Discuss: The Quantified Worker

While much of our work here is focused on individual development, there are plenty of circumstances in our professional lives where we can apply the ideas of experimentation. Let me set the stage with some background and ideas, and then I’d love to hear from you on how you widen self-tracking to apply to your occupation.

First, experimentation at work is not new. Frederick Taylor‘s Scientific management popularized applying metrics to factory worker performance in the late 1800s. Later came W. Edwards Deming, who influenced the Japanese Lean manufacturing movement in the 50s, which integrated experimentation, measurement, and continuous improvement. A more contemporary thinker is Thomas Davenport and his ideas on How to Design Smart Business Experiments (an excerpt of a paid article).

A natural starting application for self-experimentation at work is at the individual level, such as by trying out new tools or methods, either in self-management (e.g., productivity systems like Getting Things Done) or by exploring work-specific ideas and techniques. Here at the Quantified self we’ve had nice discussions on time management, including:

Of course self-tracking tools abound, like the oft-mentioned RescueTime (see Kevin’s “Productivity” Dashboard Monitor for a bit more). Putting the Hawthorne Effect and placebo effects aside, the value in all cases is getting insight into ways you could improve how you work and then implementing them. (You can find ideas for the latter in my post Add, subtract, multiply, divide: Productivity lessons from basic math.)

Beyond the personal level, experimenting at work is baked into some domains, such as industrial design (e.g., the work of IDEO‘s Tom Kelley), innovation (e.g., Google’s approach), marketing (e.g., SEO or Test and learn), entrepreneurship (e.g., Lean Startup), and software development (e.g., Agile methodologies). I wonder what we could learn from studying them?

Given all that, I’m curious: How have you applied experimenting and data tracking to your job? How has it worked out? What tips can you offer for making experimentation effective?

[Image from x-ray delta one]

(Matt is a terminally-curious ex-NASA engineer and avid self-experimenter. His projects include developing the Think, Try, Learn philosophy, creating the Edison experimenter’s journal, and writing at his blog, The Experiment-Driven Life. Give him a holler at matt@matthewcornell.org)

About Matthew Cornell

Matt is a terminally-curious ex-NASA engineer and avid self-experimenter. His projects include developing the Think, Try, Learn philosophy, creating the Edison experimenter's journal, and writing at his blog, The Experiment-Driven Life. Give him a holler at matt@matthewcornell.org
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5 Responses to Discuss: The Quantified Worker

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  2. Gary Wolf says:

    Sorry to comment so late on this great post – I think we should continue to try to spark discussion on this very interesting topic. I’ve been tracking my work for many years, and I’ve experimented with a few different methods. At various times I’ve focused my attention on:Word count: this is a simple but powerful; Buster Benson is supplying a nice general tool for this at 750 words. I track them in my word processor.
    Time arrived at my desk: I have done this for long stretches at a time, when subject to competing demands. Simple pattern awareness very helpful.
    Total work hours: This is not as helpful to me, as quality varies, and increasing “time at desk” does not always increase quality/quantity of work.
    Time in total concentration, 25 minute intervals: I picked this up from Robin Barooah’s talk on his caffeine and productivity data. (See link for details)
    Time in concentration, 6 minute intervals. In this case, you keep a timer running and make marks on a piece of paper for every six minutes that passes. The first four marks are dots that form the corners of a square, and the next six marks are lines that connect the dots, completing the outline of the square with diagonals crossing in the middle. Total: ten marks = 1 hour concentrated work. I learned this method in a conversation with Seth Roberts. It is based on an insight he got from some laboratory experiments. I found it quite amazing for overcoming inertia and distraction, always a major issue when working on complex projects alone.
    My work records coexists with biometric records and other behavioral records, such as sleep, but I have not done experiments or detailed analysis. These are tricks, in a sense, to improve productivity through awareness of particular factors. The shift in awareness is what makes the difference.

  3. Matthew Cornell says:

    Hi Gary. Thanks for the great comments.

    > Word count: this is a simple but powerful; Buster Benson is supplying a nice general tool for this at 750 words.

    Re: word count: As a new book-length writer I’ve also been tracking words written/day. So far I’ve had mixed results, mainly because my ideas are still very much active, and when I write I often have to stop and think fairly hard, which lowers the count. Thanks for the pointer to 750 Words. For novels I have a friend who loves NaNoWriMo.

    > I think we should continue to try to spark discussion on this very interesting topic.

    Absolutely. I’ve thought a lot about this from the productivity and time management angle, including ways to use the classic daily planning idea as a platform for tracking and improving. Any ideas on how to build the discussion? I’m interested things just like you shared – specific things people have tracked to help their work. It would be fun to do a little survey and then put together a summary of techniques to people could experiment with. Maybe topics could include writing, “seat time” (as you suggest), focus, and procrastination.

    > Total work hours: This is not as helpful to me, as quality varies, and increasing “time at desk” does not always increase quality/quantity of work.

    Exactly. Relates to the effort vs. results (e.g., the 80-20 rule), and being efficient vs. effective. It’s one of those measures that’s easy to measure, which is why companies use it. But that doesn’t make it a good measure. Unfortunately, for knowledge work it’s harder to measure effectiveness. But maybe that means that the correct metrics aren’t in place. That deserves more thought…

    > Time in total concentration, 25 minute intervals … Time in concentration, 6 minute intervals

    Nice. Reminds me of “dashes”. Merlin Mann shared this formula a while back: Break an hour into 5 10-minute segments, with a 2 minute break between, AKA (10+2)*5. Also helpful is Kick procrastination’s ass: Run a dash. You could count how many dashes you made per day.

    Your approaches would make great group experiments – I’ll track them for future challenges.

    > These are tricks, in a sense, to improve productivity through awareness of particular factors. The shift in awareness is what makes the difference.

    Agreed. I think of it as “observation -> awareness -> change”.

    > My work records coexists with biometric records and other behavioral records, such as sleep, but I have not done experiments or detailed analysis.

    Yes! The general idea is like Gordon Bell‘s work on pouring all this kind of data into a single database. I’ve thought a good bit on how to organize this, and I think there are some mixed iniative methods that might be effective yet simple. How about this: It’s the Google model of self-tracking. Throw it all into one big bucket, trusting that you can make sense of it later. Of course that’s the hard part – identifying variables and finding patterns. This is one thing I was trying to get at with my ‘tricorder’ post (Where’s the Universal Self-Tracking Gadget?. Let’s at least have a single collection point to start with.

    Great stuff, Gary.

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