Data Driven Creativity

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Collecting and analysing the data we generate every day—whether it’s how much we exercise, changes in our heart rate, even how much we use our devices—have become indispensable tools to improve health and wellbeing. Can a similar approach to other data we generate—say when we write—bring benefits to our creative lives? Prolifiko has just launched a study to find out.

In 1994, psychologist Roger Buehler asked a group of research students writing theses how long they thought it would take them to finish their papers. On average, the students predicted that their theses would take 33.9 days to finish. How long did it actually take? 55.5 five days –  a 64 percent over estimation.

What Buehler was investigating was something called the planning fallacy – the tendency we all have to overestimate our abilities and underestimate how long projects will take or how complicated things are.

It’s a phenomenon first coined by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in 1979 and it can be applied to anything: commercial mega-projects, travelling places, completing tax forms and of course, writing projects (and especially long ones).  

The best way to avoid falling into the planning fallacy trap according to Prof. Yael Grushka-Cockayne (Darden School of Business) who studies decision-making, is to base any estimates on how complicated, or otherwise a task might be on past experience and past performance.

And the best way to do that is to track and monitor your behavioural patterns and learn as you go.

Talking to the Freakonomics podcast, she says: “If you’re planning project X, the best approach is to ignore project X. Instead, look back at all the projects you’ve done that are similar to this new project X and look historically at how well those projects performed in terms of their plan versus their actual. See how your plan compares to your actual and use that shift or uplift to adjust the new project you are about to start.”

At our startup Prolifiko – a digital coach for writing – we’ve teamed up with academics and professional survey designers to launch a study into academic writing practice. It builds on some work into writing systems and habits that we wrote about here.

The first part of the study involves a large-scale survey into academic writing process – this survey is still open and you can take it here. Whilst the second part is a more in-depth study which involves 80 academics ‘tracking’ their writing process over 30 days.

Our aim is to better understand the role of ‘tracking’ and self-reflection on the writing practice and to see what these writers might learn about their behaviour along the way.

The question we’re trying to answer is twofold: whether tracking can help people avoid the planning fallacy and become better prepared for tackling future writing projects and whether the act of self-reflection helps these writers improve, adjust and optimise their practice.

We’re using our digital coach for writing Prolifiko as the data collection platform for the study and we’ll be using the tools and startup techniques we typically reserve for digital marketing, email automation and user cohort analysis to manage the study and analyse the results.   

Every time a writer completes a writing session, they’ll ‘track’ their progress using Prolifiko and create a simple, personal record of how each session has gone for them. They’ll be asked, how did it go? What could you improve next time? Tracking each session takes around two minutes – so taking part won’t unduly interrupt a writer from their work.

The objective isn’t to understand whether academics become more productive over 30 days but rather, to see whether tracking in this way helps these people spot any patterns in their writing process.

And if they do spot patterns whether they go on to apply these to their practice – whether they adjust or calibrate their behaviour in the future – we’d like to run the study for longer than 30 days later in the year.

We want to add to learning in the field of scholarly writing with this study but more than that, hope that by taking part, participants will start to understand more about their own practice.

We’d love to see academics gain some practical benefit from the study and it will be fascinating to see whether individual writing patterns and systems emerge.

If you’d like to take part in the wider survey into academic writing practice please complete the survey here – it will take you around seven minutes to complete.  

Chris Smith is a startup co-founder interested in using behavioural science and positive persuasive technology to unlock human potential. Also by Chris Smith: