The Surprising Benefits of Relentlessly Auditing Your Life

My husband had been trying to sell me on his method for years before I finally relented. An efficiency consultant who had once worked in the car industry in Japan, he wanted to Toyota Way our lives. I wanted him to keep his spreadsheets to himself.

But a house, a baby and some career changes later, as I was folding tiny T-shirts while doing an interview and rocking the baby’s chair with my foot, I gave in. I was overwhelmed. Maybe a spreadsheet could help after all.

The method, as my husband would be shouting right now, is of course more than just a spreadsheet. It’s based on the Japanese notion of “kaizen,” or continuous improvement, made famous in 2001 when Toyota singled it out as one of the pillars of the company’s success. You pick a goal, figure out the main components behind it, collect data on those components and work out what you can do to move closer to the goal.

In the case of Toyota, the goal was higher quality and increased profits. When we translated the idea to our home life, the goal was a little simpler but also a lot more complicated — happiness. We weren’t sure what drove it, so we decided to collect data on everything: how many hours we were sleeping a night, how long we spent on housework or child care, the amount of alone time, social time, commuting time, you name it. We assigned a score from one to 10 to each day, and then gave a primary reason for each score: not enough sleep, work sucked and, sometimes, “relationship bad feeling.”

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Soon enough, we began to spot patterns: It turns out that the minimum number of hours I can sleep without wanting to run away from my family is five and a half. Less than an hour a week of personal time also sent me to a dark place. My husband found that his happiness rose and fell with hours spent hanging out with friends or sitting in traffic.

And so we started trying to improve our scores. We started small. I tried to shift around my workload to include more time to read and think. My husband began commuting by train so that he could bike from the station to work, incorporating exercise into his day and eliminating time spent in traffic altogether.

The project led to a major life change. Our spreadsheets hammered home that what contributed most to our happiness was time spent together or with friends — while, crucially, not working — and there was no way to get more of that if we continued to live in the Bay Area, one of the most expensive parts of the country. So I proposed an idea that would have seemed radical were there not so much data backing it: “I think you should quit your job, we should sell our house, and we should move somewhere cheaper,” I told my husband matter-of-factly one day. So we did.

Feeling uncomfortable right now? I get it. There’s a lot to feel anxious or eye-rolly about. I fully admit that in the first weeks of the project, I found it preposterous. I groaned about the time required to type in data, assign a score, all of it.

But a funny thing happened as I huffed through weeks of data collection. In addition to leading to a better understanding of what made us happy as a family, I also found the spreadsheet to be an incredibly useful tool for expressing things I might have otherwise avoided. It made the invisible visible. Instead of arguing about housework, for example, both feeling like we were doing more than our fair share, we could talk about it relatively objectively. On a day where I spent 14 hours taking care of the kids and doing house chores while my husband spent three, I was going to be unhappy, obviously. But we could just look at the numbers and then divvy up the chores evenly. Easy. No fight, no resentment. (Others have recently attempted more high-tech versions of a similar approach: One man, for instance, invented a chore-splitting app intended to keep track of who’s doing the bulk of the household work.)

It also enabled us to talk about what the transition to parenthood had meant for both of us — fewer work hours and loss of alone time for me; an intense commute and loss of social time for him — in a way that helped us stay away from competition or blame.

Before the spreadsheet, I had an idea I think many share: Marriage and family should more or less work. If you’re with the “right” person and you’ve made the “right” choices, your family life shouldn’t require a lot of discussion or effort. Your spouse should know that you need alone time and should give it to you. The appointments you keep in your head, the family social schedule you juggle — all of it should be noticed and appreciated. Good marriages and happy families are born of love and care, not spreadsheets and a daily happiness score.

But in the years since, I’ve reconsidered. Far from making our marriage seem cold and robotic, the spreadsheet sparked more honest conversations than we’d had in years. It also reminded us that we had more control over our lives than we had been exerting.

We stopped the project after a year or so, but started again last month. It’s five years since we first tried it, and we’re both feeling overwhelmed again. We’re in a much more precarious place financially now, after a few non-spreadsheet-related surprises, but we’re still determined to make whatever decisions we can to improve our lives.

In the course of researching a book on the history of motherhood in America, it occurred to me that this sort of exercise might be helpful for a lot of families, onerous as it may seem. Because the really intractable problems — like the social expectations placed on mothers, the gendered division of labor in homes, the invisibility of all sorts of care work — are not going to magically disappear. They’re not going to be erased simply by getting the right politicians elected or the right policies enacted (although those things will help).

People’s weird ideas about gender, about mothers and fathers and marriage and nuclear families, about who should do what and how much of it, about what really makes us happy, are deeply entrenched, often in ways we don’t even recognize. And so sometimes, when the baby is crying, when no one has thought about dinner, when bills need paying — when we’re caught, in other words, juggling some of the most fraught areas of our family lives, feeling emotional, ready to lash out — sometimes it really helps to have a set of calm, cool numbers on a spreadsheet.

Amy Westervelt is a journalist, a podcaster and the author of “Forget ‘Having It All’: How America Messed Up Motherhood — and How to Fix It.”

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