Several weeks ago, I stumbled on this video of Linda Stone speaking about what she calls the Essential Self, which is a way of thinking about personal data and how people should interact with it at a sensory and emotional level. I was really intrigued by the idea. Essential Self technologies are, in her words:
Passive, ambient, non-invasive technologies are emerging as tools to help support our Essential Self. Some of these technologies work with light, music, or vibration to support “flow-like” states. We can use these technologies as “prosthetics for feeling” — using them is about experiencing versus tracking. Some technologies support more optimal breathing practices. Essential Self technologies might connect us more directly to our limbic system, bypassing the “thinking mind,” to support our Essential Self.
This is a somewhat different perspective than that of the Quantified Self movement, which places emphasis on analysis and reflection of personal data. I’m generally on Team QS in this regard. Numbers are good, right?. The more data you have about something, the more opportunities to understand yourself at a deeper level. Right?!
Still, there’s something I really like about the idea of bypassing the analysis and skipping to the benefits that hopefully will be the result of the Quantified Self-flavored reflection. Digging through ever-growing piles of data searching for meaning has it’s drawbacks. Mainly, not everyone wants to be a data scientist. It can be daunting to learn how to think about your life in such a clinical context, both from a skills perspective (learning statistical analysis), and simply because it can feel really unnatural to think of yourself as a bunch of rows on a spreadsheet when that obviously can only represent a sliver of who you actually are. Also, I LIVE this stuff and I find it difficult to carve out the time to dive into my personal datasets and do some proper exploration (although its one of the most satisfying things when I do manage to find the time). I think this is one of the reasons many self tracking products fail to stick with people. They’re neat, but not enough to justify the effort to keep using them.
In many ways, I see the ideas around the Essential Self (as far as I understand them) as a progression of the Quantified Self, or at least something that is layered on top of QS. They attempt to sidestep the analysis and focus on creating a meaningful connection with the user at a purely emotional or sensory level. I think it’s an exciting idea, and really starts sounding like the future. You’re not building tools that people use to methodically figure things out. You’re giving them something that feels like super powers.
Here are some examples:
- You sleep better than your co-workers because f.lux helps you avoid disrupting your circadian rhythms while you work.
- You have a magical sense of direction because you wear a North Paw anklet.
- Your posture is fantastic thanks to the Lumoback you’re wearing that nudges you to sit up straight.
While watching that video, my brain started racing with thoughts about RescueTime in this context. Could I have an ambient sense of how my work day is going without constantly disrupting myself to check some numbers? Often, the exercise of pausing what I’m doing – however briefly, checking my stats, then understanding what they mean is counterproductive to the state of flow that I’m in.
With an Essential Self perspective in mind, I hacked together an alternative that uses a colored LED to keep me persistently aware of how productive my online activities had been. It fades between bright blue for productive activities and red for distracting ones. Here’s what it looks like:
It’s a neat first attempt, but I don’t think it totally succeeds. There are a few reasons why.
The experience of a real-time monitor felt a little bit like having a personal trainer. This is really awesome sometimes, but imagine if you had a personal trainer staring over your shoulder at all times? I felt an uneasy pressure when the light would fade to red.
It was too “right now”, and ignored previous aspects of my day. I oddly found myself resenting the red light, especially later in the day after I’ve already gotten a lot of work done. I think the problem was that the interval was too short, and perhaps should take the overall productivity pulse for the current day as some sort of weighting mechanism.
The red light feels like a slap on the wrist. I’m not huge on things that wag a finger in my face when I’m doing a bad job. I much prefer positive reinforcement. I may experiment with some other color schemes that prioritize communicating a state of focus. Perhaps using brightness instead of color.
The good news is, some of those objections can be address with a relatively simple design iteration. So I’ll keep investigating and see if I can make it feel better.
But in a way, this still seems like QS-style reporting. I’m swapping colors for numbers, but I haven’t fundamentally ventured outside of the realm of what most Quantified Self apps attempt to do. One thought I’m curious to explore is seeing if I can pulse the light in a way that encourages a calm breathing pattern when in a state of focus (addressing another idea from Linda Stone, email apnea). In that case, the light would become something that not only informs you about a state of focus, but actively takes a role in supporting you while you’re in it.
This is still very much a nights and weekends project for me, but I think it’s an interesting idea and wanted to share. What do you think about an ambient monitor to help you stay focused and productive? Or what about technology’s ability to communicate with you directly at an emotional or sensory level? Have you seen any other examples of this that you really like? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.