mortgage payment, approximately 1,900 children in Africa and India won't get intestinal worms in 2018. NINETEEN-HUNDRED!!! That fact alone gives my life added meaning and added motivation to excel in my career and to be frugal so that suffering that would have otherwise happened will never occur. 

You don't have to go far down the Effective Altruism rabbit hole before things start to get pretty crazy and philosophical. Layering additional, potentially effective causes, such as social justice, animal suffering, and controlling future artificial intelligence, to the effective altruism framework can be seriously overwhelming and mentally frustrating. However, there is certainly an intellectual joy that comes from undertaking the challenge of attempting to quantify "doing good", and a deep satisfaction in going to bed each night knowing that you've given some of your hard-earned money to the most effective charities in the world. That hundreds or even thousands of children per year, may live better and suffer less, because you have existed, and to translate your otherwise unremarkable career, your unremarkable talents, your unremarkable life, into a truly remarkable amount of good, is truly the opportunity of a lifetime. If that's not something worth living for, then what the hell is?  

- john

p.s. Special thanks to Ron McIntire for doing a quick proofread of my first blog post. His expertise prevented me from committing what could only be described as an "atrocity against commas" of biblical propotions. Also thanks to Elliott Killian for inspiring me to start my own personal website. 

If you want to listen to, essentially, an audio version of this blog post, which includes my 2 least favorite books of the year, check out the podcast episode below: