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Quantified Self

I stopped by a healthcare hackathon this weekend but couldn’t stay long, since my girlfriend was moving; I basically stayed for the introductory remarks. The speaker I heard, Fred Trotter, who’s written an O’Reilly book about health care records, mentioned a movement called Quantified Self. The basic idea is to track as much of your activities as possible, convert them into metrics, and, in a sense, increase your level of awareness with the help of technology.


I visited the Quantified Self page and watched this video by Awais Hussein, a young Harvard student about using his Calendar to track his time during his freshman semester. He had a simple technique: estimate how long things will take at the beginning of the day, then go back at the end of the day and revise that in light of the actual time it took. After a while, he split his activities into different activities, using categories like survival (necessary items – shower, etc.), fitness, study time, sleep time. By ‘globbing’ things together, he was able to get a better sense of how much time he really had, and budget his time more effectively when the time to plan for the next semester rolled around.

I’ve made some of same observations he has, listed here in order of increasing complexity. For instance, the length of time it takes to record a day: about 15 minutes, at night. The somewhat deflating sense of how much really takes place in one day  (less than you want). The difficulty of then feeding this data back to yourself as input for planning purposes; it tends to just sit there, looking impressive in the month view but not lending itself to easy guidance for the future. The oppressiveness of trying to predict things too closely, which then starts to feel like a burden and requires constant tweaking on your chart. Better to allocate this hour for one subject, and then fine-tune as necessary.

For graphic display, I also use the same method he does, to show the data: the pie chart, since it shows you information in an easily digestible format as a share of your overall day, the most important metric.

He emphasizes something which I think is important to do, namely, capturing every moment so that nothing ‘goes to waste.’ When time starts to leak outside your system, it basically stops being helpful; once you spring a leak, all your unproductive time use naturally flows through there. So minimizing that ‘leakage’ is essential, because those items that are ‘off-list’ are exactly where the most optimization can happen.

If you’re keeping a to-do list, due to the friction of needing to alter your list every time some small outside-list activity comes up, the tendency to go ‘off-list’ is very easy to indulge. In the Sinatra time management app that I created and use now, I basically have a category for this, ‘break’ (basically, when no activity is recorded as being in progress on my task list).  Before I would let that break time drag on, but now I’m thinking it’s more important to push something on there, however trivial (even if it’s just ‘Internet break’), and leave it there until I move on. Without such a category, I’m losing the benefit of tracking productivity.

One thing that making an app like this shows you is, paradoxically, the limits of the technology. Without a motivated user, its pointless; nothing can compensate for the productivity-breaking practices of someone who’s trying to ‘go around it.’ You have to care about it enough to use it constantly and work within it for it to do anything for your productivity; the moment you stop, it stops helping.

Motivation, in the end, is far more important than the tool of technology can hope to be.


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