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Why We Can’t Quantify Ourselves

12/23/2013

in Exercise, Productivity

Early last year, I stumbled upon an article on Wired called “You Can’t Improve What You Can’t Measure.

It struck a chord with me as soon as I saw it, because I realized that a lot of my successes, and the successes of those whom I admire, have been predicated on tracking metrics that matter – whether in business or in personal life.

The article ended up talking about the Nike+ FuelBand, which led me down the rabbit hole of learning about the world of Quantified Self.

For those who don’t already know about Quantified Self (QFS), in a nutshell, it’s basically a modern movement that uses all the awesome technology we’ve been developing (especially mobile) to track and quantify ton of stuff like mood, steps taken, calories burned, sleep, and more. QFS is a really big deal right now.

I loved what I saw in this community and was pumped to start trying out the different apps and tools to start tracking everything.

Daily food intake. Track it!

Minutes of TV watched. Track it!

Average heart rate in relation to who I’m talking to. OMG TRACK IT!

But a month into being a quantifying-freak, I decided to take a step back to see if I’d actually made any progress… and realized I there are 3 big issues with the concept of simply quantifying and tracking yourself.

To be clear: I’m not against measuring and tracking at all, but I personally think there’s more that we can do than JUST track.

Anyway, these were the three main things I had issues with when looking back:

1. Mistaking motion for action.

Ernest Hemingway has an awesome quote that goes “never mistake motion for action.” Too often in everyday life, I find myself really busy, but not really getting anything done. And that’s exactly why this quote hits home.

I might brainstorm a couple ideas for potential projects, put together a list of prospects to talk to, organize my emails, or “do some research” for a project. But at the end of the day, I wouldn’t have an actual, tangible deliverable that I’d be proud of. Action produces results, while motion is just…well… motion.

And this is exactly how I felt while going through the “quantified self phase” of my life. I was busy tracking, busy hitting numbers, and busy having fun with my apps and gadgets. But when it came to looking at what result I got out of it, I realized nothing really changed in my life. I focused all my time and energy on the novelty and excitement of tracking, but completely ignored what the end goal was of doing the tracking in the first place.

2. The tracking process became a chore.

I’m a huge fan of habits and doing things on a regular basis, but when the task or habit affects my quality of life too much by either taking too much time or too much work, I start to reconsider how useful it is to me.

For example, tracking my food. When I was using MyFitnessPal, which tracks your calorie and nutrient intake, I found that having to enter all the info and everything into the app before each meal was a bit of a nuisance. Especially when I was out with friends, or going out to eat, because I’d be focused on trying to find the food in the database and estimating the amount I’m eating, as opposed to paying attention to the friends right in front of me.

Even when I was alone it was a bit annoying because it often took away from the actual experience of eating. Sometimes even if I was hungry I wouldn’t want eat because I didn’t wanna go through the hassle of entering everything in. Ha. Reading that back, maybe the app was pretty good for something.

3. Becoming obsessed with quantifying stuff and losing sight of why I was tracking.

Over time as I got deeper and deeper into the quantifying game, I realized that I started doing it for the sake of quantifying, instead of the original goal – to live a healthier life. I got to a point where for a short period of time I would go for a walk or run just to hit a certain number of steps that I had set out to hit everyday.

I would make myself hit it – no matter rain or shine, no matter what time of day. It got to a point where the numbers were running my life, and I was more focused on them than anything else. If a number was off, I’d be agitated and needed to make it right. Psychologically exhausting.

Now, to reiterate – I have nothing against tracking and measuring. I think it’s important and definitely has a place in helping us succeed in achieving whatever it is we want to achieve.

But that’s the key – it has a place. And I feel that place is as a partner together with deliberate behavior change.

When you pair the two together, both quantifying AND deliberate behavior change, that’s when you really see magic happen.

Either way, I think it’s important to constantly reassess whether or not what were doing is bringing is closer to where we want to be.

Do you track a certain habit or goal every day? What is it? Do you use a specific app for it?

Let me know in the comments.

{ 22 comments… }

Alexandra January 21, 2014 at 4:16 pm

hey maneesh!
one app i love that’s really easy and combines a community aspect is “the eatery”. It’s a visual food journal, and the other users rate your meal as “fit or fat” and you get an average score.
The only problem for me is that the other users don’t seem to be educated on how bad simple breads and carbohydrates are for your system. But as the user base changes to more nutritionally educated people, the ratings could change too.
the app is for iOS. Try it out!

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Julian January 2, 2014 at 8:29 pm

I tried several workout tracking apps and hated them all. I recently started working with a personal trainer who uses StrengthPortal and its awesome. Basically the trainer writes the workout program for me on the software and then it becomes much easier for me to track because most of it is preset. This process has made my fitness tracking much more enjoyable!

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Louise Stigell December 30, 2013 at 2:23 pm

I feel so conflicted about this, since I am all about the quantified self and gamifying your life using all metrics and variables available. But I also agree with every one of your three points, and experience them myself from time to time.

As a game designer, life hacker and gamification enthusiast, I am in a constant (and sometimes tiresome) search for the perfect, gamified, self-tracking system.
I get this itch, where I feel like if I can just find the perfect way to keep track of all my data, I will be so motivated and move faster towards my goals. And so I try all the apps and all the services I can find, as well as use boring spread sheets and analog notebooks. It all ends with the same conclusion: “I don’t have time for this.” Either the app is buggy or doesn’t let me customize the way I need, or I get lost in all the different documents and numbers. I believe, sadly, that as long as all of this tracking demands too much manual input, people won’t stick to it for long periods of time. Then it’s not a sustainable solution.

Mistaking motion for action is such an important point that I’m glad you mention. Many people seem to think of quantified self and gamification as the same thing, which they’re not. Having the data is a good way to maybe feel a bit more motivated to change your behavior, but it’s when gamified elements enter the picture that you’ll actually take action towards those changes. Elements like social status, positive re-enforcement and good feedback mechanisms use the collected data and puts it in an attractive and meaningful context, which also might make you more inclined to keep on tracking the data as well.

I also experience that sort of dull feeling from being too obsessed with the self tracking. At some level, I think it’s just not in our nature. We’re not robots. Unless this tracking and gamified layer can be seamlessly integrated into our experience, it’s gonna start damaging it at some point.

Thank you for a great post that really got me thinking. I’m still very passionate about personal gamification and using game design to increase motivation, performance and life enjoyment, but it’s a tough balancing act. It’s obviously not just about collecting data and smacking up a score sheet on your bedroom wall. =)

Btw I can’t wait to know more about the Pavlok project. Looks really, really promising…

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Maida December 25, 2013 at 11:52 am

I am working with a nutritionist to lose weight and one of the requirements is to track my food and give it to her so she can look and offer constructive advice depending on my weight loss progress each week.

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Eric Jain December 25, 2013 at 4:59 am

There are valid reasons to self-track other than behavior change, including entertainment (self-tracking is fashionable and fun, at least for a while) and insight (how does exercise change the amount of sleep I need?).

Not all gadgets and services are equally well suited for all of these purposes, so it’s not a bad idea to be aware of what *you* hope to get out of it.

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Mark S December 23, 2013 at 8:33 pm

I also got into the self tracking phase for a while; referencing quantified self, tracking on lift, taking nootropics, tracking my test scores, lumosity, quantified mind, what I ate, when I ate, slept, passed a bowel movement, everything – the problem I found was that there was no good way to analyze the data. I just wanted a slick form into which I could pop in anything and it would note the time and other variables if I chose to throw them in, an then spit out a nice clean graphical analysis with correlations based on factors and outcomes I selected for. Couldn’t find it. Tried to make one in google forms – big headache.

So basically what stopped me was an easy and convenient way to input the data and observe meaningful correlations. So if anyone can help with a program that does THAT, I would be extremely grateful! Because I don’t have the skill and time to whip one up in excel.

How do we throw in all the variables and elents of a day into an app and have it pop out the other end with meaningful patterns? Patterns that we can act on?

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Peggy December 23, 2013 at 3:42 pm

I use MyFitnessPal. And I have a spreadsheet I use for a few more business and personal measures I track.

I’m a big fan of paying attention to daily habits. But I think you should start with what changes you wish to make – that is, what are your goals? Then work backwards to the daily/weekly habits you need to achieve those goals. So if you keep to those habits, you will automatically achieve the goals.

Trying to establish habits without tying them to a larger goal is what makes them either pointless or hard to maintain.

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Alicia December 23, 2013 at 3:23 pm

I’m currently tracking several things, learning a new language, fitness, and guitar practice. It’s a lot but I”m hoping to stick to it, and that it doesn’t become a nuisance as you described.

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thomas December 23, 2013 at 10:35 pm

Thats great, stick with it. Happy Holidays form kobe,japan!

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zach January 5, 2014 at 1:31 am

hey Thomas,
I am coming to japan in Feb for 7 days. Planned on spending time mostly in kyoto. Good call? Any suggestions?
Thanks man…

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zach December 24, 2013 at 3:37 am

alicia, curious to know how you track guitar? hours practiced? I keep saying i’m going to learn, haha…

how does everyone track for fitness? (running more specifically). and more importantly, what do you do with the data to increase performance or outcome?

I run everyday (when not broken). I only need to track time to gauge my fitness level and racing speed. For example, if i am running 10 hours a week (75-80 mpw) for 6 or 8 weeks in a row, I can race near my top end speed. I find it can be “death by data” when i hook up a gps. I do enough beating data to death at work as an engineer trying to satisfy managers who don’t know what they are looking at or more importantly, what change to make to improve the process….

merry Christmas from Perth Australia. Still getting used to the 100 degree barbecues on the beach for Christmas. No, i don’t really like it either.

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Bojangles December 23, 2013 at 2:42 pm

I use the onTrack diabetes app. It has been helping me get my glucose levels under control.

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Alex Turner December 23, 2013 at 2:14 pm

Hi Maneesh. Great that you can see that when you take these things too seriously the context of why you’re using them can get lost.

I’ve been using Strava for a good while to track my cycling habit. I’ve just started using Lift to track my journalling habit, my daily positive habit and my practice this month of letting things go.

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Victoria December 23, 2013 at 1:19 pm

I’m tracking what I’m eating with myfitnesspal. It is annoying having to enter everything in but it’s good, sometimes I won’t have another skinny latte as I know it’s 500kj and I’m only supposed to eat 5000kj a day according to the app.

I also track what I spend but only what I spend in cash as anything I spend with a card is already tracked through my bank acc.

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Andre December 23, 2013 at 11:56 am

Currently I track my weight and body fat %. I used to do this daily, until one of the fitness letters I am subscribed to suggested to rather take a selfie every week or so to track *visual* progress instead. This is more in line with the end goal (seeing me flab go away) and is infrequent enough so that it isn’t a chore or turn into an obsession. I think this lesson can be extrapolated to other metrics: Find meaningful metrics that are a direct measurement of your goal (e.g. lose fat/look leaner) and which can be measured infrequently enough so that the measurement process does not dominate your life.

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Marvymuse December 23, 2013 at 10:54 am

NOW it shows up? Something weird on website. I reloaded twice but nothing. I see on moderation. Please delete my whining! M

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James December 23, 2013 at 10:52 am

I track my writing when I hit my 5k-10k word days I make notes of everything! The weather, my mood, times of day ,my location, who I am talking to regularly, The books I am reading , what I am not doing, the supplements I am taking, the amount of rest I got the night before.
I want more of those days basically.
Anyone got any advice ?

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Betty December 23, 2013 at 9:16 am

I use Habit List on my iPhone to track my success establishing new habits. I typically try to add new habits to some stack of habits that already exists. I used to keep everything on this list which was a waste of time. Now I use it only for helping me focus on the changes I want to make. FWIW.

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Stephen December 23, 2013 at 7:44 am

Maneesh,

I always enjoy reading your posts, and I’m especially excited to see what you’re building with Pavlok. To answer your question, I use the app Habit List to track flossing, reading, journaling, running, and waking up on-time. The nice thing about this app is you choose how often you want to do something. Reading and journaling aren’t every day habits for me, so they show up on the days I want them to. :)

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Marvymuse December 23, 2013 at 6:53 am

I use my Fitbit 23.5/7. And I record all my food intake on LoseIt.com (great support from friends–also on Facebook Fitbit friends). LoseIt’s app makes it easy to record food–scanner for food etc–and everything about it works really well for me. I got rid of 40 lbs through Fitbit and LoseIt and have maintained for 2 years so far.

But, yes, they only work with my commitment. If I eat crazy, writing it down doesn’t help my weight.

But both of these make me MINDFUL and somewhat out of denial.

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Alexandra December 23, 2013 at 6:49 am

Maneesh – fantastic article! I loved how you mentioned the novelty and hassle that may come with tracking for the sake of tracking. It’s something I’ve experienced too and actually can take the fun/purpose out of your original goals.

With that being said, I’m currently using Mint to track my financial habits. The app offers immense value to my life as it provides great insight on my spending trends and helps me take action with financial goals (I.e. Paying off student loans and investment goals)

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Brian Kwong December 23, 2013 at 6:21 am

During my Add1Challenge, I used Lift.do to track my habit. If I completed one hr of Japanese and one hr of German, I check in on Lift. Did 86/90 days, punishment of 4 slaps from Julia on video :)

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