05 Sep 2017
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Living the Quantitative Life

What Paul Grana has learned from eight years of personal data tracking

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Dan Morrell: Paul Grana (MBA 2009) has always been a numbers guy. He was cracking video codes at 13, he was really into math in high school. And that attraction to numbers, he says, was really about the search for patterns. And as he got older, he turned that hunt inward, started using a simple spreadsheet to manually track his behavior, keeping tabs on the amount of time spent exercising, sleeping, commuting, gradually expanding into include everything from his car's average miles per gallon to his hemoglobin levels. Grana now works in San Francisco, where he co-founded the solar energy software company Folsom Labs with fellow HBS alum, Paul Gibbs. And he's still dutifully collecting stats, having now amassed a full eight years of data about himself. He and I spoke about what those numbers have taught him.

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Dan Morrell: Now, the interest that you've had in living a sort of quantified life, your first year out of HBS, can you talk about what prompted it?

Grana: I think, as a lot of people probably have, HBS is sort of a break from the real world. And as I was getting back into the real world, I wanted to be a little bit more thoughtful. So when I began, it was just a single Excel page tracking how long I was running for, and how much I was sleeping, and a couple other things related to overall wellness. And it was really just a way to have some small goals and try to track my progress towards those goals.

Morrell: So you get in there, you start tracking this data to improve your own wellness. How did the tracking impact your behavior?

Grana: No surprise it initially just kind of helped to have some transparency there, to be able to see how I was doing. And I think, after I started initially just tracking a handful of things, I enjoyed it. And it was entirely a singular thing, I didn't really even share it with friends, I wasn't making public statements of, I promise my Facebook friends I will hit X metric by Y date. But then I initially decided to greatly expand what I was tracking and go from tracking five or so things to 20 or 30 things.

And I kind of overshot. And it then became a burden, kind of immediately, and I nearly fell out of it. And that's when I started to just take a little bit more of a cautious approach, where after the first few then I would just start to play with tracking things more, kind of one by one. So that's when the scope of what I would do grew more organically based on—instead of sitting down, coming up with the list, and implementing a whole list, it just turned into, OK, let me wait until I actually wonder how I'm doing at a certain thing, and then track that thing.

Morrell: Do you remember what some of that early stuff was that you decided to pare back?

Grana: I think some of it was a mix of both personal and professional. So things like exactly how many books am I going to read. And I think part of why I say it was a little bit too ambitious was I didn't just track, but I had goals. So while I might have had a personal goal of reading 10 books in a year, in reality, that was nowhere near my previous baseline. So if I had read two or three books the previous year, then 10 was just an unsustainable. And it became a little bit de-motivating, where I could see two or three months in, that I was nowhere near on track to hitting that goal. But the problem wasn't my behavior, necessarily, it was the fact that I just came up with that goal top-down and it was pretty unrelated to my actual lifestyle at the time.

Morrell: Did you ever seek out this sort of community of like-minded trackers or were you always happy with it being a solo pursuit?

Grana: So I think when I began, which was around 2009, I wasn't even aware that there could or would be a community. So I initially didn't seek it out just because it always was a solo pursuit and it was working for me as a solo pursuit. Then later on, and I forget exactly when, but let's say 2011, 2012, it became more of a cultural phenomenon, as there were apps, devices, et cetera. And even then, it seemed like the community went from zero to crazy kind of overnight. I'm probably being unfair to people who are just as into it, but based on how some of those communities went, I never really self-identified.

So honestly I've never gone to a meet up, never sat down with another person to talk about this, never really compared notes. It's almost like a spreadsheet version of meditation for me. It's a process I do, where in many ways the practice is the goal. I try to do it for the beneficial aspects it has on my mental health, but in the way that I think a lot of people who meditate don't necessarily seek out other people who meditate and/or compare notes because it's a pretty internally-driven process, that's how, in many ways, it feels to me.

Morrell: Paul, take me through that process. And I think by that I mean, take me through the day. So you wake up, do you check your weight, check your email, what sort of things do you keep track of and how do you keep track of them?

Grana: I'm actually fairly old school. By and large, my tracking is in Excel. Part of it is because it's a wide variety of things that I track and Excel is just the most versatile tool out there. But also I actually experimented with a Fitbit early on and just kind of found that—at that time the devices were large enough to be notable—and, basically, it just became one more thing to remember. It just wasn't worth the mental trouble to have that.

And part of it is because I was pretty good about, if I went for a run, I generally knew the path I was taking and Google Maps are really good at calculating distances for that. So it wasn't really a huge upgrade anyway. So by and large, the way it works is just an Excel file that's kind of open all day. Then within—

Morrell: On your phone or on your laptop, Paul?

Grana: Good question. On the laptop, by and large. Given the nature of my work, I'm generally in front of the computer pretty much at all times. So Excel on a laptop is a perfectly good vehicle. When I go on vacations when I don't have my laptop, then it's definitely harder to capture things, obviously. But, yeah, even after a workout, I'm right back into that laptop within the next hour or so. So it's a pretty effective way to get that in there.

And then in terms of the things I track, I almost think of it in terms of things that I'll track on a sub-daily, so multiple times a day, or once a day, or once a week, once a month. So it's not everything that is actually tracked every day. So one of the things that I track, and I've done this from the beginning, is just kind of the size of my inbox, as a way—It was actually my co-founder who put a word for this or kind of put name on it as just kind of "game-ifying" my basic work of cleaning out the inbox. The nature of our business, we get a lot of emails and we deal with a lot of emails. And so being able to chart that and almost be able to celebrate as you able to just make small dents in the size of that inbox and get it down as close to zero as possible just helps keep myself motivated as I'm doing that.

Then there's all this sort of fitness aspects, which are roughly once a day. So I track things like how much I've been drinking, how much I've been sleeping, working out, other miscellaneous things. Some of these are just to track just out of curiosity, others are to track to sort of drive behavior. So for example, I track how much I floss. And in many ways that's just as a way to encourage myself to floss more. I just often forget.

For the fitness ones, I actually have a point system. And the points literally mean nothing. I share them with nobody. And in fact, even within myself, I don't reward myself for a day that I have a lot of points, but it's just a, again, probably a small game-ification to just encourage myself, on the margin, to be a little bit healthier. So for example, running a mile is 15 points, for sleep I have a formula where if I sleep more than 6 and 1/2 hours, it's 20 points an hour. If I sleep less than 6 and 1/2 hours, it subtracts 20 points an hour. So a bunch of little things like that that give me a relatively holistic view of how that day was from just a well-being point of view. And then, again, on the margin it helps me to—on a day when I'm not doing very well, maybe I didn't sleep enough or if I've been drinking, I might force myself to flossed to earn 10 points extra just for the floss kicker. So, again, they're just little thing is to try to just encourage myself to be a little bit better about the things that I want to be better about.

Morrell: How many points on a good day, Paul?

Grana: Oh, it's actually kind of interesting. And this is part of why I'm why I track in Excel. Early on, when I was single—so when I began this 2009, I was a single guy in the Bay Area. So I had a lot of free time on my hands. And so those days, a decent month, I would be averaging about probably 70 to 80 points in a month. And, again, that's running, working out at the gym—push ups are worth half a point per push up, pull ups are worth one point per pull up, et cetera, et cetera. So in those days, let's say 70 to 80, with the really good days 150 or 200 points if I've gotten a really good workout, gotten a lot of sleep, and didn't drink, for example.

These days, as a founder and a father, I sleep so much less than I did before. I work out so much less than I did before. And I'm averaging about 30 points. And the best, when I really try to be good, I'm getting to 40 or 45. So I am literally half as good, in this abstract sense, as I used to be. And that's part of, even when I began, I thought it would be interesting to be able to keep a 30-year history and say, OK, from the age of whatever I was in 2009, let's call it 30-ish to 60-ish, I really thought that would be a fun data set to collect—as I go from single, to engaged, to married, to father, to retired, how does my lifestyle change?

Morrell: Paul, this is now sort of like an eight-year long longitudinal study, right? What have you learned about yourself beyond habits—that you didn't work out enough or you had too much sun—what sort of picture has it painted of you?

Grana: I'm often wrong in terms of my expectations of—of my perception of myself versus the reality of myself. One is the example I just mentioned—the drinking. I was amazed at how much I drank, and, really, how much all of my friends drank, given how much we all would have guessed otherwise. And even now, it feels like I'm not sleeping nearly as much as I did before, because, again, I've got both a startup and a young child, but in practice I'm averaging about 5.7 hours of sleep a night, actually 5.8. Which compared to before, I might have been at 6.4, 6.5, it's not an insane amount. I might have guessed that I was sleeping 20% or 30% less, and it's more on the order of 10% less. But it just feels like so much more. So I think there are a bunch of cases like that where I think the perception or the feeling of a change or a value is often not in lockstep with the actual data.

The other one is I've had a few cases where I'm successfully able to sort of trick myself into doing things or just accepting things that I need to be accepting. So one really small example is with my wife. So she's always been a beach person and I'm not really a beach person. We're wonderfully compatible, but that's not an area. But I do want to support beach vacations. And part of it is it just it kind of feels like I'm wasting time. And that's maybe consistent with the other tracking stuff, I generally like to be productive in some way, even when it's my own personal time, or a vacation, or whatever.

So with that fitness point system, I decided to just add a set of points for time in the sun, with the logic being vitamin D is good for you. So for every hour I'm in the sun, that's basically 10 points. It's mainly so that when we're on vacation and my wife wants to go sit out by the pool or the beach, that I can go with her and it's a very subtle nudge that this is actually time well spent. In practice, what most what most normal people are probably hearing is, yeah, time well spent with your wife is just time well spent. You shouldn't need points on top of that and I will acknowledge that. But the numbers part of my brain is greatly helped by having the points and having some, even if it's not crazy and compelling logic, having some logic that, hey, I get to record this, I get to chart this and have it up my fitness score for the day.

Morrell: So things like that were really—it's more about encouraging myself to be centered and happy when I go to the beach as opposed to grumbly that what heck am I going to do for two hours on the beach?

Grana: I think we, as a consumer culture, have become very interested in data streams and manual trackers. This whole movement must in some ways kind of feel like a validation of what you've been doing.

It's interesting. I think that in some ways, absolutely. And it is great to see other people doing it in that way. And I think my only response is I don't feel vindication or validation because I never really thought of it as something that I either needed approval for or that I was being judged for. It almost goes back to the analogy earlier of meditation. If you're an early meditator 15 years ago, that's also a lot bigger now. And I'm not sure those people would say that they're validated, so much as they're just glad that other people are seeing the value in that lifestyle.

And that's kind of how I feel. It doesn't feel like a battle and so I don't feel like I've won anything, but it is certainly great to see other people who can get that benefit out of it. And, again, I think, like I mentioned earlier, I do worry that for some people that pendulum swings a little bit too far. But, I at least personally, and I think a lot of people do the same, where if you strike the right balance, there's a way to maintain sanity and just incorporate the tracking enough to, again, either encourage yourself in sustainable ways that aren't going to make you hate yourself or make you quit, and/or maybe build data sets that'll help all of us get a little bit better at understanding ourselves.

Skydeck is produced by the External Relations department at Harvard Business School and edited by Craig McDonald. It is available at iTunes or wherever you get your favorite podcasts. For more information or to find archived episodes, visit alumni.hbs.edu/skydeck.

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Class of MBA 2009, Section G
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