Tracking Motivation

Posted by & filed under Academia.

As I have mentioned previously, I often struggle with task-completion and self-motivation with some things.

Example: After commencement, when summer “break” began, I had started to read some Bioinformatics textbooks. One of my Profs is lending me a textbook they’ll be using for one of the courses, and I started reading it and taking notes — purely because I find it interesting.

Then I got a new book (Reason 4 Ignite, which I previously reviewed), and obsessively started doing that every day. Bioinformatics got shelved for the time being, along with all the passion and sincere interest in learning it. The thought of picking up the book and reading it actually repulsed me — normally, this might give some pause, but it’s nothing new; I’ve been through it many times. I know that eventually, that interest will come back around with the same intensity; I just don’t know WHEN.

What was different this time, though, is that it got me thinking: What if I could track these interests somehow? If I could collect enough data, perhaps I could find some cyclical nature to my interests and develop some reasonable expectations of myself. Heck, maybe a predictable periodic function would emerge, and I could create a differential equation to plot my interest in differential equations. The question is, of course, how do you quantify interest?

First Round: gDocs

My first attempt at this was using a simple gDocs spreadsheet. Initially I was going to make an Excel spreadsheet, but I realized that would either tie me to a computer or a thumb-drive; gDocs would at least be accessible from anywhere with an Internet connection, which seemed more doable.


So my first attempt was to simply create a gDoc spreadsheet with dates going down the rows and interests listed across columns. I used values ranging from -2 (repulsed) to +2 (very interested), and used the conditional formatting feature to automatically color the cells based on their value (-2 is black, grading up to light-gray for +2).

After tracking about a week and a half’s worth of data, it was really interesting to see the data visualized. One particularly interesting one (“blogging”, I think; 9th from the left) went from +1, all the way down to -2, and then all the way back up to +2 — this was precisely the type of pattern I was looking for.

There were, however, a couple problems with this method: If I didn’t have ready access to an Internet connection, I couldn’t track my info for the day. The spreadsheet itself only extended to “T” (20) columns wide, which severely limited the interests I could track. Perhaps most important was the difficulties with quantifying my level of interest on a range-5 scale; there was a lot of potentially useful data that was discarded as a result of this:

  • Did I actually *DO* what I wanted / didn’t want to do?
  • Is a “+2” a universal level of interest across all areas? How about a “0”? What do the numbers mean?
  • What KIND of interest was this? How would I classify it?
  • What if my interest changed during the day (yes, this has happened)? Do I average it out?

Clearly, this method wasn’t working.

Second Round: Web App

At this point, I thought it might be more effective to move to a database-driven solution. I created an “interests” database, intended to log them as they occur. It would use the same basic paradigm as the gDocs method, except it would be more flexible, allowing for multiple entries per day. It would also be an “affirmative” approach, meaning it would not track ALL interests every day, only the ones I mention; the scale was shifted from -2…+2 to 0…+2, with a default value of 0 (so if I don’t mention an interest, it would have a value of “0” for that day).

While developing this (it was never completed), it became more clear to me that (a) a computer solution was not going to be the ideal way to do data-collection, and (b) I needed a paradigm shift if this was going to work. The quantified values were still too fuzzy and subjective.

Third Round: Moleskine

I chatted with Melissa about this, and we thought that using a notebook / notepad that I can carry with me might be best. She suggested ranking my interests 3 times per day, but I think that might require too much thinking — I need something that is so simple I can operate impulsively. The “3 times per day” part was a good idea — what if I tracked my interests at set points throughout the day? In a normal day, I would be awake 18 hrs, so splitting it into 6-hour blocks seemed reasonable enough.

For tracking the data, I considered using an up/down arrow system; kind of a modification of Facebook & Google Reader‘s “Like” (I think “Digg” works like this too, right?): Interests would get an “up” or “down” arrow if I felt a compulsion / aversion to them, respectively, and this would be checked every six hours.

I have a cute little Moleskine I picked up from a bookstore a couple years ago, while visiting my folks with Melissa and Sullivan. It’s still looking for a use, and this seemed appropriate. It sort of works. I tracked yesterday and today, but didn’t use the up/down arrow system; I opted instead for a tally mark for affirmative interest, hashing the tally mark if I actually DID it within that particular six hour block.

It sort of works.

But I think I’m getting towards a solution that will work.

Fourth Round:, if you haven’t heard of it, is a terrific publisher for DIY folks. If you need a professionally bound book (even a hardback!) they will print it for you, whether you need 1 copy or 1 thousand copies (or more, I think).

I figured a year’s worth of data would be adequate per book, plus a couple extra pages for a code-legend and reference — so 368 pages. The “Perfect Bound” paperback, Pocket-size (4.25″ x 7.85″) seems adequate. Altogether, for a single copy, it’s $11.68. Awesome.

The plan is now to create a standard template, extrapolate it out to 368 pages, bounce it to PDF and have it produced by Lulu. This is partly inspired by the Printable CEO products, and partly by Pocket Mod. (Both are VERY cool free organization tools — check ’em out!)

As for what is ON the template, I haven’t completely figured this out yet. This is what I’ve got so far:

  • “Obligations (Have-to)” (list things that I have to do, with Up/Down modding periodically)
  • “Interests (Want-to)”  (ditto, but for things I WANT to do.)
  • Comments / notes (Did I have coffee? was this particular day irregular? anything noteworthy? External stimuli?)
  • Date
  • Categorizing / Tagging items (“Creative works”, “Billable”, “manual labor”, “entertainment”, etc.)
  • Use icons and checkboxes to minimize the amount of time / work required to enter data.

The idea being that the less maintenance it requires, the more likely I will be to use it consistently. After I have a substantial amount of data (probably a couple months would suffice) I can enter it into a database or a spreadsheet repository and do some aggregate calculations on it, create some visualizations, and create some testable predictions.

Any suggestions on what / how to track this? Is anyone else interested in trying out this project with me? (I’ll donate a 3-month logbook to the first 4 people to climb on board, but you have to promise to do the whole 3 months!)