If you have ever had a baby, you probably have a sense of how the infant disrupted your life. But you probably don't have those changes captured in hard data.
Nathan Yau does.
The Northern California consulting statistician focuses on visualization, graphs and charts that can communicate data to a non-professional audience. He finished a PhD last year with a dissertation on personal data, and naturally enough during those studies collected data on his own life.
"Some people do this to improve themselves or something in some way – maybe weight, sleep, or in sports. I approach it as a journal. So looking back on my data is just like someone looking back on a diary," he said in an e-mail interview.
After his son was born in November, some changes were obvious, notably in the priorities he chose and his use of time. His wife went on maternity leave and he reduced his hours, taking advantage of his flexible schedule. His wife eventually had to return to work, and he cares for the child when she's gone. Fortunately, she doesn't have a traditional 9-to-5 schedule either, so they can tag team during the day.
The idea of studying data before and after the child's arrival was an outgrowth of trying to understand the youngster's sleeping patterns. When he published the findings on his FlowingData blog, he started with a fascinating look at movement – his mileage each day away from his home.
The graph displays a sprawling pattern before his son. Afterwards, it shrinks remarkably – it's highly contained, like his travelling. The couple used to be able to head to places on a whim, given their flexible schedules. Living around the San Francisco Bay area, they were able to zip into the city to enjoy its delights, as well as Monterey, Napa, and other neighouring locales. He also had to return to Los Angeles occasionally, as part of his remote PhD studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Lately, the furthest trip has been 50 miles (80 kilometers), compared with a number over 100 miles (160 kilometers). "It's harder to go places. We have to think about naps, feeding, stroller, diaper changes, and other baby-related things," he said. He worked at home back then as well, but feels more housebound now. So even if he is not travelling as much, he is more conscious of the need to get outside and see a change of scenery. As the baby hits seven months, he expects that the travel distance will grow, but adds: "As a new parent, I'm much more focused on getting sleep than on going places."
When he spends his time has also changed. He had traditionally been a night person, liking the calm of night and the crispness of the cool air. If given a choice, he would stay up until 2 a.m. and wake at 10 a.m. But that isn't the case now. He wakes up at 7 a.m., with the rest of society – sensitive to one particular member of society, whom he hears on the baby monitor. Inevitably, he gets to bed earlier, his sleep calibrated to the new reality. Indeed, one day before his blog post, he was asleep before 10 p.m., which astonished him.
The chart of sleeping times also reveals the importance of naps. He urges new parents to keep a regular nap schedule, even if it's hard in the beginning. "Sleep when you can and nap when you can," he said.
Since most of his work is online, e-mail is an important communication tool. After the baby came, the hours of those e-mail sessions have changed in accordance with his new sleep schedule – hardly any from midnight to 4 a.m., compared with a significant number in the past. As he changed his priorities, the ratio of sent to received e-mails has declined – he is letting things pass by, and keeping his e-mail closed for times when he is concentrating on the baby.
But the number of photos has zoomed. He has never taken tons of pictures, satisfying himself with just capturing special occasions. There were big spikes during trips with his wife before their son was born, hitting about 150 a month for those two periods. But now that number is common, and he has had one month with more than 250 and another with 200. "The increase in pictures represents that I have something to care enough about every day to try to remember it," he said.
The couple pay close attention these days to milestones, like the first time the baby rolled over or took a long nap. But these milestones, which he will want to remember down the road, are actually captured better, the statistician admits, in photos rather than written data.
Still, he treasures the data as well: "I think a lot of people see personal data collection as odd or a waste of time. But, like I said, it's very much like a journal for me. Instead of posting to Facebook and Twitter all the time, I do this instead. Data points are like small snapshots in time."
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter