Quantifying the Self

So I’ve been doing a bit of an experiment this year. Sure, everyone says they want to do this or do that, lose weight, eat better, exercise more, etc, but how do we keep ourselves to these goals? As you may be aware, the you of the future is always a bit more conscientious than the you of today: “I’ll eat  ice cream today and go on the diet tomorrow”, “Just one more day of sleeping in and I’ll get up early tomorrow.” The list goes on. Now being the geek that I am, I began to wonder if there were a more scientific way to go about all this.

Something that I’ve found that is pretty easy to do and had a big impact is simply tracking the things you want to do with your time and see how it stacks up over time. I started when I found a website called Beeminder. You can start as many “goals” as you like, such as “go to the gym twice a week” or “floss every day”. You know, those things we want to do but have a hard time actually doing. You go in and plot a data point each day and you can see your progress towards the goal. It has a “yellow brick road” for you to follow and if you do more than average one day you get “safe days” where you don’t have to work as hard. It’s really engaging to me to see my graphs grow.

Another main point of Beeminder is the concept of commitment contracts. As far as I know, this is optional, but I can see how it would definitely improve motivation. Have you ever given $20 to a friend and said “I’m going to try to do <insert thing here>. If I succeed give me my money back, but if I don’t you can keep it.” Basically what you can do with Beeminder is “bet” that you will achieve your goal. You go along and plot your points and if at any point you fall below the “yellow brick road” of success, then you have to pay up. Stay on the road? No payment. Another feature to help you stick to it is that for each time you get “off the road”, the penalty increases. The idea is that at some point you think, “wow, I really don’t want to lose x amount of money, I better go to the gym/eat healthier/read more.” Now that may seem like a pretty negative motivational technique, but think about it this way. No one is forcing you to do anything. These are things that you claim you want to do. The phenomenon that causes us to put off things we want to do is called akrasia. It happens when you go to the store intending to buy vegetables and then you see your favorite ice cream on sale. It happens to all of us, and one of the best ways to stop it is to consciously track what you do and hold yourself accountable for it.

As an example, here’s one of my Beeminder graphs for reading more often. I’ve been saying for years I’d like to read more, but I always seem to find other things to do instead. By tracking my reading time each day, I can see my progress over time and its really helped me to stick with it. I started out with a goal of reading 15  minutes each day, but soon bumped it up to 20, and now I’m at 25. I’ve been reading nearly every day and it feels great. I have finished The Alchemist and I’m almost done with The Hobbitwhich is more than I can usually say I’ve read 2 months into the year!

readmore

But I started to think, after using Beeminder for a while, what other things can I track? I started using a pedometer to see how many steps I walk at my university daily, and boy was I surprised! I usually walk 3 miles or more in a day just walking around to classes, to eat, to meetings, and to work. The steps add up quick, and its really neat to see what my trends are for walking as well. I haven’t been tracking this one for as long, but here’s a graph I created using google spreadsheets: (guess which data points are the weekends…heh. Of course, the pedometer is on my phone so it only tracks wherever I carry it around, which is not usually within my apartment).

Walking Graph

If you’re more interested in tracking your mental fluctuations rather than your physical activities, I uncovered the site Quantified MindIt has a series of experiments where you can track your reaction time, memory, focus, and other basic mental skills. You simply log in and play a few simple games and it gives you scores. There is a wide variety of different activities you can do and I find it pretty fun. I have just started playing around with this site but I imagine if you kept with it and gathered enough data you could determine trends of when your brain is at its best and use that to your advantage. They also have experiments that ask questions like “Does coffee improve cognitive performance?” (tested by doing the games after drinking coffee one day, no coffee the next). Another experiment tests the age old motto of “Never skip breakfast” and asks users to test themselves on days when they have eaten breakfast and days they have not eaten breakfast. They even have one to test the effect that sex has on mental functioning! Finally, if you’re so inclined you can make your own experiments to test out whatever you want.

But why stop there? Some ideas that I have for tracking myself in the future include plotting my going to sleep/wake up times and the time I spend working on my thesis (if you’re curious about that, see here.) I know for me, implementing self tracking into my life has really opened my eyes to a lot of things I do (and don’t do!) and if you’re tired of not meeting your goals or just a huge data nerd like I am, I highly recommend you give this a try. If you have any questions or ideas please leave them in the comments!

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2 comments on “Quantifying the Self

  1. […] story), Jana Beck featured Beeminder in a Quantified Self talk, Allison of The Muse Garden has a wonderful write-up of Quantified Self, featuring Beeminder, an old MetaFilter post that we forgot to include last time includes a nice Beeminder testimonial, […]

  2. […] you asked. I did a post on all this stuff a few months ago called Quantifying the Self and discussed the nuts and bolts of all this, but here’s a quick […]

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