The Quantified Self: Self-knowledge through self-tracking


Gary Wolf is a founder of the Quantified Self, a collaboration of users and toolmakers that share an interest in self-knowledge through self-tracking.  He advocates that gathering quantifiable information about yourself (hours of sleep, happiness rating, mood, time spent on various tasks, calories in, money spent, number of steps per day) can lead to knowledge and insights about your own behavior and reveal the challenges of behavior change.

Quantified Self LogoIn a recent interview with Wolf on On the Media, host Brooke Gladstone seemed skeptical.   She asked Wolf, “What keeps us optimistic is a fantasy of who we are and what we might become, and don’t we run the risk of losing hope when confronted with the harsh, numerical reality of what we really are?”

And he answered (emphasis mine):

“I think that is a very good question.  There is a whole industry devoted to selling the possibility of change to people, for instance, health clubs, which see uptake of membership after New Year’s.  Many, many things we see in our consumer culture are based on hopes that never come true.

One of the things that happens in the quantified self is that people begin to see how related all of their behaviors are, and how difficult [it is] to change one thing in isolation, and then, at the same time, how difficult it is to change many things at once.  On the one hand, this is discouraging, whether it is weight loss, or extreme improvements in happiness, or great leaps in productivity.

The promise of radical change is one of the things we live on in our society.  At the same time, I think trading fantasies of radical change for possibilities of small, important changes is a tradeoff worth making.

Gladstone later asked Wolf, “What is the most powerful truth you’ve learned about yourself by self-quantifying?”

“I track my exercise time, my work time, and I have mediation practice I track. One of the things that became clear…was [that] attempting to increase the quantity of good things that I did too much caused a complete rebound effect…

The advice to ‘go for it,’ advice that is pretty common, and, in my case, at least, it was really pernicious. You could see really clearly that, due to some influence or some ambition, I attempted to turn a steady habit of doing something up, by a lot, a short period of increased activity, say increased physical exercise, then zero on the chart, for weeks!…I think it is more common than people realize.

Really, the advice for people who are trying to do something is to do as little as you possibly can in the right direction, and see what happens, and if that works, then do another tiny little bit in that direction.

As a wellness advocate, I’m struck by Wolf’s insights as they apply to my role of supporting pastors who are pursuing wellness.  Change is difficult, and the process can be frustrating, particularly when our vision of success is unattainable, or we fail to recognize how intertwined a habit has become with our overall lifestyle.

After hearing this interview, I gained an appreciation for the effort required to accurately assess current behaviors before setting a goal and also the importance of exploring how multiple behaviors may be connected.  Self-tracking appears necessary in the process of change to determine whether the adjustments you are trying to make (in small, attainable steps) are working.

For more on this emerging science, visit Wolf’s blog or check out his TED talk.

Catherine Wilson

Photo by Flickr user Bytemarks (via Creative Commons)

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About Catherine Wilson

Catherine is a Wellness Advocate with Spirited Life. Catherine has degrees in Physical Therapy and Public Health and has worked on projects domestically and internationally around developmental disabilities and community health promotion. In her spare time, Catherine enjoys running with her dog, visiting the North Carolina mountains with her husband, and reading in her back yard.

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