Self-Improvement Through Quantified Self

Posted on June 14th, 2013

Photo by paperbackwriter

What is quantified self?

Quantified self is a discipline of self-tracking for the purpose of self-awareness and personal improvement. The Ancient Greek aphorism “Know thyself” is one of the common ways to explain quantified self movement. People who are interested in self-knowledge through self-tracking usually want to change or improve something about themselves. One of the best ways to do this is to understand where you are now and where you want to be.

People have been tracking themselves for hundreds of years through journals, introspection, and observation. For example, Benjamin Franklin improved his character by reviewing his day to see if he has followed one of his 13 virtues, which he developed at age 20 and continued to practice in some form for the rest of his life. While Franklin did not live completely by his virtues, he believed the attempt made him a better man contributing greatly to his success and happiness.1

Why Bother With Measurement?

Regular self-tracking of some specific behaviour can help you create a baselines that you can use to track your progress. Observations of behaviours, thoughts or feelings made at the time they occur are more reliable than tracking them at a later time estimates. Direct observations of your thoughts, behaviours, or emotions can even have a therapeutic effects in themselves.2

Purpose - Why Do I Use Self-Tracking?

“Who we are is but a stepping stone to what we can become.” - Deus Ex

I enjoy life and everything that it has to offer. I believe that one of the main drives in human beings is to strive for self-actualization or the motive to realize one’s full potential. 3 I want to travel the world, connect with people, improve myself as a human being, and continue contributing to the evolution of our society even when I am 90 years old. This is why one of my goals is to live longer by taking care of my mental and physical health.

Joining the quantified self movement allows me to take better care of my well-being and help me achieve my goal of living a healthy, long, and meaningful life. Self-tracking allows me to see where I am now in relation to where I want to be in my life.

Intention - What I want to achieve by tracking myself.

The Well-Being Star

Physical Health

Fitness is an important part of my life. There was a time when I used to go to the gym and take martial arts classes but today I keep things simple. I work out 3-4 time a week mostly using my own body weight, jog, and walk as often as I can. After doing my own research and trying different things, I came to a conclusion that to maintain a fit body I don’t need a gym membership. What I need instead is a clear understanding of why fitness is important and how I can use basic exercises to keep myself fit.  Nowadays, it usually takes me 25-40 minutes to complete my exercises without a whole gym “ritual”. Think of it as a minimalistic approach to fitness.4

Another simple but very important part of my physical health is walking. It is hard to explain in just a few sentences how crucial walking is for our body and our brain, and yet very few people in America walk the recommended minimum every day.5

Not only does exercise improve your physical healthy, but it also boosts your brain power. Our brains were built for walking 12 miles a day! If you want to improve your thinking skills, you need to move. Exercise gets blood to your brain, bringing it glucose for energy and oxygen to soak up the toxic electrons that are left over. It also stimulates the protein that keeps neurons connecting.6

I recommend these resources to learn more about the importance of physical fitness:

Mental Health

My quantified mental health consists of working on my goals and tracking my reading. My goals are divided into five areas of my life: health, love & sex, work, finance, and relationships (see the well-being star above). Every week I spend some time analyzing where I am now and where I want to be. By focusing my attention on the most important parts of my life, I am able to track changes and make improvements. As for reading, I mostly read non-fiction books during the day and fiction before I go to sleep.

Spiritual Health

We live in a time of great innovation and technological achievements. It is also a time when many people are stressed and depressed because they are unable to adapt to changes around them. During the time of Jesus Christ an average person probably had to make 5-7 important decision during their lifetime. Today, people have to make 5-7 important decisions during the day. Facebook, Twitter, Email, TV, news, books, work, family problems, traffic, and many other things contribute to a stressful day.

Many people in America come home overwhelmed by all the information they have received during the day and stressed out by all the little problems they had to deal with. Most people take care of their stress by watching TV or eating food, both of which can make you feel good. However, stress management through TV and eating can lead to bigger mental and health problems. After all, being distracted from a problem is different from solving a problem.

The alternative is to use 20-30 minutes a day to meditate or use any other form of focused attention exercise that helps you relax. I practice active mindfulness based stress reduction to help me relax, clear my mind, and find solutions to problem in my life. If you already have a method to help you relax then start using it, if not, then now is a good time to learn one, and start practicing.

Instruments - How I am tracking myself.

A growing number of cheap consumer gadgets are providing data for people interested in “quantified self”. In science, politics, medicine and many other spheres, data is collected to improve effectiveness and efficiency of something that works well or change something that does not work. Similar concepts can be applied to yourself.

I collect and use data to improve my self-awareness and make positive changes in my life. By collecting my own personal information I am able to better understand myself and make positive changes in my life.

Physical Health

Mental and Spiritual Health

I use DayOne to track my goals and keep a journal, which is based on the simple technique called “The Three Good Things”. This technique from positive psychology allows me to review my day and remember all the good things that happened during that day. I also try to understand why they happened. Not only do I reflect on how my day went, I also train my brain to focus on the positive aspects of my life.

Consider This Before You Start Tracking Yourself

Specific, clearly defined targets

If you plan to record the frequency with which your behaviour occurs, be specific about it. For example, if you want to improve your temper management, what would you want to include in “losing your temper”? What would you be doing that would mean that you had lost it?’ This might include shouting loudly, saying bad and inappropriate things, banging doors; but would not include talking across someone or feeling angry but not shouting.

Use The Measure

If you are going to use some kind of scale to measure your thoughts, behaviours, or emotions, make sure you know what each number means to you. For instance, if you plan to measure your emotions, you can set your scale so that zero means that you are not feeling anxious at all, and 10 means “as bad as you could possibly imagine feeling”.

Can you think of a time when you have felt like that? What about a 5? Can you think of a time when you felt moderately anxious, halfway between these two? What about a 7? Can you think of a time when you have felt quite a bit more than “moderate”, but not as extreme as a 10?

Collect Data as Soon as Possible After the Event

If you want your measurement data to be accurate, think of how you can use technology or paper to track something as soon as possible as well as how you can automate the process so that you don’t have to rely on your discipline too much. If you use DayOne App on your Mac or iPhone, you can setup automatic reminders to write down your observations.

Duration of Experience

The duration of an event or experience may also be relevant, and can also be a reliable measure. You might want to track: time spent meditating; time spent working out; time spent on work; time able to concentrate on reading without interruptions.

Experiential Learning and the Value of Reflection

Self-improvement through self-tracking is a learning experience. To improve the effectiveness of this learning experience, you can follow four necessary stages:

  • Experience
  • Observation
  • Reflection
  • Planning

For learning to be effective, it needs to move through all the stages of the cycle. You have to discipline yourself or set an automatic reminder to observer you experiences (observation). Use this observation to develop new understandings of your behaviours or problems (reflection). Then integrate new possibilities and ways forward (planning new experiences).

Conclusion

Remember, it is not about how you track yourself and what you use to track yourself. It is about having a clear understanding of why you are tracking yourself. Neither a cool gadget nor a well-designed iPhone App will be useful if you do not know why you want to quantify yourself. First, establish a clear purpose for self-tracking, then figure out how you are going to do this, and only then research what you can use to maximize your purpose.

Quantified Self Resources:


  1. Thirteen Virtues of Benjamin Franklin 

  2. Westbrook, D. E., Kennerley, H., & Kirk, J. (2011). An introduction to cognitive behaviour therapy: skills and applications (2nd ed.). Los Angeles: SAGE. 

  3. Self-actualization 

  4. A Compact Guide to Creating the Fitness Habit 

  5. Why Walking Is Almost as Healthy as Running 

  6. Brain Rules by John Medina 

Questions or comments? Send me an email