In a recent post, I wrote about the significant benefits that can be realized through the tracking of daily activity, primarily as part of an effort to establish more productive/healthy habits (or conversely…to eliminate bad habits).
While the concept of detailed data gathering has perhaps forever been a primary tenet of the hard sciences and fitness/nutrition, its application in the broader personal development and productivity space has become increasingly popular in recent years (though still a somewhat niche audience) with the significant growth in content that is now available from countless authors and bloggers.
However, it seems that the idea of personal data gathering and analysis is becoming increasingly mainstream. This weekend, NPR’s On the Media hosted a show titled The Personal Data Revolution which explores a growing movement of people who are using vast amounts of data gathered from their daily activities to help bring about transformative change in their lives.
The program begins by interviewing Gary Wolf, founder of The Quantified Self, a blog that promotes ‘self knowledge through numbers.’
Quantified Self is a collaboration of users and tool makers who share an interest in self knowledge through self-tracking. We exchange information about our personal projects, the tools we use, tips we’ve gleaned, lessons we’ve learned. We blog, meet face to face and collaborate online.
The site offers many inspirational stories which support the benefits that can come from applying a highly disciplined, scientific approach to personal development. ‘The Quantified Self’ also looks to provide regular tips, such as helpful/automated tools to use, for those wanting to live a more ‘quantified’ life.
Gary Wolf also shared his thoughts on ‘The Quantified Self’ in a recent TEDTalk.
Why ‘Self-Tracking’ Works
- We’re often guilty of establishing goals that are exceedingly vague. While such goals often make it harder to fail, they don’t exactly make it easier for us to succeed either. Even if we establish better goals (i.e., more specific, actionable, realistic, time-bound, etc.), measurement is still the most crucial element of understanding if we’ve been successful or not.
- While data can no doubt be manipulated to tell any number of stories, based on the position of the analyst, in many cases, data regularly insists on highlighting the (sometimes unpleasant) truth. Consistent, detailed data gathering provides a more objective/realistic view, as opposed to our own (which may be overly subjective or qualitative).
- Moreover, from a personal development perspective, the visibility provided by consistent/detailed data gathering (conducted over time) can help to build momentum.
- By making the daily, otherwise unremarkable details of our routines visible, ‘self-tracking’ provides us with near real-time feedback on our progress. This regular feedback helps to reinforce behavior as we work to realize our goals. As I wrote earlier, Jerry Seinfeld’s approach to tracking his daily writing/practice ignited a competitive drive to not see the chain broken.
- Once the feedback is successful in building momentum, the laws of physics will take over and ‘a body in motion [will tend] to stay in motion.’
- By making our progress and current status highly visible (to ourselves and perhaps others as well), be it on an Excel spreadsheet, scorecard/dashboard, a site like Joe’s Goals (link) or a simple scrap of paper, ‘self-tracking’ makes the determination of our ‘success’ in reaching a goal much easier and more objective.
- Without measurement, excuses abound and it can be difficult to hold ourselves to account for lack of progress/failure.
- Though self-tracking can quickly become a very complicated, sophisticated and technology-driven process, clear/quantitative goals and consistently/accurately captured data are the only tools truly needed to effectively arrive at a clear indication of success or failure.
It Helps Tell a Great Story
- Data can serve as a very powerful storyteller. In particular, when transformed into a graphical representation (after all, a picture is worth a thousand words) it becomes all the more powerful.
- Hans Rosling, in his TEDTalk ’New Insights on Poverty,’ vividly demonstrates this point. The description drives the point further…’You’ve never seen data presented like this. With the drama and urgency of a sportscaster, statistics guru Hans Rosling debunks myths about the so-called developing work. In Hans Rosling’s hands, data sings. Global trends in health and economics come to vivid life.’
- Being able to develop a compelling narrative from your ‘self-tracking’ data makes the process all the more exciting. Perhaps more importantly, the insights that can be gleaned from such analyses also help to support our continued development, by fueling improvements along the way.
Great Examples of ‘The Quantified Life’
A more recent TEDTalk, ‘The Birth of a Word,’ is yet another great example of what powerful findings can come from self-tracking and ‘The Quantified Life.’
From the TED description…
MIT researcher Deb Roy wanted to understand how his infant son learned language — so he wired up his house with videocameras to catch every moment (with exceptions) of his son’s life, then parsed 90,000 hours of home video to watch “gaaaa” slowly turn into “water.” Astonishing, data-rich research with deep implications for how we learn.
The popularity of ‘self-tracking’ can also be seen in the recent, overwhelming success of The Four Hour Body by Tim Ferriss, a book which outlines findings from Tim’s years of self-experimentation in a number of areas (e.g., fitness, weight-loss/nutrition, etc.).
Would you describe yourself as a self-quantifier? Is ‘self-tracking’ a part of your day-to-day life, as part of an effort to achieve a goal or to learn more about your habits? Have you been successful with such an approach?
I’d really enjoy reading about your ‘Quantified Self’ story in the comments.
I welcome and look forward to your comments!