Most people are lazy when it comes to gathering data about themselves. I’ve heard a lot of people say “I’m too lazy to track my expenses”, or “Time-tracking is too much of a hassle”. I used to say these things myself actually. Since then, I realized these arguments are only valid at a first glance because indeed, the short-term benefit of gathering any kind of data about yourself is negligible. Perseverance, however, pays in the long run, and I want to share my personal experience with data gathering and how much it actually helped me until now.
Tracking your finances
Four years ago (back in 2008), my wife and I started to keep a list of all our expenses and incomes. This way we could, over time, devise an achievable budget for each category of expenses, make predictions about our savings, etc. Tracking every expense (missing one or two now and then is not a big deal) is a trivial matter but, after four years of continuously gathering this information, the stats we can now put together are quite impressive. This has not only helped us save a little something now and then through proper budgeting, but also gave us a sort of financial security, because we always know how much money we make, what we spend it on over a great period of time (even when unexpected expenses pop up, like medical problems), and can therefore make plans for the future much more easily. We use a custom Excel document for the tracking, complete with pivot tables, dropdown lists and conditional sums (the advantages of being married to an accountant), but there are lots of great expense tracking applications out there, both online and offline.
Tracking your work
About two years ago, I started to use Toggl to track each and every work-related task I work on. When I start working on something, no matter how small a task, I start Toggl’s timer. When I finish a task or I take a break (even when simply going to the bathroom), I stop the timer. At first, I kept forgetting to either start or stop the timer, but now I have got to the point where I do it subconsciously.
Imagine that, I have a record of not only what I worked on for every single day over the past two years but, more importantly, how long each and every task and project took, time-wise. The most important aspect, however, is that I can correlate this data to the income report I mentioned before, and can decide which projects were the most advantageous for me, which customers provide too much of a hassle compared to the financial benefits their projects bring, etc. I think that, as a freelancer, tracking your budget and correlating it with your workload is paramount for a well-balanced freelancing career.
Tracking your entertainment
On a ligher side, about two years ago I decided to add every book I read or want to read to my Goodreads account. It was a small effort at first when I added them, but now adding a new book is as easy as clicking a button. What good has this done me? Well, thanks to Goodreads’s impressive recommendation engine (implemented since they acquired Discovereads), I can now discover books that are very relevant to my interests based on the books I’ve added to my account, the ratings I gave them, etc. I have bought quite a few books based on the recommendations Goodreads gave me, and I’ve rarely been disappointed.
Taking the time to gather a few simple bits of data each day has proven to be worth it time and time again until now. Things like rating each and every movie or TV show I watch (to the point where I now have about 500 movies and shows in my IMDb account), using YouTube playlists as a video archive, and so on may appear to be a hassle at first, but give it a couple of years, the benefits will be evident by then. Doubly so if you’re a stats geek like I am.