Birthdays and Burn-Downs

Burn Downs

I felt like sharing a tool I picked up from the day-job that’s I’ve actually found super useful in the steady trek toward my goals. I’ve got a lot on my plate:

  • Finish draft 2 of Deveroux and Fitch by the end of March
  • Study for an Actuary Exam. I have to finish reviewing all the material by the second week of April, then take lots of practice tests.
  • I’m trying to read 75 books this year. That’s a fair amount of reading.

That’s a lot. Especially for larger goals, it is imperative that you can keep track of exactly where you are at in the process, so you can determine if you are ahead or behind. This tool can help with that, and it is called a burndown chart.

It’s a tool best used when you have a large stack of tasks that will take approximately the same length of time to accomplish. For example, I know my material to review is 202 probability questions spread out over 6 chapters. My novel also works because at the stage I’m at in the process, even if page-counts are a little different on average it takes me 2 hours to revise 5-10 pages.

It’s nothing fancy. It’s just a chart. Here’s my burn-down chart for my progress in studying for my actuary exam (x-axis is days, y-axis is number of problems):

Problems Burndown

There’s 3 wiggly lines. The blue wiggly line is the ideal. I have 202 problems to do in 56 days? Well, that means I’d better be doing 202/56 = 3.6 problems per day. The yellowish line is the literal number of problems I have completed, so it is slowly snaking it’s way further up. The red line is just 202 – # of problems I’ve completed; it’s how many I have remaining.

Physically creating the chart isn’t hard. I’ve been keeping data (I mentioned that in the post Cold Hard Data) in Excel, and so it’s just a matter of inserting a chart and setting up a sheet to compute the proper values. Plus then you can do things like an analysis of your margins to figure out your rates…


Anyway, here’s why burn down charts are useful: they make it incredibly easy to visualize your work, how much ahead / behind you are, and if you are on track. If your red line (how much you have left) is above your blue line (the ideal), well, you know you’re behind. If you’re waaay below the blue line, congratulations you’re ahead of schedule, go you!

I shamelessly also love the visual, because it reminds me of cricket. Here’s the burn-down chart I have for my reading goal for the year (the units on the bottom are weeks in this case, the y-axis is books read):

Books Burndown

I’m not going to claim this is something brand new and revolutionary – it isn’t. Software development has been using this for 20 years give or take, and I’m sure it was used in other places before that too. I am firmly convinced that the most important equation in all of life-hacking is


but that’s probably enough fodder for an entire other post so I’ll move on for now. For the take-away: Burn-down charts are handy ways to see if you’re on track. If your Excel-fu is week, feel free to drop a comment and I can talk you through how to actually create one.


My 29th (yay prime!) birthday was March 4th. It’s a mixed bag of feelings. The actual birthday itself is a nice low-key day, and a good excuse to take off work to spend some time around the house. Like most birthdays where your age ends with an 8 or 9, I’ve got another milestone around the corner: 30.

Considering I said literally a decade ago “I reckon I’ll be published by the time I’m 22… 25 at the latest…”  it certainly makes me self conscious. Whoops, there went a decade.

It happens. It also makes me want to work harder. I can’t change what I did with that time, and frankly it was probably good for me to grow up a bit. The fact of the matter is now I’m in a position where I’m stable and I can actually chase those goals.

My goal for this year is to start getting my work out there. My goal is to actually get one of my novels published by the time I’m 31. 

It’s got me a bit reflective. Fortunately, I don’t really have time to dwell on it. Actually posting my burn-downs shows me that I’m actually behind and I still have some catching up to do, so I’ll call that enough for now and get back to work.


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