If you care about something you should measure it
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Over the last couple years I’ve become a huge believer in self-quantifying. It started with Your Flowing Data, a website that let me take measurements of whatever useless bits of biographical information I wanted to keep track of: The number of times I ate lentils that year, what movies I watched, how stressed I was, for example. But I started to notice that the simple act of tracking and having to record my choices influenced the choices I made. I began using my iPhone to track almost anything involving behavior I wanted to change or improve. I’ve gone through a lot of tools, but here are the ones I keep going back to.
Track Your Happiness
Track Your Happiness is a survey project that is part of Harvard PH.d student Matt Killingsworth’s doctoral research. The website sends you a short survey twice a day via email or text. It asks you questions about where you are, what you’re doing, how many people you’re with, and how happy you feel. They each take about two minutes to complete. After a couple months of steady data, the website begins sending you correlations between things like your mood and how much sleep, exercise, work, and social activity you’ve reported.
This can tell you a lot. For instance, I am happier indoors that out (that probably has a lot to due with winter, though I began the survey in the fall. ) So. okay, I’m not outdoorsy. You maybe guessed that by the subject of this blog post. But I didn’t know that I was also happier the less people I had around me, down to about three. Three is where I’m happiest before my happiness just drops. Guess that makes me kind of an introvert. One other surprising thing, at least for me: I am happiest when I want to do something that I have to do. I wasn’t happiest doing whatever I wanted. I need to enjoy something I have to do (work, chores, etc). I like work. That’s something to keep in mind if I ever win the lottery or want to retire.
The Fitbit is a wearable device that can track your steps, calories, stairs climbed, and sleep. I bought this thing on a self-improvement whim fully believing it would be in a drawer by the end of the month. It’s not. Except for a few days where I forgot it at home (but thankfully, it’s had no trips through the washer), this thing has always been on my person since I bought it back in November 2011.
There’s so much to like about it, but the two biggest things are that it’s always tracking, and it uploads automatically. Like the Happiness Survey, it tracks all the time, not just when I feel like keeping track. And the automatic Wifi sync works amazing well and consistently. I haven’t changed the amount of walking or stairs-climbing or sleeping I do, really. But somehow, the act of tracking has improved those numbers anyway. Here’s how it works:the Fitbit is your standard pedometer that also tracks stairs you’ve climbed, estimated calories you’ve burned and your total distance traveled. It also has a little flower graphic that grows and shrinks depending on how much you’ve moved in the past hour.
The two applications below are self-quantifying tools, but they’re also commitment devices.
Beeminder is both a self-tracker and a commitment device. It can track and graph anything you can measure, from runtimes to blog posts to pounds to lose. You can set goals or limits, and Beeminder will warn you, then charge you money if you stray too far off your goal. The biggest benefits here are the fact that it’s incremental — your final goal is broken down week by week, so it’s more important to stay on track than to think of your goal as some big, huge (or low, tiny) number that is 12 months away.
I just began using Beeminder at the beginning of the year, when Stickk and other commitment devices seemed too narrow for my purposes. So far it’s worked great. I resolved to start learning Spanish and to read more fiction this year. I’m still doing both. And since the goal is to stay on one side of the line, I am working at a slow but steady reading/studying pace. But it’s a pace I’ve stuck with, and it’s April — beyond prime resolution quitting time (which I think is February? Or even mid-January?
That graph at the top of this post is my ‘words posted to blog’ graph. I did this post to avoid losing today. Try to wrap your head around that.
Gympact is another commitment device with financial consequences. You set a goal for the number of times you want to go to the gym each week, then you check in via iPhone app every time you go to the gym (and stay for at least 30 minutes). Fail to reach your determined number of visits each week, and the app will charge you an amount you’ve set (like $5-$50. $50 if you’re some sort of masochist rich person). But if you’ve made your commitment, then Gympact will pay you a small amount out of the pot of losers’ cash.
In the six months before I started using Gympact I went to the gym maybe five times. I haven’t missed a gym trip (2-3 workouts a week since beginning of January) since I signed up, except for the weekend after a birthday dinner and bar trip where I spent the next day laying on my couch under a blanket and eating Tums/watching Locked Up: Raw. My biceps are the sickest they ever have been, and I’ve only torn my rotator cuff once (really).
If you’re curious about self-tracking check out the Quantified Self website. It has links to over 400 self-quantifying tools.