augmented Life

Quantify Hard

I don’t want you to think, from my last post, that I’m some anti-number Luddite. I’d love to have a Fuelband, I love the sensor on my nephew’s car that shows how many miles I can still travel on the gas in the tank, and I can spend hours playing with Google Analytics and feeling strange wonder at the number of readers I have in Beijing (and the way my guest post on Tiny Buddha tripled my site traffic overnight. Hello, new readers!).

I even have one of the more popular self-quantifying websites, MyFitnessPal, bookmarked on my browser and on my phone and my iPad. It’s a fun little exercise, inputting the foods I eat (selecting from drop downs) and seeing how my caloric intake weighs against my exercise for the day, and at the end of a day’s log learning that If you had this kind of day every day, you’d lose X pounds in Y weeks!


Last night I spent a couple of hours reading Tim Ferriss’ 4 Hour Body, and it was riveting. Full of numbers and charts and amazing claims of how you can change your diet slightly and lose weight incredibly quickly. He explains how you can work out only 30 minutes a week, doing only two exercises (repeated-to-failure) and add on muscleMUSCLEMUSCLE. 

And he stresses the necessity (let’s coin a new word and call it a stressessity) of quantifying yourself. There’s the tape-measure aggregation of several circumferences on your body, adding up to the “TI” (Total Inches) that you can use to track progress. My TI is 161.5, incidentally. Then there’s body fat, which he recommends be measured at a professional sports facility in your town. A DEXA in Madison runs about $125; I’m kind of hoping that my medically-inclined daughter and a set of calipers might be cheaper.

Because yes, I’m certainly going to be trying some of the things in the book. I’m going to enjoy taking pictures of what I eat (follow @luvlifepractice on twitter if you’re really that interested) and going to enjoy watching and feeling the changes in my body. Tim even assuaged my unease at the idea that we can really see what these measurements actually mean. He quotes Chad Fowler, author of the excellent Passionate Programmer, who admits:

An important thing I alluded to earlier is that all of these numbers are in some ways bullshit. That’s okay, and realizing that it was okay was one of the biggest shifts I had to make…As a nerd, I find myself too easily discouraged by data collection projects where it’s difficult or impossible to collect accurate data. Training myself to forget that made all the difference.

With that assurance – the realization that this is just a game, a pleasant diversionary lifehack – I’m looking forward to a month or so. I’ve done this kind of thing before, with exercise programs like P90X or the Abs Diet or even a month when I went Vegan. Living with a friend who was on the Paleo diet was also fun. And, aside from a couple of too-expensive non-life-threatening(-yet) procedures, I’m in pretty good health for a man my age, so if something doesn’t work it’s not hard to just go back to my usual habits.

My body and diet are not a problem. And that is precisely the problem.

Quantified Self: It’s a Trap!

The problem is that I’m not really that concerned about my weight. Nor am I really that worried about exercise, or my nutrition. I track my diet and exercise for fun, not because I need to. I change it and track it because it’s easy for me to do so. More than that, it gives me the impression that I am in control and improving my life and health and doing all those things that a good personal development blogger should do.

Except…I’m not. I’m doing the things that are easy, because I dread doing the things that are hard – but which are necessary. I don’t want to track the things that are painful to track, that I don’t feel like I can control and change and improve. I avoid that like the plague – in fact, I avoid it so much that I’ve avoided mentioning it in the this entire paragraph, simply because I’m embarrassed to admit it out loud.

So I’ll whisper: money.

I have an app on my phone, Visual Budget, which makes it easy to enter every purchase, every bill, every bit of income. I also remember a girlfriend I had who simply carried around a little book where she’d write down every purchase, right after buying it. I am registered on Mint.com, I’ve subscribed to Get Rich Slowly and read Suzy Orman’s 9 Steps and even worked diligently through The Portable MBA.

The problem is, unlike Tim Ferriss’ advice, I don’t really do anything with the knowledge. True story: years ago I was seeing a therapist after my divorce, and we had worked through a lot of stuff – to the point where we were pretty sure that a lot of my problems were related to my relationship with money. Then I lost a client and no longer was able to afford sessions with her. Rich material for a sitcom, I know, but it reinforced the feeling of being unable to control my finances. I have become accustomed to the stress of always being on the ragged edge of solvency. It would be very weird if that stress ever disappeared from my life – perhaps that’s the other new word we need, a necessistress.

I know that the first step in changing this is to quantify it. To use many different metrics, starting from a constant record of every transaction and adding in things like How do you feel when you have money? and What triggers the purchases you make? I understand that cognitively, but putting it into action has proven incredibly difficult.

“I’m not saying it won’t be hard. I’m saying it will be worth it.”

Instead, I track blog stats and Klout and my Total Inches. Because that’s comfortable. And that’s where I see the added danger of the Quantified Self movement. It creates another potential source for the Gravy Hose, and can become a compulsion that quite effectively distracts you from the things in your life that you actually need to look at. You will be drawn towards the things you can measure that feel safe, that feel good, because in those darker measurements are the things you don’t want to know about yourself.

If you’re going to quantify yourself, that’s great. It’s fun, and I’m all for self-awareness in myriad forms. But I suggest you make sure you don’t just quantify easy.

If you want it to really make a difference, quantify hard.

3 thoughts on “Quantify Hard”

  1. I was going through a box of old stuff, stuff I need to throw out or give away. Amongst the junk, I found a small notebook. No big shocker there, writer since forever and all.

    That is until I opened it. Inside I found my attempt to count calories. This was back in college, when I thought maybe I could finally lose all the weight, be small and skinny and beautiful like all the other girls.

    Looking at those numbers hurt. Not because I was starving myself. I wasn’t. Most days I ate around 1800-2200 calories. No, it was the thoughts I associated with every morsel I put into my mouth. The bad thoughts. The judgey thoughts.

    I’m hesitant to quantify that part of my life again, though I know it would help me in my overall health. I worry those thoughts will come back, that instead of it being a helpful behavior it will turn into self-loathing again. Ugly, mean, no-good-very-bad thoughts.

    For over a year, I quantified money meticulously. It’s how I recognized when I needed to clamp down on my spending to decrease my bills. How I assured myself going on that trip was okay. It was a level of control I’ve never had in any other part of my life. Money tracking, though tedious, was relatively easy and free of emotional judgement.

    We all have our blocks and our buttons, I guess.

    1. Yep, we sure do. Last night my friend Karl, who runs the enjoyable http://fictionurl.com, was talking google analytics with me and we found ourselves comparing “bounce rates”. His is much, much lower than mine, and I felt this flash of inadequacy.

      Which is silly, because it’s comparing oranges with 2×4’s, and is no reflection on either of us. But those numbers, they can be dastardly things…

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