If you aren’t familiar with Quantified Self, it’s basically a group for people who are tracking information about themselves such as the number of hours they slept or how many calories they have eaten each day. Some people do this to solve tricky health problems, others are trying to optimize their own health or behavior. Some just love lots of data and graphs and such. QS was started by Wired founder Kevin Kelly as an informal group meeting in his living room but has grown into an international phenomenon.
Why do I track?
I am not as into self-quantifying as some people are, but I do want to optimize my health and my behavior to some extent. I don’t really like the word optimize in this context, but I am already relatively healthy and functional so I guess it fits. Supposedly you can manage what you measure, so it makes sense to measure things that are important or that you suspect or correlated to important things.
What is important to me?
A big motivation for my own tracking came from wanting to write more. I don’t want to just be an IT guy for the rest of my life, so I wanted to change my own behavior to include more writing. That is why I got into Habit Design and willpower. I am also interested in longevity and intelligence. I want to extend my bodily and cognitive health span as much as possible.
What do I track and how?
Currently, I am using a Fitbit One to track my physical activity. I’ve used simple pedometers before but this new Fitbit is crazy. It records steps, distance, flights of stairs climbed, and even sleep. Sleep? Well it records how still you are in bed anyway. It’s not as cool as a Zeo, but it seems less intrusive to strap on the Fitbit wristband than the Zeo headband. Fitbit has a free website to view your data, but you can’t export it without paying. Self-tracking gadget vendors that make it hard to access your data are a big pet peeve of QS’ers. It’s our data, how dare anyone try to sell it back to us or worse yet, prevent us from accessing it in a raw format. We want to manipulate it and chart it and stroke it, etc. Therefore, I was happy to jump through a few hoops to get my fitbit data exported to Google docs.
So physical activity is obviously important for physical health. But more evidence is accruing that it’s important to cognitive health as well. See, embodied cognition. Also, there is that study that suggests your longevity is better improved by not sitting than even by exercising. I do have a standing desk now, but I am not ready to add the treadmill to it just yet.
Since I am trying to write more, I use WordPress to tell me how many words I am writing each day. Many writers say that the best way to improve your writing is to simply write as much as possible. I loosely subscribe to the 10,000 hours approach to mastery as promoted by Gladwell in Outliers or Colvin in Talent Is Overrated (loosely I say.) So it’s good to get the raw numbers: words per day. Now I just need to a plan, a coach, feedback, and to push myself further and harder. Ahem, moving on.
I track how many calories I’ve eaten each day using LiveStrong.com. Frankly, though, this is a tough one to keep up with. Livestrong has a good food database and it’s fairly easy to get accurate nutritional information, but you have to manually enter each thing you eat. The holy grail of self-tracking is the tracking that happens automatically. There are some apps out there that help by letting you snap photos of your food to tell you how many calories it contains, but I am skeptical of the accuracy.
Calories have an obvious effect on health. Calorie restriction and intermittent fasting are two well supported strategies for health extension. I am especially attracted to the idea that fasting may be helpful even without calorie restriction. However, I have always had a tendency to neglect eating (I forget to eat), so I don’t need to strive for that. I am more interested in the idea that eating more calories might make me more productive. When I first started tracking calories, I found that eating a breakfast with carbs and protein seemed to be correlated with more billable hours. (Being a consultant, I have tracked this metric over the years for it’s financial benefits.) So I wonder what the correlation will be between calories and words written.
Another metric I am trying to track is social events. I have found that a good social event inspires me to write. Also, I heard a speaker at QS claim a correlation between blood sugar stability and socializing with weak links (i.e. acquaintances as opposed to loved ones.) I have often found it easier to delay meals when hanging out with acquaintances myself. Maybe it’s a thing.
I was inspired by a guy from QS who complained that Dual N-Back cognitive training tasks were too exhausting. They certainly are. I did it for one-month according the to the Jaeggi protocol, but I had trouble doing it on an ongoing basis. So I signed up for Lumosity instead which offers much shorter and more varied exercises that work on your speed, memory, attention, flexibility, and problem solving. I track that Lumosity score as a proxy for cognitive health. However, quantified-mind.com is a platform explicitly designed to test cognitive performance changes in response to specific interventions. So I will try to get into that at some point.
These preceding metrics can all be collected daily (in theory.) But I am also tracking my lab results for things like cholesterol and c-reactive protein (an inflammatory marker.) I would like to track these more frequently, but I get queasy around needles, and Kaiser is stingy with gratuitous tests demanded by healthy people like myself.
Now crunch the numbers.
Well actually that’s a problem I hear a lot of QS’ers complain about. We gather all this data (or fail to gather it and have huge gaps as the case may be) but now what? Many of us lack the time or statistical know-how to do a proper analysis and suss out the interesting correlations. Luckily for me, I was asked to help demo this statistical analysis tool called Wizard for Mac at the next QS meetup. It looks like just the thing to walk statistical neophytes like myself through a regression analysis to determine a calories eaten to words blogged correlation.
There are a number of other things I would like to track, but I haven’t gotten around to it. Given how important heart rate variability is, and the fact that I went and got a Wahoo heart monitor and SweatBeat IOS software, I should be tracking my HRV score each morning, right? Well, the strap IS a bit cumbersome… Never mind, I’m doing it starting tomorrow morning, I swear.
Since reading Kurzweil’s Fantastic Voyage and Transcend on life extension, I have been supplementing irresponsibly. I just pop a bunch of supplements and don’t really track the physiological consequences (aside from the occasional liver function test.) Ideally, I would find a good concierge doctor (that wasn’t a quack) who would help me determine which nutrients I am actually deficient in and which supplements I might actually benefit from. However, I am getting the sinking feeling that supplements might not be very helpful at all. Study after study is throwing cold water on the quick-fix-by-popping-a-pill approach. Dammit, it’s hard work to stuff your face with vegetables day and night.
Finally, I would love to track how many words I’ve read each day. In theory, my Kindle has some of this information. But I would probably need to embark on an epic hacking voyage to gain access to this knowledge. I played with RescueTime for a while, which gives you in-depth analysis of your time spent online, but I got a little bugged out by the privacy implications. I would prefer a local database.
At the end of the day, I feel that self-tracking is worthwhile for it’s own sake. The unexamined life is not worth living. I agree with Kevin Kelly when he says that QS helps us expand the very definition of the self. Even if I never nail down that correlation between X and Y, I still have a better sense of who I am and what I am doing by paying attention to them.
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I’m not that sure raw word count is the best metric.
“I apologise for the length of my correspondance. Given more time, it would have been shorter.” Mark Twain
I’m also skeptical about a lot of these medical science claims. Some things seem to improve health in the short term, but it’s not clear that they lead to increased health span. Thinness is one: correlated with a lot of health markers, but not with longevity (at least, according to some studies). The evidence-based medicine movement made me skeptical of a lot of these recommendations. Based on the book The Longevity Project, however, I do try to be both more conscientious and more socially connected.
BTW what writing books do you recommend, if any? I am a big fan of the Flesch books (e.g. The Art of Plain Talk). Michael Ellsburg also recommended two books recently on his blog.
Raw word count is certainly a poor metric for quality of writing. I would prefer to say more with fewer words. I am just trying to track how much I attempted to write each day. I don’t think there is a good proxy to measure the quality of that practice. Hit count might be one. However, Razib linked to my blog from his professional blog at Discovermagazine.com and I got over two hundred visits for my cat burning article. I think that was an OK article. It was certainly inflammatory. The primary reason it got so many hits was probably that it suited Razib’s taste in some way. Not to say that his taste is not a good metric of quality, only that it would be presumptuous of me to ask for enough data points for it to be really useful in my development.
I had assumed that the link between calorie restriction and longevity was fairly orthodox. (There I go living in the Silicon Valley bubble again.) I would like to see the data that disproves a correlation between BMI and longevity. I cold really use that to do some horrible contrarian trolling here in the Bay Area.
I like Orwell’s take on writing actually, but I honestly haven’t studied the craft properly.
A search for “bmi mortality” got me many sites which say people with a BMI in the low 20s are healthier than those with lower or higher BMIs.
What that says about CR in unclear – a low BMI might be more commonly caused by poor health than by CR. It’s unclear whether we should expect CR to have a large effect on BMI.
Calorie Restriction might not have a large effect on BMI? That seems counter intuitive.