The Automated Self: Interview with Jamie Todd Rubin

This article first appeared in Alpha Efficiency Magazine: Issue 13: Self Quantification

Jamie Todd Rubin is the person who most inspires me to increase the quantity of my writing. His self-generating word count reports and charts that get compiled into Google Spreadsheets are an immense source of motivation for my productivity output, and could be for yours too.

During the day he is a developer, but by night he changes his hat and becomes a writer of science fiction. On top of all of this he is a great blogger with a large audience.

Jamie, welcome to Alpha Efficiency Magazine! I am very excited to have you here.

Jamie, can you introduce yourself to the audience of Alpha Efficiency magazine?

First, thank you very much for inviting me. By day I am a software developer. But I also write. I’ve written short fiction, mostly science fiction, for many of the major science fiction magazines, and a few anthologies. I also write nonfiction, focusing mostly on technology, for places like The Daily Beast and 99U. I’m Evernote’s paperless lifestyle ambassador, and I’ve blogged about life and technology for close to 10 years.

You’ve been self-quantifying for a long time now, how has this helped you improve your productivity and your output?

For me, looking at the data I collect from various automated sources–like my FitBit Flex, or my writing, or RescueTime, which captures how and where I spend my time on the computer– has helped in several ways.

First, just tracking the numbers for a while without worrying much about them provided me with a baseline. How much walking did I really do in a day? How much time did I spend in distracting time online vs. working in productive applications? How long did it typically take me to write 500 words? Having a baseline was an important starting point for me because it meant I had something against which to measure improvements.

Having a baseline was an important starting point for me because it meant I had something against which to measure improvements.

Second, having the baseline allowed me to identify a couple possible areas for improvement, or ways that I could be more productive. For instance, I learned from my numbers that I could consistently write 500 words in 20 minutes. That’s about two manuscript pages. Having 10 minutes between meetings, or 20 minutes while the kids watch a TV show means I could write 250 – 500 words, respectively, if I used that time for writing.

Finally, I could actually measure my improvement over time by comparing my attempted improvements against reality. If they worked, great! Sometimes they don’t work and that is just as important to know.

My days are pretty full, what with my day job as a software developer, my fiction and nonfiction writing, my blogging, and of course, my family. Looking at my numbers have helped me make the most efficient use of my time to help ensure I can do all of this.

What advice would you give to someone who’s thinking about starting to dabble with self-quantification?

I’d offer the relatively simple, two-pronged approach that worked for me when I started out. Everyone is different, and goals vary, but when I started out, I had two requirements in mind that I’ve tried to stick with:
Focus on objective measurements; that is, things for which I do not have to make a judgement call. For me, that meant I avoided things like mood tracking, and focused instead on things like step counts, word counts, productivity pulse, and other concrete measurements.

The RescueTime “productivity pulse” view

Focus only on data that can be collected automatically, without requiring an action beyond my normal activity. Remember, I’m trying to be more efficient, not add overhead by manually counting things. So I wrote some scripts that would automatically count how many words I wrote each day; my FitBit automatically captures my activity; RescueTime automatically captures how I spend my time at the computer. I don’t have to do anything extra for this data.

Beyond that, I’d add one thing: start simple. Pick one thing you are trying to improve, set a baseline, and from the baseline, determine a realistic goal to aim for. I didn’t try to track everything at once.

What, in your opinion, is the biggest advantage of tracking your own data?

It might not seem straight-forward, but the biggest advantage I’ve seen is having the data to answer questions that I can’t think of today. I was tracking my step count for quite a while before I found useful questions to answer. I could do that because the entire process is automated. I wouldn’t recommend tracking for the sake of tracking if it required a manual step.

Now I have a large set of data about myself from which I can draw to answer all kinds of questions. For instance, I often felt like the longer I slept the better I felt the following day. Since I had a ton of data on my sleeping, I took a closer look at it. I found that regardless of how long I sleep, if my sleep efficiency (a measure of how many minutes I am restless over how long I am in bed) is above 95%, I feel well-rested in the morning. But on days when I “sleep” for 9 hours, if my sleep efficiency falls below 90%, I feel like I tossed and turned and got little sleep most of the night. What it taught me was that it’s more import to sleep restfully than it is to sleep long. I would never have figured this out if I didn’t have the data to help answer the question.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve found when collecting your information?

As a software developer, I have an advantage over some in that I can tap the API (application programming interface) that many devices and services provide to programmatically automate data collection. That said, I’ve found that different services collect data in different ways, and finding a consistent way to capture it can be tricky.

A second challenge is trying to be statistically accurate. I had to bone up on statistics in order to make sure I’m using the proper tools for the job. Correlations are useful, but as the saying goes, correlation is not causation. It can become easy to read things into the data that aren’t there. I try to be vigilant, but I’m not always successful.

It can become easy to read things into the data that aren’t there.

In one of our articles this month Sam Spurlin talks about the benefits of measuring psychological trends, such as mood. What are your thoughts on this?

I have no doubt that measuring psychological trends can be beneficial, but they are not something I am interested in tracking. First, to track them requires some kind of subjective assessment on my part. Was I in a good mood today? A bad mood? It’s too fuzzy a judgement call for me.
Second, it requires me to remember to take an extra action each day. I’ve found that if I have to take extra steps to collect data, I’m apt to stop collecting it over the long haul.
Finally, while I am sure tracking mood is useful for many people, I am not trying to correlate my mood with other things. In other words, I don’t how I’d use the data, and because it isn’t something that can be collected automatically, it seems pointless for me to collect it when I don’t know how to use it.

We all have “off days” from time time time. How do you deal with this?

These days, I just try to roll with them. I’ve come to accept the fact that I have an off day every now and then. January was a miserable month for me in terms of step count–half of what I had last January. But I told myself I’d try and do better in February and tried not to let it bother me. The same is true with writing. Sometimes, I only get in 100 words or so. It doesn’t happen often but it does happen. But 100 words is a hundred more than I had, and, for me, all writing is practice, so I’m getting in a little practice, even on my worst days.

For me, while it is interesting to look at the data I collect on off-days, I find the big picture to be a much more useful accounting of how I am progressing toward my goals.

What are your emotions when you see you’ve been consecutively writing for two years without breaking a streak?

I’m proud of my writing streak (which stands at 567 consecutive days as of this writing), but more than anything else, I’m awed at how much I’ve improved as a writer over the last two years. One fascinating metric I’ve pulled from this streak is the following: Between 1993 (when I started to write) and the end of 2012, I sold a story or article once every 1,100 days on average. That’s about one story every 3 years.

Since I started writing every day back in 2013, I’ve sold a story or article once every 45 days on average.That tells me that the practice I get from writing every day pays off.

Do you think there’s such as thing as “too much” quantification? A point where you become too obsessed with the data and forget the real purpose of collecting it?

Years ago, back when I lived in L.A., I was a private pilot. I flew small single engine aircraft, and sometimes, taking a new flyer up, they’d be in awe of how many instruments were on the cockpit dashboard, even for a small plane. “How do you keep track of all of them?” they’d ask. I told them the truth: that under good weather conditions, there were really only six instruments critical for flying. Just six measurements that you needed to know at a glance. Everything else, while helpful, was not critical. I think the same principle applies to self-quantification.There’s always a limit. There is a tipping point where the time it takes to collect and analyze data eliminates the productivity gains you might get from the data. Sometimes this is okay if you are looking to answer a specific question, and understand going in that it costs time to answer the question, but generally speaking, I try to look at things in which both the data collection and the analysis can be automated.

You used to be Evernote’s paperless living ambassador. Are you still doing this? What prompted you to link up with the Evernote team?

I am still Evernote’s paperless ambassador. For over two years I wrote a weekly post called “Going Paperless” in which I documented a use case of my efforts to be paperless and more productive. The regular column ended because I felt like I was starting to come up with things for the sake of the column, rather than things I found myself doing to improve my productivity. But every now and then, I still write columns–only now it’s when I find another interesting and practical way that I am going paperless.
When Evernote started their ambassador program several years ago, they reached out to me because I’d been writing about how I use their product to go paperless. It’s been a good relationship for both of us, I think.

You’ve really turned the tweaking – some might even say “hacking” – into an art form when it comes to paperless, automation and self-quantification. What’s your favorite “hack”?

The writer in me wants to say, “the one I’m using now.” Because with stories that’s true–the one I am working on “now” is always my favorite. But when it comes to paperless automation, I think my favorite “hack”–if that’s what you can call it–is how I’ve learned to leverage Evernote’s search capabilities. I find that I can most often impress people by how quickly I can pull up a document on my phone, or answer a question with a piece of information I have in Evernote.
At the doctor’s office, the doctor might ask if he could get a copy of some x-rays from another doctor. I can pull up the x-rays in a few seconds. I can do that for just about everything I have in Evernote because I’ve adjusted my organization to take full advantage of Evernote’s search capabilities.

As a developer, writer and productivity enthusiast…who inspires you?

As a developer, I’m inspired by people who come up with simple, but useful tools. Gina Trapani for her todo.txt system, a slightly modified version of which I use to manage my own to-do lists. Again, Gina Trapani and Anil Dash for their ThinkUp service which gives me unique insights into my social media behavior.
As a writer, the list is far too long. It begins with Isaac Asimov, and contains so many great names, from Allen Steele and Jack McDevitt to Connie Willis, Ken Liu, Juliette Wade, and many others.
As a productivity enthusiast, I tend to be inspired by people doing amazing things with data to help understand and improve productivity. The folks at RescueTime are one example. Anand Sharma and what he has done with AprilZero is another. I think I was initially inspired to start self-tracking by a great post that Stephen Wolfram wrote called The Personal Analytics of My Life back in 2012, where he demonstrated what was possible with data that is already being collected.

It’s custom for our guests to show us their iPhone screen and favorite apps; Can you tell us a bit more about your top 5 used applications?

Here are my top 5 apps. I think the only one that is not available on the iPhone at present is RescueTime.

– Google Docs, in which I do all of my writing. I can write from anywhere, don’t have to worry about copying documents, and I can use the collaboration features to work with editors.

Evernote, which acts as my digital brain, remembering everything for me so that I don’t have to.

TextExpander, which I use to quickly expand frequently typed things like my email address, website URL, or common replies to FAQs.

– WordPress, which I use as my blogging platform.

– RescueTime, which shows me how productive I am being each day, and helps me better understand how I work.

That said, I mostly use these apps on my laptop. I find I am far less productive on my phone than on my laptop. I primarily use my phone for communication (email, text, talk, etc.) and looking up information. For actual work, I mostly use these apps on my MacBook Air or my iMac.

What are your future projects? Any plans to write a book on self-quantification?

Most of my writing these days is focused on fiction, both short fiction, and some longer pieces that I’ve been working on for a while now. I’m also writing an occasional non-fiction piece now and then. I’m just trying to become a better writer.
I am doing a little more speaking here and there, and I’m still actively engaged as Evernote’s paperless ambassador.
I don’t currently have plans to write a book on self-quantification. Part of the reason is time, but part is that my explorations tend to be very specific to my own goals. And while some of the principles may apply generally, the specific problems might not. Books and articles like these are better when they are more general. There are probably dozens of people out there better suited to write about the general cases than I am.

Thanks for talking to Alpha Efficiency Magazine!