Quantified Self

There’s a saying that I’ve known so long I can’t remember where I first heard or read it – “What gets measured, gets done.” I, probably like most people tended to see this truism as relating almost entirely to the world of business – if you want to create focus on something and make sure it happens to the extent and quantity you want, then set goals and targets for it and start measuring it, sharing it and tracking it over time. I’ve seen first hand that it’s an effective approach and does make a difference. It can also have a ‘dark side’. If a company sets a goal or target for specific sales or achievements on one narrow point of focus, without creating countervailing balances there is serious risk that it can lead to unethical or misdirected energy as employees get overzealous about achieving that objective at the expense of all others. This is even more the case if you attach incentives or rewards to the outcomes. Nevertheless, taking all precautions and used in the right way it’s a powerful principle that has enabled lots of organizations to propel their growth and success very significantly.

There’s also a degree to which the self-help movement has been putting across the view that similar considerations apply in our personal lives and in the area of human potential. Stephen Covey’s ideas about the 7 Habits can be seen as suggesting that if you apply enough attention to developing and building up enough of the ‘right’ habits, you will lead a more fulfilling and successful life. For many people, I suspect, this was where a lot of the practices extolled by the gurus fell down – they couldn’t get consistent enough for long enough to change the habit or do the right thing. Failed attempts often left people more frustrated and negative about their own abilities or scope to have/ live a fulfilling life.

Over the last couple of years something stealthily started to creep up on me, until recently I got a shock when I discovered it has a name and there’s a whole movement linked to it. For me, the first tentative signs were when I got to the point with my first Android phone of seeing that there was way more to it than Angry Birds and Tetris. I have a bad tendency when I get busy of forgetting to drink enough fluids. In a worst case scenario, especially living in India, that can leave me dehydrated. Even at modest levels it could leave me working below optimum energy level and failing to support by body adequately in terms of flushing toxins etc. So, when I came across an article about an App for tracking fluid consumption I decided to give it a try. It remains actively in use and continues to influence the amount of fluid I take on very positively throughout the day.

Then, I downloaded a ‘Mindfulness’ App. It provides a simple mindfulness gong at a pre-programmed frequency. I started to find that this served a number of useful purposes; a gentle reminder to check if I was ‘doing what I meant to’ – a form of time management conscience jogger. At more peaceful and relaxed times it gave a delightful reminder to focus inwards for a moment, to take a deep breath and feel that breath.

After some time, this was followed by a pedometer App with which I could track activity/ walking levels daily, weekly, monthly etc. The temptation to set targets and goals was an obvious one and before I knew it use of the app had lead to sufficient increases in my physical exercise levels to make a noticeable difference to fitness and overall health.

Most recently I’ve added two further apps, still in an experimental phase. The first is a tracker of diet and food intake. Not only does it give me information about calorific intake, but each night I also get a mail suggesting foods to include in my diet to ensure the best possible intake of vitamins and minerals as well as calories, fat etc. The other is a tool for tracking where time goes through the day. It involves a very rapid input method and apart from providing me with information it also contributes to an academic study being done by a Dutch university.

All of these share in common that they relate in some way to harnessing the power of a smart phone and modern technology to measure the things in life that matter to operate optimally, thereby relieving me of the burden in return for a modest amount of time clicking in the data 9it really takes very little time). What I discovered recently is that there is a whole ‘movement’ linked to the use of such technological life-aids called “Quantified Self”. The principles as I understand them are that technology now offers us unique opportunities to shift from a ‘gut instinct’ perception of whether we’re operating our bodies, our time and our minds optimally, to a more measured, data-driven, evidence-based life approach.

I must confess, there’s a slight ‘geekiness’ feel about it all to me, but on the other hand, if it works the shift to the mainstream could be very rapid and the potential to impact people’s lives would then be very significant. One only has to see the vast financial size of the weight-loss industry to foresee some of the potential. For a long time, there’s been talk of a need to shift to a more preventive-health ideology than we get from people in the medical profession (who benefit most from repairing broken or dysfunctional people!). These kinds of tools might represent the biggest shift in preventive physical and mental healthcare in a long time.

There’s more information here about the ‘Quantified Self’ movement. I notice, no presence in India yet, but I think that will change soon:

Quantified Self

There is also, undoubtedly, a strong relationship with the related Lifehacker movement: Lifehacker.com

I’m really interested to know of others experiences, including any similar interesting Apps you’ve tried and whether you found them really useful.

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4 Responses

  1. I enjoyed this Mark – as a teacher in a time poor work environment looking after self seems to have hit the bottom of the list for me while meeting the demands of the job. I am on leave and am now finding time to look after me but i am really struggling with breaking some very poor self management habits including most of those you mention – water, exercise, diet, mindfulness. I dabble chaotically in attempting to improve them all and at the top of the list is Rest – after almost 12 weeks I am still not getting tat right sometimes. I will take a look at quantified self. I am not a data person – but it just might be data that will trigger the right actions to help me achieve these changes in how I treat myself now I am not busy trying to achieve all and be all to a group of students in a school 🙂

  2. Your article has put a smile on my face.Just this morning I was discussing with my husband how I can no longer find the time and definitely do not have the energy to go rock climbing or running…Over the years I have invested in books and a few equipment to curb my weight gain and fool myself that I will find time to turn a corner of my house into a gym….Now that I read your experience with the android apps, I definitely have an excuse to get one…..at a time when my highly sports inclined hubby throws his hands up in the air in total dismay..perhaps an ‘android’ may motivate….

    • In case anyone wondered which are the Apps I’m using, they are:

      Water Your Body
      Mindfulness Bell
      Acupedo (Pro)
      Dailyburn Tracker
      Lifetag

  3. its a very interesting subject.

    perhaps even a couple of years ago, i would have jumped on this bandwagon. but the exact opposite is happening with age. i have automatically slowed down and begun to live in a lot more mindfulness. Measuring has given way to an endless flow.
    While eating, i look at my food instead of a book or newspaper. guess one gets old. even the basic need to measure that one used to feel earlier, is gone.

    The only measurement i do is personal finance and retirement planning in a conscious way.

    but surprisingly, on the work front, one is more and more focused on putting numbers in discussions instead of ideas and theories. funny juxtaposition, that.

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