Quantify This

While reading the blog of the king of lifehacking, Tim Ferriss, I came across a phrase that hadn’t really registered with my conscious mind yet. I’ve been aware of the phenomenon, and of the movement, and even been a part of it here and there. This blog, really, could count as an incarnation of this particular trend. It is the “Quantified Self” movement, and it’s about “self knowledge through numbers.”

Started by Gary Wolf in 2008, the movement is not new – there are many journals where people have monitored their moods, their body functions, etc. However, it’s going through a renaissance, spurred my many factors such as the miniaturization of GPS trackers, 3D accelerometers, biometric trackers, and “always-on apps” that transmit the data to the Cloud. Once it’s there, an entire cottage industry of apps turns the data into graphs, bars, and pie charts that the QSers use to…well…play with themselves.

I mean that mostly in a positive way: they use the data to get a different perspective of some part of their lives – money, sleep, weight, food intake, whatever – and then, hopefully, use that perspective to make the changes they want in their lives. To make their lives happier.

N=1, but L>1

In going through several blogs and papers and videos about the subject, I kept coming across a formula: N = 1. The idea is that this data is personal; what differentiates the Quantified Selfers from some Orwellian state of being is that their data is unique to them, and rather than being used to pin them into a focus group it is used for personal growth. They are the N, and the graphs and numbers are as personal a collection as your comics were as a kid. Like those kids, you can get together with other collectors and compare your collections, and ooh and ahh and become envious and covetous and maybe even (gasp) trade data…but in the end, nobody appreciates your collection of numbers more than yourself.

There are a couple of famous principles that, to me, point out some flaws in the system. First, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle – which states that the act of observing a thing changes the thing itself – and second, Mark Twain’s famous dictum, “The map ain’t the territory.” Or, as I’ve just coined it: N may equal 1, but L (life) is always greater than any single person.

“Watch Yourself!”

As I looked at some of the nifty toys and systems that were out there, I was reminded of one of the funniest moments in parenting I’ve ever had. My middle daughter, about eight years old at the time, was heading towards me across a field where there were several potential hazards – rocks, holes, rodents of unusual size, I don’t really remember the details. What I do remember was that I yelled out “Kat! Watch yourself!”

She froze in place and looked down. At herself. And stayed that way for a few seconds, before looking up at me with a puzzled and mildly annoyed expression, as if to say Watch myself? Why, what am I gonna do?

To some extent that applies to the act of trying to quantify “everyday” behavior. The moment you’re quantifying, it ceases to be everyday behavior – it becomes observed everyday behavior. So rather than being able to say “This is my sleep pattern” you have to say “This is my sleep pattern when I’m wearing my FuelBand and I know that when I get up I’m going to get to see how I sleep.

Which brings us to the first danger of quantifying yourself. It invites comparison, either with others, with a past self, or (worst of all) with some hypothetical nonexistent “should”-self that you create out of reading, researching, and coming up with goals that are arbitrary and occasionally harmful. One of the factors in eating disorders, for example, can be an obsession with always eating a lower number of calories, or seeing a slightly lower number on the scale, regardless of the actual needs of the body. That’s an extreme example of a quantified self, but even the nagging guilt of being just a few paces short of a pedometer daily goal is enough to keep you awake at night…as can be proven with a handy Zeo sleep monitor, in fact.

“That Should Clear Up a Few Things!”

labelsCopyright prevents me from directly publishing my favorite Far Side Cartoon, but this picture gives you the idea. There is a sense of power that comes from being able to label things, to fit them into categories and boxes and measurements and 8×10 color glossies. It’s the same feeling of security that comes when you’re lost on the side of the road. At some point you turn the map 90 degrees to the left, and everything clicks between the map you have in front of you and the world you see around you. It’s an incredible sense of relief, and thanks to GPS technology almost anyone with a smartphone can get that perspective at the touch of a button.

But there’s a reverse side to that as well. While preparing for a conference in Hawaii my colleagues and I needed to go to a grocery store, and so of course we asked Google Maps where the closest one was. Sure enough, there was a sponsored link there to a nearby Sentry, and we started driving.

We arrived at a large lot. An empty lot. Google maps had the happy blue “You are here!” dot blinking, and I could even trigger the accelerometer to show which direction I was facing. However, on the little screen, there was a big red S for the Sentry logo – which the store had paid to have put on Google – and yet there was no store in the lot.

As my colleagues will tell you, I almost had a meltdown. I rely on Google Maps a lot when I travel, and to have it telling me such a blatant and cheerful lie shook my belief in how the universe works. I spent far more time than was reasonable looking at my phone, looking up at the lot, down at my phone again, all the while spluttering “But it’s supposed to be here!” while my friends tried to soothe me. 

Finally we got back in the car, giving up on finding the store. Two blocks away we found the Sentry, and the event continued without a hitch. But I never quite forgave Google.

All of these measurements give us a certain view of these parts of our lives. But before you pick out one to integrate into a daily practice, ask yourself: what is it really telling you? Are the numbers going to reflect the reality of your life, or just some tiny facet of it? Do they actually mean what we think they do?

If you’re taking the time to quantify yourself, it’s probably a good idea to qualify yourself to know what the numbers mean.


5 thoughts on “Quantify This”

  1. As a math and computer person, I see n=1 and can’t help but think of Induction ( where you prove your statement for n=1, then for n, then for n+1. If you can do all three, you’ve proven your statement. It works beautifully for properties of integers, or dominoes, or proving the For loops in your computer program will work.

    Extrapolate what you will about habits and quantifiable data about yourself (I’m too tired and currently at work), but it says right on the wiki page:
    it can be proved if one assumes the set of natural numbers is well-ordered.

    My life has never been particularly well ordered. I hear it happens to some people, maybe the n=1 people.

  2. it can be proved if one assumes the set of natural numbers is well-ordered.

    My life has never been particularly well ordered.

    Truer words never spoken!

    I’m going to be writing more on Quantifiable Selves tomorrow, and I have to say that I actually feel a bit better having read some of the words of Chad Fowler (via Tim Ferriss) on his own quantifying – basically that the map is NOT the territory, and getting used to the fact that life is NOT well-ordered is the only thing that made QS work for him.

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