How to Use Data-Driven Insights to Accomplish “The Informed Self”

What do you do to make the most of all the data that you are collecting about your personal performance? To conserve time and effort, you may want to focus on creating the Perfectly Informed Self in which the right data is available to you at the right time, in the right format.

In the first article in this series I introduced the notion of “The Notified Self.” I described it as an end-state in which you as as professional are perfectly notified. As you may recall, it has three components — The Interrupted Self (which I addressed in the first article), The Warned Self (the subject of the second article) and The Informed Self which I’ll focus on here.

The modern professional is bombarded with data. It all adds up to more information than a person can use in a single lifetime, leaving many of us feeling a little guilty because we just don’t have what it takes to make use of it all. Should we feel this way?

Some proponents of wearables, the Internet of Things, connected cars and smart homes/cities are championing an approach that offers initial promise. Simply plug in a number of probes to gather lots of individual data, focusing on information that’s never been collected before. Then, sift through it all, looking for correlations that indicate areas of improvement.

For example, if you purchase a FitBit watch you can use it to uncover problematic patterns in your sleep you never knew you had.

If this sounds like an approach that’s perfect for someone with a lot of time on their hands, it should. One of the criticisms of this drive to quantify personal data is that it has attracted a number of young, male geeks with lots of time on their hands. They are excited by the interplay between probes, data and analytics, hoping to open up new insights that make a big difference.

However, for the average person this just isn’t realistic. Most of us struggle to complete all the daily tasks we assign ourselves, giving us little time to do just-in-case data mining others have time to perform.

Over time, it’s not hard to see what is likely to happen. More probes, more data, more sifting for correlations… and less time to implement any actual changes.

Fortunately, there’s a better method.

How Top-Rated Consultants Solve Client Problems
At McKinsey & Co, the approach which involves collecting all the data possible and sifting it for meaning is known colloquially as “boiling the ocean.”

It’s a temptation faced by many of their new consultants… to find and sift through as much client data as possible in order to find nuggets of insight. At the very beginning of their careers, at the start of their first project, they often engage in such intensive explorations. It’s a typical mistake when they are short of training.

Fairly soon, they are taught the inefficiency of this approach. Over the decades, the firm has learned that it’s far better to spend time structuring the problem in a sharply focused way. They do so by creating a particular hypothesis and then looking for the data required to defend or deny it.

If other unrelated issues crop up during the course of the study they won’t be ignored. But the harsh reality of the business world is that time is in desperately short supply. The client is looking to solve a bottom-line problem they already know they have: it’s the surest way to get an ROI on the fees they are paying.

This idea of focusing your time and resources on known problems is not a bad model for the average person to use.

How to Start By Focusing On Your Problems

The essence of The Informed Self is to follow the same approach. You define your most pressing problems and selectively gather information that’s really needed. Here are the steps that will help you achieve that goal.

  1. Define a tough problem you are trying to solve

If you aren’t trying to fix an urgent problem, this may require some thought. But let’s imagine you have received a recommendation from your therapist that a couple needs to spend 15 hours per week without distractions in order to maintain the relationship. It’s a bit of startling news and you have no idea where to begin.

A month later, your therapist asks “How many hours did you spend last week?” As you fumble to reply, you realize that this isn’t as easy as you thought. You honestly don’t know the actual number, but you suspect that it’s still far too low.

To get a fix on the problem, you decide to keep a written diary to track the time you and your spouse spend together.

2. Look for causes using data

In your next session you have an answer. You only recorded three hours per week with your spouse. But you have a nagging feeling that the data you collected is incorrect because its under-counting unplanned time together. After the session, you do a search for apps that record the total time people spend together.

To your surprise, you find one. After installing the app on your phones, you can both view the data it collects.

Without changing your behavior, the total is bumped up to nine hours per week due to better data collection.

3. Analyze Data

The app also happens to have a feature you decide to try. It suggests times during the week when you and your spouse can be together based on a month of prior data.

You scan your calendar with your spouse and see a pattern. If you intentionally extend the planned times together each week, you should be able to reach 15 hours.

4. Try Solutions

Two months later, following the apps suggestions, you are able to spend 17.5 hours per week together on average. Your therapist is pleased. And so are you!

Minimum Data

This simplified case study offers a realistic pathway to the Informed Self. It follows the organic process most people use to solve their problems.

Think back to a time when you didn’t care about your weight, Body Mass Index, blood pressure or cholesterol levels. If you care about these indicators today, it didn’t just happen by accident. Perhaps you or someone you know had a scare.

The Informed Self builds on these episodes, leading us to track a finite list of metrics that reflect our priority concerns. As you mature, issues come and go so the data you collect changes, even as you resist the temptation to track more data just because you can. In the future, we will all have access to wearables that track more data than you can use in a lifetime. You probably aren’t interested in using them all to “boil the ocean.”

The Informed Self and Time-Based Productivity

In my book, I describe a key skill everyone uses that requires elements of The Informed Self. It’s called “Switching” and it’s defined as the pause you take between tasks to decide what to do next. During that brief moment, it’s better to be informed than ignorant, but being able to review the right data in a short amount of time is a challenge.

Someone who is skillful at Switching makes their choices based on the minimum amount of quality data. In today’s world, it’s easy to get bogged down by too much information: incoming email, direct messages, your planned schedule, your To-Do list, and all the other inputs in your life. Deciding what to do next is becoming a more complex decision each day.

SkedPal, mentioned in the prior article, is a calendar optimizer that I use each day, especially at those moments when I am Switching. With a click, it re-shuffles my calendar based on new inputs: the most important of which is the current day/time. This has relieved me from a great deal of manual activity — that painful re-shuffling of your daily plan when something unexpected occurs.

It’s one big step toward the perfectly Interrupted, Warned and Informed Selves that transform Switching. In the future, there may be even more real-time inputs that SkedPal includes in its formulations, such as an urgent Instant Message from your boss letting you know that an emergency meeting has been scheduled.

This is just one example from an of life which I happen to focus on. There are many others.

What We Need From From Developers

The idea of managing different parts of your life through a dashboard of important information isn’t new, but developers could go a step further. New apps could assist users to craft combinations of problem definitions and hypothesis tests. They could also suggest ways to collect information the user may not discover on their own.

Such an app would even help users construct and change dashboards of information that meet precise needs. A dashboard for “Switching”, for example, could help someone decide what to do next based on multiple inputs, perhaps powered by AI apps such as SkedPal.

A very different dashboard that you set up because of a steep rise in your cholesterol count could help you decide how to construct your meals.

Once again, developers would need deep insight into the goals users are trying to accomplish to set these up.

An Invitation to Explore

If this topic is one that interests you, follow our progress on Twitter — @The NotifiedSelf. If you would like to explore other ways to participate, return to the first article in the series and scroll to the bottom of the article for some choices.


Thanks to my volunteer editors who helped me edit this article: Doug Toft, Tom Jansen, Arlene Henry and Joyce Kristjansson.