Tracking and measuring personal metrics as a tool for self-improvement has benefits for individuals and groups, but those of us interested in the quantified self should be aware of potential risks as well so we can use these tools wisely.
Tracking info – the quantified self
You may have heard me mention how much I love my Apple Watch. I use it all the time, not only for telling time but also for other things, including tracking certain health-related metrics and motivating me to follow good habits. The fact that I use apps on the Watch got me thinking about the pros and cons of tracking and measuring various elements of life and health and the whole phenomenon of the quantified life.
What is the quantified self?
“In its most concise form, self quantification is the tracking of daily activities through technologies, delivering back to the user some “performance” analytics. The data and metrics help the user alter a behavior in order to self-improve. The soon to be assuaged behavior can be hyper-specific, like wanting to drive your car in the most efficient manner or it can be much more broad involving myriad health conditions and goals you are attempting to reach. The most famous quantified self endeavor to date is probably Nike+.”
The quantified self has applications in health and wellness, personal and professional productivity, and education. (See this Wikipedia article for a discussion of how self-quantification is being applied in these various areas.)
The quantified self movement describes individuals tracking and measuring aspects of their life, but also groups of individuals sharing data and competing.
“[T]here is a strong tendency among self-trackers to share data and collaborate on new ways of using it. . . . Insight will come not just from our own numbers but from combining them with the findings of others.”
There has in fact been a whole movement built up around this called “Quantified Self“. They have meetups where people share ways they’ve tracked and measured, what they did, how they did it, what they learned, etc. According to their website:
“Quantified Self Labs is a California-based company founded by Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly that serves the Quantified Self user community worldwide by producing international meetings, conferences and expositions, community forums, web content and services, and a guide to self-tracking tools.”
What are the benefits?
This movement toward tracking and measuring various life aspects brings several benefits.
- Awareness: We’ve discussed awareness as a key first step toward identifying and accomplishing goals. Gathering data about what our bodies and minds are doing can help focus attention on areas we want to improve (or where we are doing well), and also can help with the intentional building of habits that will get us where we want to go. The act of tracking and recording can help motivate us by creating chains. The longer the chain of days we’ve done X, the more motivated we are to do it again, to avoid breaking the chain or leaving a gap in our chart.
- Accountability: If we use a service such as Fitbit or Nike+ that publishes our results, or even if we just share our results with an accountability buddy, that creates the motivation to be more active. It’s like having the benefit of a mastermind group. Knowing you have to report back to somebody whether you did what you said you wanted to do can motivate you to get it done when you don’t feel like doing it.
- Crowdsourcing aggregated data: It can help identify patterns across numbers of people or seeing how other people are functioning in ways that we’d like to improve in.
“. . . people with a diverse range of health problems have used self-tracking devices to monitor medical treatments for acute diseases or chronic conditions, evaluate the moods created by eating certain foods, track their alcohol consumption and many more aspects of their bodily functions, health and illness states. Patients have also been able to ‘crowdsource’ the data they have collected on websites such as PatientsLikeMe and CureTogether, allowing the massing of data for a better understanding of what treatments are effective (see here and here for overviews).”
- Improved medical care: An article in Stanford Medicine talks about a program instituted a few years ago at Stanford to help doctors gather information from patients useful in designing treatments for chronic diseases.
What are the downsides?
- Obsession (unhealthy focus, wasted time): The tracked data are tools to self-awareness and intentional living, not ends of themselves.
- Loss of perspective: By focusing on numbers, we can forget what really matters. We are more than what we weigh or the quantity of the books we read or whatever other numbers you are keeping track of.
- Self-criticism: Can we measure these things, look for patterns, and make intentional choices about what to do with the information, without beating ourselves up or judging ourselves by the results of what we track and measure?
- Privacy concerns: The apps and websites used in many of these self-tracking efforts collect information submitted by the user devices. What do the app/website owners do with that data?
“Other users who have tried self-tracking for health have suggested that the intense focus on the body that these devices encourage may place too much pressure on oneself, leading to feelings of failure and self-hatred. It has been argued that intense self-tracking may cause ‘cyberchondria’, leading to people becoming unduly anxious about their health state based on the data they collect. Devices may be used by people such as anorexics to facilitate health-destructive behaviors by engaging in too much obsessive self-tracking. . . .
Privacy issues are a concern as more and more data are collected by self-trackers. The manufacturers of self-tracking devices are beginning to approach workplaces as a site for encouraging people to use them and compete against each other. There are concerns that people may feel pressured into using them to meet employers’ expectations and that employers may use the data. Other critics have questioned what may happen if health insurance companies begin to expect their clients to use the devices if they wish to avoid higher premiums (see here for an account of these issues).”
- Technology-based: Trackers/FitBit/Apple Watch/phone apps
- Paper: Bullet Journal community shares all kinds of trackers. Look for a wide range of wonderful ideas on Pinterest.
“Quantification, which includes self-tracking, data analysis and graphic layout, provides the ‘rational’ basis for dietary regimes, while gamification provides the emotional support needed to maintain motivation and continue with the diet.”
Gamification” – The use of game design elements in non-game contexts can serve to increase individuals’ health. Gamification facilitates and supports our pursuit of goals and appears to enhance performance.”
What to track?
- Sleep: I use AutoSleep together with its companion app HeartWatch
- Weight: Wifi connected scales which also tracks body fat percentage: Fitbit Aria
- Food eaten: LoseIt – can set goals and share as part of the community
- Books read
- Pain: People who suffer from chronic pain may be able to provide their care providers with valuable information by tracking this information.
- Water Intake: WaterMinder (on my Apple Watch)
- Spending: Mint / You Need a Budget
Thoughts and tips
- Don’t let self-quantification in any form turn into another “must do” on your to-do list. Do it if it helps, don’t if it doesn’t. Remember it’s a tool, not a goal.
- Don’t try to track everything. What information would be useful to you to address a pain point in your life?
- You don’t need to track all the time. You can get a lot of useful information by tracking certain things for a defined period of time; a day, a week, a month, intermittently.
What do you think?
Do you track anything in your life? How do you do it? How does it help you in your journey to making a life that matters? Please share them in the comments section below this post or in The Productive Woman Community Facebook group or send me an email.
Resources and Links
- Tracking pain: How health data provided by patients adds up to better care
- “Living the quantified self: the realities of self-tracking for health”
- “The gamification of risk: how health apps foster self-confidence and why this is not enough”
- “Doing Things with Numbers: The Quantified Self and the Gamification of Health”
- “The 10 Best Sleep Trackers in 2018“
- “The Ultimate Guide to Sleep Tracking“
- “Comparing 10 Sleep Trackers (2017)”
- “The 6 Best Mood Apps”
- “The 6 best apps to track your mood”
- “15 apps to help you track & manage your anxiety”
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