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New Year’s Resolutions, Tracking, and Planning


The turn of every year is an interesting time, despite my sometimes laid-back or cynical attitude of “so what’s the big deal”. The thing I associate most with the new year is new year’s resolutions, the idea of “new year, new me”.

To be honest, I probably haven’t made any concrete new year’s resolutions since my early teenage years. I think I gave up since I recognized my behavioral inertia back then and thought there wasn’t much I could do to counter it. If I was really motivated to change something about myself, I’d try to “just do it”.

However, there is one annual tradition I started for myself in high school that I enjoy thinking about to this day. While I haven’t been as active as I’d like in meeting this goal, I think it’s interesting enough to mindlessly blog about.

The Origins of My Data Addiction

I became pretty obsessed with data late in high school. You can see evidence of my data addiction in the analyses/visualizations I’d made here. I also made my own (maybe novel?) priority to-do list then. I even generated my own weighted college ranking scheme to help decide where to go to school! As of writing, I think this was a success even though I don’t have a counterfactual.

Anyway, during the 12th grade of high school, I was interested in my quantifying my stress and its corresponding causes. To do this, I created a spreadsheet to self-report my stress levels at various intervals during the day along with the things I was stressed about (exams, college applications, and so forth).

I’ve since tried this form of “mood logging” a few more times, each time adapting my method based on what I value or how my understanding of myself has changed.

Tracking Stress in High School

I wasn’t really sure what I was looking for during my first tracking attempt in high school. All I knew was that I was stressed and that despite being in a somewhat sheltered boarding school environment, there were some leading stressors I wanted to learn more about.

I probably won’t drop the raw data or visualizations here since a future version of me may not like this being out there. Nonetheless here are the parameters I recorded daily:

  1. Stress level rated 0–5 at three times during the day
  2. RescueTime productivity score
  3. Binary checks of stressors (what general categories of thoughts/troubles bothered me that day)

Like most students, my stress levels seemed to go up prior to exams and big IBDP final submissions (think: research papers, essays, etc.). Certain extracurricular activities had a similar effect around crunch time, resulting in lifestyle shifts like fewer hours of sleep. College applications were also a significant source of stress. During a high stress day, my stress levels would increase over the course of the day and usually drop after a night’s sleep.

Another leading cause of stress that I didn’t generally share with people was my anxiety, overthinking, and desire for change related to my high school’s culture. I think I was pretty vocal about my opinions there (Exhibit A, B), but rarely shared things about my emotional or mental state. These feelings often compounded into cynicism and sadness about the rest of the world. The biggest source of mental support here ended up being a few staff in school, and I am still incredibly grateful for their help and understanding. Please remember to seek out help from trusted guardians, friends, or professionals when you find your mental health spiralling out of control!

I found no significant correlation between my self-reported stress level in a day and my RescueTime productivity score. I speculate that the primary reason for a consistently high productivity score is my school heavily regulating content on our personal machines and filtering Internet access. I was generally kept busy with sports and extracurriculars too, so there wasn’t much distracting me.

Mood/Time Tracking Attempts in 2021

As I celebrated the arrival of 2021 with the Netflix original Death to 2020, I came up with a new plan for tracking my mental state with ideas borrowed from my 2018/19 efforts. I made a few changes though:

  1. Reversed the scale. Rather than reporting stress from 0–5, I reported happiness where 5 meant “on top of the world” and 0 indicated “bad times” (perhaps symbolic of an overall shift in mental health
  2. Recorded instantaneous wake up feeling and morning happiness separately
  3. Tried to report day’s overall feeling of exhaustion on a 0–5 scale
  4. The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in us spending a lot of time on electronic devices. I tried to capture any effects of this by recording the duration spent on my laptop and phone across broad app categories like social media, messaging, etc. I assumed 90% of my time at work was spent behind a screen.
  5. I was also heavily inspired by a Reply All episode which talked about the Hedonometer. I recorded the Hedonometer measurement corresponding to each day in my log.
  6. I also had a column for my Git log summary, but my personal coding activity ended up slumping from spring to summer since I was engrossed at work. So I don’t think this was useful then, but it may be worth noting for the future.
  7. Calculated more rolling averages of quantities over time
  8. Removed RescueTime information due to privacy concerns

I think these changes made the activity require a lot more effort. Unsurprisingly, I stopped recording data in this spreadsheet within half a year. However, I still think it showcases some important trends and the effects of things like a “demanding” job, moving to a new city/region, working through a Computer Architecture course simultaneously, and more.

While I used this logging method in 2021, work took up the majority of my waking hours and so had a significant impact on my mood: my lowest low was caused by me beating myself up over a semi-failed project demonstration, and my highest high was also the result of progress at work and promising results. Thankfully I didn’t have dependents or other assets to take care of so life was pretty simple during this period — eat, sleep, work, look at what Starship is up to, and occassionally think about the course I was enrolled in at college.

Other days when I felt low were largely caused by headaches which I attributed to sudden weather changes in the Pacific Northwest area. Nothing new if you’re me.

I always make it a point to add a misc notes column to sheets since it helps explain things that numbers often can’t describe. Here are some standouts from the log I maintained in 2021:

I think the headaches may have also been the result of a growing caffeine addiction at work, since they usually occurred on weekends. Oops.

There was no significant correlation between the time I spent on any app categories (or devices in general) and my overall mood. There was no significant correlation between the Hedonometer and my overall mood either.

Looking Ahead: Habit/Activity Tracking

This year, I stumbled upon a fun Reddit post where the poster tracked their life in terms of booleans. It looks interesting because tracking “adulting events” while I’m still trying to gain a grasp of life seems fun. I also have a moderate success rate with building (and curbing!) habits and think such an approach could improve this.

I’ve made a list of 20-odd activities, feelings, and habits to track for this year. I’m hoping this approach yields some positive results, either in my behavior or my understanding of myself.

Unfortunately this means I get less quantitative data to play around with. However my hope is that this method is low effort enough that I won’t lose motivation midway through the year. Over time, I hope to return to the 2021 method and find more ways to automate things so it becomes more seamless.

Reflections and a Call for More Ideas

In general, I’m pretty sure self-reporting stress is a little pseudoscientific, but I don’t see much that can fix this problem (until we all get Neuralinked to collect precise analytics about our mental state!). I haven’t found significant correlations between activities and my mood either. It makes sense: life and our brains are complicated, and things aren’t always simple 1-to-1 relations.

However, just thinking about what made me happy, sad, or excited in a day felt like a good reflective exercise. I think the extended version of this is maintaining a journal, but I’m not sure I have the motivation to do that yet. I feel the added context guiding my self-awareness is definitely a net positive in my daily life, so I’ll continue to look for ways to do this and improve my methods. My goal isn’t to become some kind of productivity guru that upsells you on their latest newsletter, but just to have fun and dive into the eccentricities of daily life.

Finally, I applaud your patience for making it this far through my rambling! I’d love to learn about other people’s experiences and whether they’ve tried similar things before. Let me know via some existing channel or use my contact page!

~ Amal


2022-01-11: CGP Grey’s journal tracking method is quite similar to the boolean tracking method! I also like the idea of partial credit.