If we ask questions – as Socrates warns us we must – eventually our ability to answer them becomes limited by the data we have available. If we wait until we have the question to start collecting data, it will take us some amount of time to get baseline data and then even more to measure change during experiments. We won’t have our answer for some time – weeks, months or even decades. We might never get an accurate answer.
This is why we must record data that we do not yet know how we will use. Some day we will have a question that these data can answer. This is why we must bear the burden of recording and storing information. Some day an important question will be quickly answered because of the hard work we put in now.
Here is a story to highlight one recent, though not all that important, example in which I experienced this.
In 2015 I started tracking how frequently I participate in various hobby activities as a way of measuring the enjoyability and balance of the life I’ve created for myself.
It is more precise, and thus less overwhelming, for me to say “I feel happiest when I surf at least 12 times a year but I’ve only surfed 8 so far” than to deal with some ambiguous emotional statement about “not felling like I surf enough anymore”. The former is much more actionable – finding four surfing sessions is easy – book a week vacation on whichever coast/island is getting waves in the next month. Problem solved.
After a few years of using vacations and trips to hit my number – I started wondering how my target of 12 surfing sessions stacked up to the frequency I surfed during my heyday. I am now 30, the father of three kids, and living in a place that is very far from any waves – so my ability to participate in any hobbies, and specifically surfing, feels very limited. But how much did I really used to surf? Was it really every day, 365 times per year, like I sometimes hyperbolically state? Or was it actually more like 2-3 times a week – for 100-150 total surfing sessions per year? Or was it really 2-3 times per week during the good half of the year and very few during the bad part for a total closer to 50?
Is my current target of 12 a bare minimum 5-10% of my peak or is it closer to 25-30%? If so, should I adjust that number? Would I be happier with 25 or is that excessive?
The trouble is I can’t go back in time and track the frequency in which I used to surf. My best guesses are probably wrong too – I remember surfing an awful lot, but I am biased to remember things I enjoy and I am frequently reminded the fallibility of my memory. I could try to track data on some youth that is similar to who I used to be – that might serve as a decent proxy – but would be error prone, laborious and I wouldn’t have my answer for months.
Thankfully I already solved this problem. Greg from the past gave Greg from today the gift of an answer in the format of data.
I’ve been tracking things about myself for over a decade. One such longitudinal project is the one in which I track every minute of my time during a sample week, once per quarter. These data go back to when I was still in college, which means it captures some major life changes from student, to gap year, to young professional – from bachelor, to husband, to father.
I took a look at two sample weeks during a period in which I lived two blocks from the beach. It is the period of life I point to as when I surfed the absolute most due to how accessible it was.
The data tell the story more specifically. They say that I surfed on six of the days of that week for a total of nine hours during the first week and four of the days for a total of four hours the second week. By average those I ended up at five days for 6.5 hours. Assuming those weeks are an accurate sample (which I trust with decent certainty due to my methodology) that would put me in the 200-250 a year range. Much more than the 12 times per year I am aiming for now.
Even if I upped my number by a factor of 2-4 I wouldn’t be close to my maximum. I really am just hitting a bare minimum getting in a few surfing sessions during vacations.
This ultimately leaves me with value questions. how important is surfing to me compared to other hobbies? How important are hobbies to me compared to other priorities?
But what I am not left with is ambiguity – which means I can focus on those important questions and approach them from a solid base of facts rather than emotion.
Thanks to data I recorded previously for one purpose, I was able to quickly answer a new question with relative accuracy.
That is why we track things, even things we aren’t quite sure how we will use. At some point in the future we might be better equipped to use them. Tools, methodologies and questions that arise in the future are what will give value to our task of recording data today.
As I looked back at the data I had so preciously recorded and saved, my only regret is that I do not have more. More frequent samples, more details & more types of things recorded. This is what gives me the drive to track all the things I track now – of which the list is growing.