The Quantified Self Movement: Self-Tracking in the Data Gold Rush

apple watch

‘Know thyself’, implored Socrates.

Self-awareness, it seems, is foundational to eudaimonia, or in modern parlance, living the good life.

The problem? We’re irrational little creatures, full of biases and contradictions.

Most of the time we’re completely unaware of ourselves and even then, we cut and paste our story to paint ourselves as the favourable protagonist.

Therein lies the problem. Try to implement any positive life changes, and we’re routinely deceived by our delusions.

When we try to lose weight, we tell ourselves a comforting story to relieve our guilt, tempting us to reach for another chocolate cookie and prolonging our poor diet.

So what’s the answer? Well, according to some, it’s the quantified self (QS) movement.

Let’s dive in to examine the good, bad and ugly.

Before we start, a quick caveat – I’m a quantified self dilettante and these are merely initial impressions from my own limited self-tracking forays. There are many subgroups in the QS community – this article focuses primarily on activity modification and habit development.

What is the quantified self movement?

The quantified self-movement describes the self-tracking phenomenon using data to identify physical, psychological and behavioural metrics for analysis, pattern identification and subsequent action modification. 

The Quantified Self Institute defines it as,

“…the term that embodies self-knowledge through self-tracking”

On a practical level it might include:

  • Tracking your health by using a smartwatch to measure your step count
  • Tracking your time working on client projects
  • Tracking your habits using apps and spreadsheets

Check out this short video for a brief explainer:

Origins

The Quantified Self movement was founded by Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly in 2007 and has been popularised by online influencers like Tim Ferris, who famously tracks many of his life experiments and biohacking trials.

All of this might sound like some sort of personality data upload where we shed our corporeal form in favour of cloud immortality.

And who knows, maybe it’s the first step.

But why go to all the effort of self-tracking?

Why self-track?

Hording

Humans are hoarders, as I could have told you as a budding 13-year-old stamp collector.

Data is just another collector’s item, albeit an invisible one.

In this way, rather than a means to an end, collection may become an end in itself, as I’ve discovered when using my running watch.

Despite not analysing my performance in-depth, I receive a nice little psychological reward when logging my routes, which has become a part of the ritual.

I always placate myself by saying that I’ll dig into the data, but rarely do.

Chaos

Although science is continually helping humans make sense of the world, as an individual, existence still seems governed by chaos.

This is psychologically unsettling or positively horrifying depending on your outlook.

Becoming a quantified self may be another attempt to impose order on unmitigated chaos.

Decouple data from the story it represents and the cold, hard numbers offer comfort. This impartiality makes it the perfect currency for collection.

Its neutrality offers security, a hedge against cruel, personal attacks of the world which threaten our personal identity.

magnifying glass

Information explosion

Let’s face it, humans often reach for the nearest salve. With the sheer amount of information flowing along the digital highway, that’s data.

We can’t move without creating an online footprint, which whether we like it or not, is being crunched on an obscure server somewhere.

Because data is so ubiquitous and we poop it more profusely with every activity, it’s easy to collect.

Clever companies exploit this – data is their new money and the gold rush is here.

So rather than merely using our personal data for their own evil ends (which they still do), they’ve kindly gamified the experience with software.

While purists may still opt for the good old fashioned spreadsheet, lazy self-trackers can rejoice.

An array of pings, bings, bops and alerts exist to remind us to enter our crucial cereal consumption habits. 

Software, streaks, points and awards and most importantly, shiny colours, provide the kind of shortlived dopamine hit we expect from any self-respecting tracking app.

Like a crack addict hunting his next fix, we live for the next level and implied social gratification.

Feedback

Also, we yearn for impartial feedback on our life performance.

Churned through an education system where performance is obsessively tracked and then released into a world lacking similar structures, life becomes confusing.

Humans respond well to progress and praise, and the yearly appraisal with the boss often doesn’t cut it. 

Without status reports, we have the disconcerting feeling that there’s no way to evaluate our existence.

When our own minds are unreliable and life often seems unfair, self-tracking offers an honest take on events.

Change

Ok, the above reasons above offer good reasons for this emerging trend, but often people start self-tracking to change something in their life.

Maybe they’re recovering from an accident and measuring strength gains in physiotherapy sessions or desperately want to lose weight and get healthy.

Data provides a portal to objectively identify areas of life and activities which we can improve.

Perhaps, the above are just a selection of reasons why the quantified self movement has grown so strong, spawning an entire subculture of passionate practitioners.

But is it all it’s cracked up to be? Let’s look at a selection of pros and cons.

Benefits

More feedback

Back when I worked as a physiotherapist, we sometimes trained patients to strengthen their transversus abdominis, a muscle surrounding the abdomen and spine like a corset, providing postural control, and thought to prevent lower back pain.

It’s also a muscle activated when desperately trying not to wet ourselves after a few drinks.

People can’t see any movement when contracting the muscle and don’t know if they’re doing it right, meaning that it’s a pesky muscle to train.

For some of these folk we used a biofeedback machine to provide visual cues for contraction, helping them internalise the correct behaviour.

It might be said that some quantified self methods (activity and skill-based ones, at least) work in the same way.

When attempting anything new, we haven’t formed the neural pathways required to consistently perform to correct action.

External and impartial feedback can help guide our behaviour.

More motivation

We’ll far more motivated to persist with our desired behaviours, even in the absence of desired results.

All progress takes longer than we want. As much as we crave that rippling six-pack now, it’s often an arduous adventure of lifestyle modifications, diet overhauls and gymnasium attendance.

Change happens so slowly as if to be imperceptible, but like a friend who hasn’t seen you for a long time commenting on your appearance, getting an impartial take through data can demonstrate just how much you’ve changed.

While it’s tempting to surrender to instant gratification urges and simply abandon our dream of standing under a waterfall like Peter Andre, the quantified self method can help by charting steady progress through uncertain terrain.

graph

Better habits

With a feedback loop in place, it’s far easier to build better habits.

Habits are the neural subroutines to which we default daily, often subconsciously ingrained over many years.

Many of our bad habits are so ritualised as to have become automatic.

By tracking our daily actions, we can reflect on what we’re actually doing, rather than what we think we’re doing.

Humans are full of contradictions and we’re adept storytellers. Don’t fancy that run in the evening? We may create a narrative of having had a productive day and deserving a Netflix medley instead.

In reality, your day may have been a series of false starts and distractions.

Using data to reflect on our activities means we can’t hide behind emotions.

We’ve either implemented a productive habit and have the information to prove it, or we haven’t.

This can be an effective form of shock therapy, encouraging us to get honest and take responsibility for our behaviour. 

Improved self image

By tracking our daily actions and progress, we tap into the powerful psychological force of consistency theory, a carryover from the previous point about habits.

When we see tangible evidence of our actions and their results, we remake our identity in a new image.

If we start exercising every day with substantiating data, unlike a passing fad, we begin to see ourselves as someone who exercises.

If we start reading every day, we begin to see ourselves as a reader.

Such as psychological transformation allows us to persist in the face of underwhelming initial results.

When we combine this with the Seinfeld Strategy, which taps into our curious tendency to act in accordance with our self-image, we get a string of productive behaviours which can provide an added sense of life purpose.

Improved objective outcomes

Naturally, when we accrue accurate information about our lives, our performance improves. If setting a goal, we can reverse engineer the process to distil our days into core components.

If we’re not hitting our targets, rather than throwing darts the dark, we can analyse our system to identify flaws and underperformance.

Elements of our approach can be tweaked in service of the overarching aim.

Making data-based decisions over trusting our fallible intuition is key to improved interventions and outcomes.

Potential Drawbacks

Companies own us

Just like schools, workplaces have an incentive to encourage and even instigate self-tracking in attempts to benchmark and enhance performance.

From sales leaderboards to yearly KPI’S, the onus is on the employee to provide evidence of their efficacy and continued right to employment.

As analytics get ever more sophisticated, results are as much a measure of employee worth as they are campaign success.
 
Such voluntary adoption of self-tracking in our personal lives gives companies greater control by default, normalising such practices in the collective human mind.
 
In reality, this is merely coerced self-tracking, so it’s no great wonder then that companies like Amazon are pushing this familiarity as far as possible, even into somewhat dystopian realms. 

I previously worked in a remote call centre environment, providing medical advice.

Every action taken, word spoken, and report submitted was timed and recorded, with mandatory use of the company script and outcome analysis at the end of every month.

In our regular performance reviews, we were assessed on how many customers were referred to different destinations, our performance dependant on how much money we saved the company by dealing with the customer on the phone vs sending them for an in-person review.

Needless to say, I loathed this job. It felt like living in a secret police state, with every action monitored, logged and reviewed.

The lesson? Self-tracking is only beneficial to the extent that it’s self-imposed, rather than dictated by external elements.

Data privacy

During such an explosion of data, privacy is an obvious concern.

With recent data scandals affecting household names, it’s prudent to be cautious when researching potential tracking technology.

This is especially salient considering the personal nature of information recorded and the profit-potential for companies bending the rules and selling the information to third parties.

In their aim to know us better than ourselves in order to sell us products before we even know we need them, quantified self data is the pinnacle.

Living for the data 

Does living for the numbers make us lose presence when engaging the process?

In other words, if you’re always thinking about the data, are you really present and mindful in your life?

Abstracting information in this way can make us lose touch with the reality the numbers represent.

Depending on your level of engagement, it can make us slightly neurotic when logging our activities.

I hate forgetting to charge my watch so it switches off on a run, for example.

I know the most important thing is that I’m actually running, but at those moments, it almost doesn’t feel real unless it’s logged.

Although we want our data to be as accurate as possible, we also need to be kind to ourselves and not lose touch with life.

Happiness dependent on outcomes

Another potential pitfall of self-tracking is making our happiness contingent on outcomes.

Hitting certain numbers can objectively improve our lives, but when we tie our emotional wellbeing to their achievement, we’re at the mercy of forces outside our control.

Therefore, it seems sensible to place more emphasis on the actions and hence data, which is immediately within our locus of control.

When trying to hit revenue numbers or a certain weight loss, we can only control what we put in and not what we get out.

So instead of getting excited or sad by an end result, take pride in process-related tracking, such as how many sales calls you made in the month as opposed to how much money you made.

quantified self

Deciding what to track

Here comes the important bit – actual implementation.

If you’re drawn to the self-tracking movement, it may be a natural transition.

However, for those dipping their toes in data waters, it makes sense to track information about something you want to change or maintain in your life.

Therefore, some degree of life planning is required.

Perhaps you’ve always wanted to start a business or struggle to stick to your new weight-loss diets.

A deeper desire around behaviour change means that metric collection should feel like an investment vs a chore.

It should also provide insight into your current performance and information you need to alter ingrained habits.

Self-tracking tips

Once you’ve decided on what you want to track, it’s vital to ensure that you can break the activity down into easily measurable analytics.

This isn’t the time for vague sentiments that you want to be the best version of yourself.

What can you objectively track that is tied to the activity and directly proportional to performance?

While you can measure every minutia related to the activity, don’t succumb to data fatigue.

Instead, aim for high leverage metrics that have a significant impact on the desired outcome.

As we’ve discussed, try to collect process-related metrics if possible, alongside outcome orientated objectives.

That means giving yourself a psychological pat on the back if you exercise and stick to your diet, even when the weight scales don’t change.

Rewards are an essential part of the process. Research shows that we can train ourselves through their use to instil good better habits.

However, the immediacy of the treat is important, as psychologically we associate it with the activity being implemented.

Ideally, tracking will take place automatically during your desired activity or you’ll input the information immediately afterwards.

If this action is tied to a reward, not only does it provide positive reinforcement for the habit but also its data collection.

Finally, deciding on a review schedule is essential and commonly where I collapse.

You can collect all the information in the world, but unless you have a way of extracting insights it won’t contribute much to behaviour change.

Before starting, choose a review schedule to parse your data for any insights, whether it’s daily, weekly or monthly.

Getting started

The Quantified Self website has a great article about getting started, which you should read.

It covers four main areas:

  • Questioning – appreciating the motivation of why you want to start tracking is essential. How does it contribute to your goals and interests? Write a clarifying paragraph.
  • Observing – self-tracking is all about deliberate observation. Are your observations relevant and do they provide meaningful insight? Are they convenient and can you collect data easily and consistently? Are they trustworthy and how confident are you in the metrics?
  • Reasoning – this is about teasing insight from your information. Can you create a baseline so you know when your measurements change? Can you use a timeline to see how the data changes over time? Can you use retrospective annotation to identify any patterns?
  • Consolidating insight – this is where you act upon and share your findings, which can help revise your learning, make data-driven decisions and benefit the wider QS community.

How I use it

There’s obviously a sliding scale of quantified self adoption.

Whereas some advocates obsessively track the minutiae of their lives, I’m probably pretty low on the scale.

Sometimes I feel I could and should be monitoring more performance metrics while equally, I worry about the drawbacks of such an approach.

Professionally as a freelancer, I track time spent on client and project work.

In my personal life, I collect data on my daily meditation ritual, exercise habits and sleep quality.

Additionally, I’m exploring mood tracking and journaling.

Tracking tools

Tools abound for the aspiring self tracker.

Software and websites are churned out daily to cater to this new cultural niche, offering progress streaks, completion rates and pixelated rewards:

A notebook!

It’s important to note (pun intended) that you needn’t download all the new-fangled gizmos for effective self-tracking. Going old school can work just as well, if not better in some cases.

Google calendar

This is perhaps the best self-tracking technology for its very simplicity.

If you’re unable to engage in productive behaviours, the first step is to become best friends with your calendar.

Just list every action you want to achieve in a given day, which are ideally core components of your bigger goals.

Writing them down as an activity in itself makes it more likely you’ll actually do them, according to research.

At the end of the day and week, you can create review sessions to reflect on these activities for adherence and improve future scheduling.

Garmin watch

garmin smartwatch

After extensively (read obsessively) researching the options, I decided on a Garmin tactical watch for my fitness.

The main reason I didn’t choose an apple watch or similar is that I didn’t need yet more distracting apps on my wrist.

My watch is stupid enough not to distract me during the day and yet is more than functional for exercise, while also measuring my heart rate and sleep quality.

This Garmin is great for what it’s designed to do, being rugged enough for an array of outdoor excursions and offering amazing battery life. 

Toggl

Toggl is a chrome extension and app time tracker which is splendid for well…time tracking.

You can create different clients and/or personal projects to gain an accurate idea of where your online hours are going.

At the end of the month, you can access pretty graphs and pie charts to see exactly how much time you’re squandering on cat videos. 

Just the simple act of time tracking, especially combined with the in-built Pomodoro timer, can make you more focused, leading to deep work sessions.

Nomie

There are many habit trackers around, which offer overlapping features, like steaks and awards, to hook you into good habits.

What they also share are annoying in-app purchases, which constantly bug you to upgrade to a paid plan.

Enter Nomie, which is free and incredibly versatile.

You can basically track anything, whether that be water consumption or banjo practice.

You can also use it for things like mood tracking and journaling.

It’s open-source and your data is completely private. 

Insight Timer

For meditation, I use the Insight Timer, offering a basic timer and access to many other meditation resources and courses.

Currently, I do 30 minutes of meditation every day and have done for the last few years.

This app effectively logs my time, with data on tap for review.

While I also use the Sam Harris Waking Up app for guided meditation, I’ve never moved away from Insight Timer because it’s free and easy to use.

I’m not hardcore!

I know, I know – for any diehard quantified self enthusiasts about to send me angry messages about missing the latest blood glucose monitor from the list, I’m just stating what I use in my initial foray into these waters.

I’m by no means a hardcore self tracker, or even evangelist. I’m just interested in the approach and documenting experience.

To that end, if you do have any recommendations, just reach out.

A note: Often when you’re looking for tracking tools around specific activities, it can be sensible to seek ones that provide data on average completion of desired activity, rather than simply streaks of activity. Good intentions inevitably falter and so even if we miss a few days here and there, we can still take pride in an 80% completion rate.

Summary

Although I’m a novice self tracker, I’ve found the process helpful.

Perhaps the biggest benefit has been building credibility with myself.

Setting a task, completing it, complemented by supporting evidence.

Powerful stuff, which feeds into one great big positive feedback loop of behaviour change and habit modification.

In a world where it’s increasingly easy to become distracted by the next media scandal or simply indulge in gratuitous entertainment, building self-esteem through self-tracking seems like an easy win.

I’d love to hear your thoughts – sign up for my email list below and reach out with any questions, comments or advice.



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