I recently came across an Austrian article that raises some interesting questions about the use of technology in “measuring” our lives (http://www.format.at/articles/1328/940/362012/die-vermessung-ich[in German]). The scope of this technology continues to increase and there are more opportunities for its insertion into our lives than ever before.
Here are some examples of the latest technology:
- an armband that measures physical activity, including steps taken, distance walked, and calories burnt; length and quality of sleep; and with auxiliary links to mobile devices and a scale, meal planning and weight management (http://www.fitbit.com/)
- work productivity software that measures active computer use and trends very precisely (http://www.rescuetime.com/) [That’s us]
- a strap-on device for posture and movement monitoring and correction (http://www.lumoback.com/)
- a fork that measures eating habits and mechanics (http://www.hapilabs.com/)
- an all purpose physical activity device for multiple kinds of exercise (http://www.runtastic.com/)
- a scale that provides body anaylysis by measuring weight, BMI, body fat, and heart rate (and also local air quality to boot) (http://www.withings.com/scales)
- a diabetes app testing blood sugar (http://mysugr.com/)
- comprehensive health management software (https://www.dacadoo.com/)
Those who embrace this technology often self-identify as members of the “Quantified Self movement,” which is characterized by the search for informative feedback from devices such as those listed above. Some see in the wealth of available data a “digital reflection” of their lives – this is felt to be empowering, allowing individuals to achieve a greater degree of self-awareness and to take proactive steps to optimize efficiency, health, and happiness based on adjustment of recognized patterns. Sometimes the motivation for self-monitoring is a desire for improvement, sometimes for identifying and solving problems.
There are potential negative consequences to the adoption of this new technology and the hyper-analytical mindset and lifestyle that can result. Having such a wealth of data at one’s fingertips, and a feeling of overarching responsibility for this data, can lead a person to believe that they are accountable and culpable for everything that happens in their lives. There is also a danger of misinterpreting data – a person can mistakenly identify correlations among metrics and activities where there are none, or miss important ones that do exist. This misinformation can then be used to make lifestyle decisions with potentially harmful consequences. There are also issues with ownership of this data, its security, and its potential uses by others.
This raises a number of questions for debate:
1. Are there specific uses of self-measurement technology that you find seriously problematic?
2. Do we need some degree of education about understanding certain data to draw out the positive benefits of self-analysis and avoid pitfalls? If so, what would this education involve?
3. What type or types of measurement are the most important in the search for self-improvement?
The Quantified Self movement, in all it’s various shapes and sizes, is giving us the opportunity for an unprecedented view of ourselves. Examining ourselves through a lens of data holds the promise for better health, increased productivity, even greater happiness.
But what does self-tracking do to your creativity?
Now, it could be argued that all this careful measurement and instrumentation is really just a misguided way to optimize all spontaneity out of life. Albert Einstein said “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.” There’s absolutely truth to that. Today’s knowledge workers need to be creative. It’s probably the most important skill to have, especially as more process-oriented work is increasingly automated. The problem, from a self-tracking standpoint, is that creativity is subjective, and damn near impossible to express in a structured way. Some people are certainly trying, but I think it will be a long time (if ever) before any broadly agreed upon metric is established.
I think that’s just fine. Self tracking can still do amazing things for your creativity.
New problems, new solutions
Just as we’re faced with problems we didn’t have 20 years ago (when you could work for more than three minutes before being interrupted by email), we need to discover new coping strategies. A data-based approach makes a lot of sense.
Sure, it’s true, quantifying creativity is problematic. But do you know what’s not problematic? Quantifying emails, meetings, workflows, and all the other process-oriented stuff that takes up increasing amounts of our day. All of that is easily measurable, and self-tracking paints a pretty interesting picture in the negative space around our creative output. One of the observations we hear over and over from RescueTime users is “wow, I spend WAY more time in email than I thought!” Multiple studies have shown that the average desk worker spends about 30% of their time in email. It doesn’t feel that way because it’s generally spread out across the day in small chunks.
Switching back and forth on tasks takes a toll on our cognitive performance, and some research suggests that heavy multi-tasking diminishes our ability to recognize a breakthrough idea. Humans are nearly universally bad at multi-tasking, but it’s increasingly difficult to escape. But we can at least keep track of it, and that can bring an awareness that allows us to take steps to minimize it.
Different strokes for different folks
It’s easy to imagine creativity as this innate quality that manifests in spontaneous bursts of genius, but if you look at creative minds throughout history, you’ll see a very sophisticated creative process that’s been refined over time. It’s part of mastering your chosen craft. But what works for one person may not work for others. Hemingway only wrote in the morning, and had a very specific flow from handwritten pages to the typewriter. Picasso on the other hand, worked late into the night and slept in. Self-tracking can enhance this process, allowing individuals to methodically tweak their behaviors to find the ideal state of flow. Is the time you wake up more or less important than the total amount of sleep you got the night before? What about the quality of your sleep rather than the duration? Or is the really important thing the strong cup of coffee you drink before work? These are questions you can answer with self-tracking.
Let’s admit that maybe some of that creative output can be measured, and that’s really awesome
Even though there’s really no way your creative genius will be fully expressed by some numbers sitting in a spreadsheet (unless you are a mathematician, I suppose), most any creative endeavor has output that can be be revealing when tracked. Hemingway kept a daily log of his word-count “so as not to kid myself”. He used this to keep track of his progress, but also to reward himself. After a particularly productive day of writing, he could spend the next day fishing, guilt-free.
Motivation is key to creativity, and consistently measuring output is a fantastic way to stay engaged, especially with creative projects that require long slogs of work before seeing a finished outcome. It’s the digital equivalent of turning around after an exhausting uphill hike and beholding the beautiful view you’ve trudged into. Services like iDoneThis make this as easy as giving a short reply to a daily email. Another example is National Novel Writer’s Month, where daily word count is celebrated as a way of keeping authors pumped up about writing their novels.
Your turn. Do you think self-tracking impacts your creativity?
Obviously, we’re a little bit biased here at RescueTime. We think the greater awareness that comes from self-tracking has a huge benefit on one’s creativity. But I’m curious what you think? Do you agree? Or is it too clinical of a lens for such a organic thing? Or, is it simply navel-gazing, and a distraction in and of itself?
A few weeks ago we looked at several beautiful things you can do with your personal self-tracking data. Here’s another great example. Vincent Boyce is an artist, surfer and skateboarder. He’s created a system of sensors that records the kinetic data from his surf and skate sessions, then translates it into beautiful abstract compositions. The results are fantastic, even though the visualization totally obscures any information in the data. As someone who spent the better part of his childhood on a skateboard, I’m totally jealous and really interested to see what other types of visualizations he comes up with. You can see the full gallery here.
Here he is explaining the project at a recent NYC Quantified Self meetup.
Have you ever wanted to keep a closer eye on the time you’re spending in a specific category or activity throughout the day? This week we rolled out a new beta feature that makes it easier.
If you have beta access enabled (see below for how to do this), you can turn any productivity, category, or activity report into a live-updating timer widget, simply by resizing the window small enough. You can then place this widget off to the side (or on a second monitor) and continue about your day. As you build up more time, the widget will update and show you your current status. You can create several widgets and position them however you want to create ad-hoc productivity dashboards.
Some things you can do with these widgets:
- Keep an eye on your time spent in email throughout the day
- Compare two metrics, like time spent on software development vs. time in meetings
- Turn your productivity score into a game, how high can you make it go?
Enable beta access: To try it out, you’ll need to make sure you’re in our beta channel by going to your account settings page and checking the “Beta features on” checkbox.
Once you’ve enabled beta features, just go to any report page and do the following:
The update frequency is the same as the rest of the RescueTime reports. If you’re a RescueTime Pro user, the widgets will update every 3 minutes. If you’re a free user, it’s every 30 minutes.
Isn’t this a really weird interaction model? Yes. It is. We’re eventually going to find another way to make it more discoverable. These widgets are a brand new way to interact with RescueTime, and we’re still playing around with several of the details. In that sense, the easter-egg treatment feels fairly appropriate.
All the standard beta feature disclaimers apply. It’s brand new. And there might be some bugs we haven’t caught yet. We’ll also probably change this up a bit over time as we get a better understanding of how people are using it.
We’d love your feedback!
What do you think of this new way of keeping an eye on your time? Does it help? What things are you using it to keep track of?
I’m a graduate student studying and researching psychology so any time I want to understand something better I turn to data. As long as you collect it honestly and in a methodologically sound manner, data don’t lie. Good science is built on good data and one of the most important experiments I’m involved with isn’t funded by any grants and doesn’t have a team of scientists working on it — it’s the ongoing study of the way I work and live.
Every year I try to take a look at the data that best describes my work habits over the past 12 months to better understand whether I’m doing what I’ve set out to do. I’m trying to find inefficiencies, misguided attention, and other gaps so I can make sure I’m doing my best work as much as possible. I happen to work for myself while going to school full-time, but regardless of the details of your work situation you probably want to be operating at peak capacity as much as possible. Conducting an End of Year Review is a great way to recalibrate as you move into the new year.
The first step of any End of Year Review is deciding what questions you want to answer. This is partially dependent on the data you have available but some possible examples include:
- How am I using my time?
- What do my actions say about my priorities?
- Have I left important but non-urgent projects by the wayside?
- How much time do I spend doing email?
- What have I done in the past year that I want to make sure I never/always do again?
The answers to these (and I’m sure countless other) questions can provide very benficial information for how you’ll try to conduct yourself in 2013. The next step is to look at the data that will help you answer these questions accurately. While many people do End of Year Reviews that are nothing more than pure mental reflection on the past 365 days, I’m always skeptical of my ability to remember things accurately. One thing being a psychology student has taught me is to be intensely skeptical of my memory. We aren’t nearly as good at remembering things as we like to think. Go with the hard data whenever possible.
Sources of Data
Obviously, RescueTime is a great source of data if you’re interested in knowing how you spent time at your computer. This is the first place I start with any sort of review on my work habits. There’s nothing quite like the shock of seeing you spent over 24 hours on time wasting activities over the course of several weeks to serve as a serious wakeup call.
Other than RescueTime, other great sources of data include; your calendar, daily journal or log, digital pictures, financial information, saved text messages, archived information from task management software, personal writing of any kind, etc. All of these sources help you see where you spent time, attention, and energy.
As you look through your calendar you may remember the awesome conference you went to last February which reminds you to follow up with that promising business lead. Looking through a year of photos will make you realize you’ve accidentally distanced yourself from some people important in your life (work, personal, or both). You may look at a year’s worth of saved work files and realize the big project you told yourself you’d work on last year is still sitting forlornly in the “unfinished” file.
Using The Data
Once you have all this data and have done any analyzing you need to do to draw some conclusions (more time on work that matters, less time on Facebook, call Steve, more writing in the morning, less computer on the weekend, etc.) how do you move forward?
First, let me point out that a potentially great first step is to decide to spend a little bit more time and effort recording more data on yourself in 2013. The better the data you have, the more you can learn about what does or doesn’t work for you.
Assuming you’re happy with the data you collect, my favorite way to make changes is to focus on one major change for 30 days. For example, when I did my most recent End of Year Review I realized I was spending way too much time on mind-numbing websites. I decided that I’d severely limit the amount of time I allow myself to mindlessly surf for 30 days. At the end of that period I’ll re-assess how the past 30 days went and whether I want to a.) continue with the experiment, b.) modify the experiment, or c.) go back to the way I was before.
Obviously, you can make changes in your life without collecting data on yourself first. You could also “do science” without collecting data — but nobody would take you very seriously. Why not apply the same standards that ensure good science to the way you make changes in your own life?
If you’re like 68.8% of the US population, you could stand to lose a few pounds. Or, perhaps you’re part of the 20% of the population that gets under 6 hours of sleep a night. Chances are, there’s (at least) one substantial change to your lifestyle that you’ve meant to make, but have never gotten around to following through with.
Personally, I need to get in shape. You see, my wife published a cookbook this year. It’s all about cupcakes. Specifically, baking lots of delicious things inside of cupcakes. This is probably the epitome of “nice problems to have“, but being the default taste-tester for the past 18 months has caused me to put on some extra pounds. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been an incredibly tasty 18 months, but at this point I have more buttercream frosting flowing through my veins than I probably should. Couple that with my mostly desk-bound office job, and I’ve found myself with a lot of risk factors piling up for some particularly nasty stuff as I get older.
Making lasting changes is hard. Real hard
In many cases, you’re not just trying to form a new habit – going to the gym four times a week, for instance. You’re also trying to break an existing bad habit – like the fact that I eat a comical number of cupcakes every week. Studies have shown that even when facing clear wakeup calls, such as a heart attack or cancer, very few people are successful at making long-term lifestyle changes. In fact, further research has concluded that fear and guilt are generally the least effective motivators for behavior change. There’s a big part of the problem right there. We tend to think about the changes we should make in a less-than-positive context. “Wow, I really let myself go!”, or “I have to stop smoking or I’m going to get cancer!” Rather, change seems to work the best when it’s rooted in positive thinking, has a specific outcome, and has a well thought-out plan for reaching it.
Putting some numbers behind your efforts
Fortunately, there are a lot of ways to get scientific about it, increasing your chances for success. Thanks to new technologies, it’s easy and relatively cheap to take an information-based approach to the changes we’re trying to make.
25 35 pounds” is a crappy goal*
*It’s a fantastic aspiration, but as far as behavior change goals go, it’s terrible.
Several years ago, I made a New Year’s Resolution to lose 25 pounds. I thought I had a great plan. I set up an automated email to remind me once a week so I’d stay motivated. It totally failed. I still get those emails, but I’ve gained 10 pounds in the meantime and all they do is make me feel guilty about it. Goals like this are bad because they focus solely on a ending state (me, 25 pounds lighter than when I started) and completely step around the “lifestyle change” aspect of getting in shape. There’s also not even a hint of how I’d start to move towards that goal, short of just willing myself to do lose weight (which hasn’t worked). It’s much better to have specific, measurable goals, preferably tied to discreet actions. “Eat a salad for dinner three times a week” or “Jog every day” are things that are much easier to take the first step on. More importantly, they are things that can be easily measured.
Having more information tends to lead to better outcomes
By keeping measurements of your goal-related actions, you’ll get a good sense of your starting point, you’ll start to see patterns jump out at you, and you’ll build up a document of your small successes that can keep you going when you get frustrated. You’ll also set yourself up to take advantage of a really powerful tool. The feedback loop.
Action -> information -> reaction -> information -> repeat…
A feedback loop is a chain of cause and effect that forms a continual cycle, with the information gained from your previous action informing your next action. It’s a way of understanding how the small changes you make move you closer to, or further away from, a desired state. A great example is dynamic speed signs that show your speed along side the current speed limit. By presenting you with your current speed, in real time, alongside the current speed limit, most people tend to regulate their own driving behaviors. This same process can be adapted to support pretty much any type of behavior you want to tweak.
Feedback loops have four parts:
- Evidence – A measurement is collected (you go stand on the scale).
- Relevance – You are made aware of how the measurement relates to you (you gained half a pound).
- Consequence – You are presented with paths you could take based on what you’ve just learned. You could stay home, eat poorly, and watch tv all day (probably will result in your next measurement being higher), or you could go to the gym and eat a salad (which will likely result in your next measurement being lower).
- Action – You make a choice and act on it.
Then the cycle repeats, starting with a new measurement, context, and set of consequences and actions.
Feedback loops are great, for several reasons. First, they break things down into options that are realistic given the current situation. The options “go jogging” and “rest for a day” are a lot easier to process than “do a triathlon” or “don’t do a triathlon”. They also focus on relative change, so they’re forgiving if you have a bad week. It’s fairly easy to course-correct because you have a constantly updating baseline to improve from. They also make slow and steady progress more obvious. Finally, they put the information in your hands. You don’t have to wait for expert advice from a personal trainer, nutritionist, or a doctor. You gain a more intimate understanding of yourself based on the information you’ve collected, and become the expert about what works for you.
Feedback loops have proven to be successful in training elite athletes, traffic-calming initiatives, and getting people to conserve energy around their houses. So they make a lot of sense as a tool for your personal behavior change. One of the biggest obstacles in the past has been the expensive tools to make measurements, but there are more and more low-cost gadgets and smartphone apps that are making the job easier everyday.
Make a game out of it
Being able to define your New Year’s Resolution into measurable chunks also gives you an opportunity to have fun with it. Competition is in our nature, and once you have a steady stream of numbers rolling in, you can use them to challenge yourself. Whether you like to compete against yourself or others, there’s a ton of options for turning your personal stats into a game experience, to help you get over the fact that, sometimes, making lasting changes can actually be really hard work.
Shocker: Winning prizes is fun
Do you remember the “gold stars” that you got in elementary school? You couldn’t do anything with them, but they were still fun to get. Even if it’s just a stupid image that shows up on my Fitbit page, it feels good to get recognized for an achievement. If you’re tracking your progress towards a goal, even if it’s just on a spreadsheet, milestones will become visible, and you can use that to push yourself forward. This could be a single achievement (“can I beat my personal best time to run a mile?”), or a cumulative one (“how many days in a row can I walk more than 10,000 steps?”). Many systems have these reward mechanisms built in, allowing you to work towards rewards for everything from exercise to quitting smoking.
Competition == community
Walk by pretty much any gym and you’ll see a sign for a “Biggest Loser” competition going on. You might have had one at your office. Sure, the prizes that come with it have been proven to work for behavior change (at least in the short-term), but perhaps the more interesting reason is that competition provides a great foundation for community. When you get a lot of people together working towards a common personal goal, it becomes easier for each individual to make progress. There are more opportunities for support, inspiration from your peers, and yes, a competitive spirit. A rising tide lifts all ships, as they say. Unfortunately, the inverse is also true, as a study recently showed that having overweight friends is a huge risk factor for obesity.
Tracking your data as you work toward your resolution can provide a common context for you with a larger group. Strava.com has created a vibrant community of runners and cyclists who track their workout time and compete against each other. National Novel Writer’s Month brings together hundreds of thousands of writers every year for an intensive writing challenge. We recently did a study on NaNoWriMo, and found that people who wrote the most tended to spend about twice as much time on the nanowrimo.org community site than others.
Create some consequences for failure
While it’s fun to work towards a badge or a reward, sometimes it’s equally motivating to work against the threat of a consequence. That’s where commitment contracts come into play. A commitment contract is an artificially-constructed consequence to keep you on task. An extreme example of this is this productivity experiment by Maneesh Sethi, who hired someone on Craigslist to sit near him and smack him if she caught him wasting time on Facebook.
Websites like Beeminder and Stickk allow you to set up commitment contracts, where you pledge to give up a certain amount of money if you fail to meet a goal that you’ve defined (which they help you track along the way). It’s a little gimmicky, but effective. It sort of flips the game on it’s head. You’re no longer trying to win, you’re trying to avoid losing.
Three tips for tracking your New Year’s resolutions
1. Keep a rolling average of your daily measurements
If you have a daily goal that can be measured numerically (your weight, number of steps you’ve taken, hours of sleep, cigarettes smoked, etc…), plot it on a spreadsheet and take an average of the past ten days (which is simple to do in most spreadsheet programs). Use that number as your number to beat for the current day. That will help smooth out the noise and give you a realistic moving target.
2. Set up systems to collect data with little or no effort
There are a growing list of devices that will make the process of recording data about your efforts easier. Reducing the effort required to track data about yourself means you can focus on your goal, and not worry about whether or not you forgot to make notes in your spreadsheet after each workout. Here are some examples:
3. Set up regular reviews of your progress
Taking some time to review you progress will help keep you motivated, and allow you to spot meaningful patterns that you can use to enhance your efforts. Try to set aside a small amount of time every week to look back and reflect.
Some examples of tracking your resolutions:
Click to enlarge:
What will you be tracking in the New Year? And do you have any other strategies to help you out along the way? I’m curious to know what’s worked for you and what hasn’t.