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Forget Big Data. Use Little Data for Incremental Self-Improvement.

Forget Big Data. Use Little Data for Incremental Self-Improvement.
Published February 25, 2014 by John Caddell
Do me a favor: right now, quickly, tell me what you did for your last 30 days at work? Last week? Yesterday?

When the to-do’s come fast and furious, it’s easy to rush and finish things so you can push them from your brain to focus on the next task. The downside here is that it’s easy to lose track of what you’ve done, and use that knowledge to make yourself better.

There was once a time, especially if you worked for a sizable company, when you could expect a healthy helping of company-sponsored training and regular feedback sessions with your boss – who was very likely to be located in the same office. A generation’s worth of downsizing, rightsizing, and outsourcing has laid that foundation to waste. Now we employees are on our own to assess our performance, decide what new skills we need to develop and track our progress toward goals.

Which is great news (really!). The good old days weren’t all that good. Company training was limited to what the company thought you needed to know(“Excellent! Another class on security and confidentiality!”). Your boss’s feedback focused on what would make him look good to his own boss. Your career plan tracked along prescribed company lines.

Your boss’s feedback focused on what would make him look good to his own boss. 

You are now free (in fact, expected) to manage your own career, your own skills development, your own progress. To do this, use Little Data.

Talk about Big Data is everywhere these days. But for managing your development, Little Data is much more useful. Little Data is data about you. Using a Fitbit or Nike Fuel Band, for example, lets you measure your exercise performance, sleep patterns, even vital signs, and track these over time. People have reported significant benefits from this sort of tracking.

Your emotional life can be similarly quantified. Have you made progress this week, this month, or this year? How many days have you felt encouraged as opposed to frustrated? What mistakes have you made and do they fall into a pattern? Harvard Business School Professor and 99u speaker Teresa Amabile calls this “inner work life.” While it can’t be measured by a bracelet around your wrist (at least, not yet) it is easy to track.

Once you’ve tracked it, all the benefits of self-awareness, mindfulness and personal insight can be unleashed. And this insight forms the raw data needed in order to make your own judgments about your performance and development needs. Most importantly, when someone asks you about your accomplishments, say, at an annual performance review with a raise on the line, you’ll be able to easily answer.

Accomplish this in three steps:

  1. Log daily: Write down the most memorable event that happened today, and answer a few questions about it: was it an accomplishment, a setback, or a mistake? Did it make you feel happy, encouraged, frustrated, or angry? You can use a simple Excel spreadsheet or an app specifically for this purpose (full disclosure: I created this one). This exercise will take less than five minutes out of your day.
  2. Reflect quarterly: At the end of each quarter, pull out your spreadsheet, or consult your app. Spend an hour looking through it for patterns. Sort it by category and emotion. Count how many times you were delighted about the day’s events, and how many times you were disappointed. What things counted as progress? Which as setbacks? The data will tell you a lot about yourself and how you relate to your workplace.
  3. Plan yearly: Take some time at the end of the year and look over your quarterly reflections and the year’s worth of statistics. Then try the next step.
  4. Identify patterns of mistakes that seem to recur: Those are your development areas. Make a plan to work on one or two of these next year:
  • Look at accomplishments and setbacks. You should have 2-3 accomplishments for each setback, on average. If you have fewer, you need to look at your work environment. Either you are not set up for success, or your manager is not creating the proper environment – or you need to redefine what an accomplishment is.
  • Look at the counts of emotions. What is the balance of positive entries vs. negative? Is that ratio OK? Are your positive entries fairly well correlated with accomplishments?
  • Look at your setbacks. Were they “good” setbacks mostly the result of stretching your comfort zone? Or “bad” setbacks that are the result of bureaucracy or lack of internal support?
  • Roll this data into a plan for 2014. Document specific actions you are going to take to address the patterns you found.

Your yearly reflection will provide you the insight needed to make clear, data-driven decisions on your career. What skills do you need to build? How do you need to alter your work environment to increase your satisfaction? What types of accomplishments are most gratifying to you, and which setbacks suck out a little of your soul?

Log daily. Reflect quarterly. Plan yearly. This simple model can provide the data and structure you need to take control of your career and personal development. It takes very little time, and will pay dividends to you for the rest of your career. What are you waiting for?


How about you?

Do you keep a work journal?

More about John Caddell

John Caddell is the author of “The Mistake Bank” and contributed to the most recent 99u book. His latest project is 3-Minute Journal. John also organizes the New Tech Meetup of Central PA. You can reach him at or @jmcaddell on Twitter.


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