Data-Driven Personal Growth

Shifting Subject to Object

It’s ironic that in our modern world where data are hounding us from all sides, when it comes to our personal development, we typically do not make data-driven decisions.  Instead, we tend to make assumptions. We say “If I get this degree or car or enter this career field, then I’ll be happy.” Or “If I work out more, then I’ll have self-respect.” Or whatever the case may be.  It’s interesting because when we think like this, all we really understand is that we are in some way dissatisfied; we have not looked at the situation objectively, so we don’t necessarily have an accurate understanding of why we feel dissatisfied, and what’s more, we tend to make some type of prescription that we have no reason to think will work to address the problem that we don’t really understand. No wonder change is so hard!

Author and High-Performance Coach Brendon Burchard points out an irony in his book High Performance Habits that so many of us search for “work-life balance” but the very notion of “balance” necessitates that we measure something. I mean, how can we expect to have the scales of our lives in balance when we don’t actually measure anything?

Management Science…and Beyond!

This is another area where there’s a lot of practical wisdom available within an organizational context but not nearly as much for the personal journey.  One reason for this is because we seem to take a limited view of what “data” means and we associate data with science, technology, and management practice. Certainly, tracking website clicks, money matters, and Key Performance Indicators are ways to effectively use data, but these are what researchers refer to as quantitative data.  Quantitative research denotes practices used on quantifiable data.  On the other hand, qualitative data are non-numeric and describe characteristics of things. 

So why does this even matter?

In the business world, we ubiquitously see quantitative data and rarely see qualitative data, so it creates the illusion that some things cannot be measured. This matters because I’m attempting to demonstrate that we CAN and SHOULD use data to measure matters of the human condition, matters that don’t necessarily have to be quantifiable but can still be measured.  What’s more, often non-quantifiable phenomena will ultimately have some quantifiable effect, but not necessarily immediately.  I believe businesses miss out on a great deal of productivity gains because they fail to see this value in tracking non-quantifiable outcomes that are precursors to the big numbers that they care about.  We have a world that doesn’t really understand qualitative data.  In personal development, where thoughts, feelings, emotions, mindsets, etc. are central to success, we MUST learn to use qualitative data for insights.

So how do we do that?

Introduction to Data Collection, Analysis, and Extracting Insights

There are many ways to effectively use data, but I will start small here in order to give you something in this post that you can actually use right away.

In science and academia, we use a lot of big words to describe relatively simple concepts. Guilty as charged. This really is pretty straight forward, though.  One easy practice to get into is journaling, but you don’t want some mindless recollection of the day’s events.  Have a purpose with your journal and keep it short and to the point so it’s not so burdensome on your time that you won’t stick with it.  The goal is to keep track of your thoughts and feeling upon some predefined trigger event. 

So for example, if you are trying to quit smoking, you may decide to make a note of any and all thoughts about smoking that arise during your day, any emotions that pop up, any particular moments of weakness, or any triggers that make you want to smoke. Over time, this will create a body of data that you can use to modify behavior and even make predictions about emotional outcomes given particular situations and scenarios. This is a simple example intended to get the mental juices flowing on how data can be used to inform a personal development effort. This will get more attention in future posts.

The process you use to collect, analyze, and extract insights from data will evolve over time as you get used to the practice and increase your abilities with working with this type of data.  Your practice doesn’t have to be perfect.  Like I mentioned earlier, so much of personal development work is done simply by assumptions that when you are mindful about using data to inform your practices and decisions, you can see great benefits from the very beginning, even if your practice is not well-developed yet. 

Using data for your personal development will be better than not using data, and like so many things, taking action to get started puts you on the fast track to being successful.

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