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!

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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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Day 11: On Burnout

So I was thinking about things this weekend. I came to the conclusion that I really have way too much on my plate. I’m stressed out and busy all the time, but I don’t know what I can cut or do better to ease this. I have a history of overcommitting myself, and its coming back to bite me in the butt once again. Let’s see, to start with, I’m taking 17 credit hours of classes, along with about 15 hours per week of work, I volunteer at the high school robotics club on Wednesday afternoons, I often drive my roommate to and from work because she can’t get around easily, and somehow I’m supposed to find time to study and do homework in there as well. Let’s not start on graduate school applications (I don’t want to talk about it…) Oh yeah, and having some time to eat and sleep would be nice too.

I’ve tried managing my time better, I’ve tried doing my most important work during my best hours of the day (I have learned I can’t get *anything* done if I’m sleepy). I just can’t seem to find anything that works for me. I guess I should probably drop the robotics club but I need something that seems relevant for my grad school applications that I’m having a miserable time completing. Everything just seems really overwhelming right now. I’ll get back on track tomorrow, or the next day maybe. I’ll be fine. I just feel like I am constantly going and going and I can’t seem to find a break. Winter break can’t come quickly enough.

Day 4: Birthday Thoughts

Welcome back for day 4 of my NaBloPoMo, in which I’m writing one post each day for the month of November. Today is my birthday, and as such I did a bit of personal introspection regarding things I have done over the last year and things I would like to do differently in the next year. Today I am 22 years old. Most would say that’s still pretty young, but for me I feel like I’ve already seen a quarter of my life go by. It’s disheartening to think back on these 22 years of life and realize that wow, I really haven’t done much with myself. I know  people that are much younger and much more successful than I am, already. It makes me feel like perhaps I’m doing something wrong, but I’ve been trying the best I can to work hard and do well.

One thing that I’ve been having a lot of trouble with lately is concentration. My attention span is shot, I can’t stay interested in things, and its becoming increasingly difficult for me to focus on school stuff or even stuff that I want to do. You might say, well that’s normal, everyone gets distracted or procrastinates sometimes, but its really been hindering my quality of work lately. I’ve read all the advice, made plans, tried to work better, but nothing seems to be working. I’m afraid I’m going to fall off the wagon with this blogging challenge too, but I’m determined to keep it up so far. It’s just disappointing, because I can’t seem to finish things that I start and I just get distracted so easily now, its hurting my school life and with me applying for graduate school programs, that’s not a good thing at all. I guess I’ve had a lot on my mind stress-wise what with the grad school thing. I just hope I can pull out of this slump soon.

Sorry for a personal rant of a post again, have been really busy this weekend and also (if you couldn’t tell) have been in a down sort of mood. I still plan to update this blog each day as I go on. Stay tuned for your regularly scheduled math/science posts in the future.