In Defense of Quantified Self

Sun, 27 Sep 2020 21:51:51 GMT

by Michael E. Karpeles (Mek), 2020-09-27

Today, a colleague asked me this challenging question about my experiences tracking my life in a public Quantified Self spreadsheet:

> I saw that you maintain a public spreadsheet about activities in your life. I was simply wondering doesn't maintaining that sort of a list sort of confine your further actions? I mean as humans we do things that even though they might be repetitive give us a sense of freedom you know, because we might be ignorant about those things - but listing those things down - wouldn't that be limiting for our future actions?

This struck me as a great opportunity to share some of my aggregate experiences, learnings, and history around my Quantified Self experiment

First, for the uninitiated, I should share some background.

2000 Days of Quantified Self
5 years (2,080 days) ago on January 23, 2015, I started tracking & quantifying various aspects of my entire life in a public, Quantified-Self Spreadsheet:

I track everything from exercise to learning, hours of sleep, minutes spent helping others (philanthropy), working, or reading, whether I organized my daily agenda, and beyond.

How it works
Each column has its own distinct descriptor, 
weight, and formula describing, relatively, how important a quality is to my daily schedule and what objective target score I might be able to repeatedly tune my sights on.

The idea began an experiment inspired by The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Franklin would maintain a journal with a table of 13 virtues which he aspired to exhibit daily. Things like moderation and temperance. I mused, in the golden age of technology, how might Benjamin Franklin's table be made more useful?

> What if [I] represented every day [of my life] as a linear combination of weighted hourly participation in different activities and tried to achieve an average target score?

The hypothesis was: computers are better than we are at remembering information. They can keep track of and compute complex equations and relationships better and can assist us by presenting these datum in novel ways which would otherwise be challenging for us to conceptualize. Having a history of these numbers can help [us] revise [our] strategies over time and improve. [There's also value in having] this data from a provenance point of view.

My initial theory of change began as: The more data and structure I have, the more I may understand, tune, and hit more ambitious goals.

In reality, the usefulness of the quantified self practice as a low-friction tool for accountability and bootstrapping habits has far exceeded the value I've realized from data mining or insights. It's nice and motivating to see results or to challenge myself with gamification (e.g. one of the first rows of my spreadsheet calculates how I'd perform if I was having a "superhero" day, and it can be fun to reach "super-mek status"). But really, the value has been finding a way to systematically use a technological framework to turn myself into my own life coach. To cement one meta-habit which helps me bootstrap the rest. 

My revised theory of change is: Keeping up habits is really hard. At best, I have enough attention span to keep up a small handful of habits. An alarm helps me wake up at a specific time. Showering, brushing my teeth, and getting dressed are all activities with strong social and physiological incentives and feedback loops (avoiding offending others and medical consequences). Designing my life so I bike to work, listening to an ebook as I bike, and strategically ensuring the gym is literally on my path home have all been major optimizations. But cementing more habits is a monumentally difficult task. Unless there's a way to have a single, easy habit (let's call it an accountability check-in) which may bootstrap or remind oneself about every other inspirational habit. This is my theory of change. Investing 2 minutes a day to fill in my Quantified Self spreadsheet gives me public pressure, accountability, and increases my opportunity at remembering to participate in activities. The practice takes advantage of spatial and temporal locality -- two of the same principles computer programs and architectures use to compute efficiently.

In a nutshell, if you want to learn guitar, don't keep it in its case. Keep it somewhere easy to access. Make it as easy as possible to access and do everything in your power (motivation, discipline) to play it, even for only 5 minutes. In the spirit of spaced repetition, the more you do it early on, the more the practice will become cemented. 

But is it all red roses and green pastures?
In my opinion, life is a balance of many perspectives and trade-offs.
e.g. explore v. exploit
• How much do we research before we start doing?
• How much do we have fun v. work?
• Do we cook or order from a restaurant?
• If we go to a restaurant, should we choose one we know is good, or try a new one?
On one hand, trying new things (within itself) has experiential value. We learn more about the landscape of possibilities.
On the other hand, (as is often the case for financial investors) there is value in knowing what one's financial "return" is going to be. And there's tremendous value in predictability, certainty, and compounding interest.

Point 1: Personalization. I choose this strategy for myself. An important note about my Quantified Self Spreadsheet is, I (made the decision and) broadly identified classes of things I find valuable. If I follow this path, I have a general idea of where I'll end up. The act of checking a spreadsheet once a day is a powerful reminder of the activities I value (activities which I've found will more likely to be replaced by procrastination than any other high-leverage opportunity, in the absence of structure). People should choose (or not choose) whatever strategy feels most comfortable to them, in the same way someone may choose a School, a Religion, a Friend, or a Political Candidate. We make such choices every day

Point 2: Mutability. The spreadsheet can change at any time. Simply put, as soon as the spreadsheet ceases to be useful, I can change it. The spreadsheet isn't static: I change it over time to reflect my updated values.

Point 3: Free-will. The spreadsheet is a recommendation, not a prescription. I'm in control. People often suffer from the "consistency principle" fallacy -- i.e. once we as people decide something, that we're somehow bound to it. But ultimately, we get to decide how religiously or rigorously we are going to follow our own rules. I often deviate from my spreadsheet

Point 4: Positive re-enforcement + compound Interest, visualized. Another benefit of a spreadsheet is the inspiration / positive re-enforcement which comes by seeing progress over time. I've done 45,000 pushups. And 10,000 pull-ups. Wow!Counterpoint: Is it true that strictly following a template or algorithm (even if that algorithm is "try as many new things as possible) may reduce one's ability to experience a diverse set of perspectives? Certainly. Committing to any strategy may have such consequences. See: Goodhart's law: When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. By choosing any lens (even by choosing not to use a lens), we are by definition making a decision to constrain / limit / focus ourselves in a specific way.The question boils down to a personal decision: do we believe outcomes will be better (our happiness, wealth, friendships) by avoiding structure + planning (laissez faire) and instead playing life by ear vs. being intentional and applying methods, strategies, goals, approaches, and having theories of change.Careful: The trap is that life is not "all or nothing". laissez faire v. intention is often a false dichotomy. One applies different strategies at different times in their life on different aspects of their life. Someone may wish to be structured about their job. Or about their education (e.g. learning a new language may benefit significantly from an organizational plan). Someone may decide that, e.g. for their love / dating life, that a more natural approach is better than trying to optimize a formula.The beauty is, you get to decided and move the slider bars. The beast is, we're always making a decision, even by electing not to do a strategy.


• Doesn't this take a lot of time?
It sometimes takes 5 minutes a day. That's a good thing. It's 5 minutes I want to be spend reminding myself about the activities I care about and how I'm going to achieve them. Over the course of 2,000 days, this equates to around 10k minutes which is around 15, ten hour days. There are 60 months in 5 years. This ultimately means essentially means I am investing 1 work day every four months. Most people (including myself) likely waste more than this amount of time watching movies and procrastinating.

• What kind of analysis have you done?
I occasionally sanity check or tune my weights and columns to accurately reflect my evolving goals, but I don't do a whole lot of data mining. Sometimes (e.g. if I notice myself being sad), I'll check to see whether I am experiencing any cycles (e.g. do I tend to get sad during similar months?). As noted above, the process has been more instrumental in providing motivation, accountability, and memory than it has been at a tool for mining insight. With enough data and improvements in frameworks for doing data mining, I might fight this path pays dividends. But at the end of the day, for now I'm a human meat sack and I'm at peace with the reality that there's only so much I can or should optimize in order to be healthy and happy. And I already feel pretty good about how hard and smart I work (even if I know how it could be done better, at the risk of diminishing returns).

• How rigorous is the spreadsheet?
Not very. On several occasions, I've had extraordinarily bad months. I've gotten sick, been traveling, felt unmotivated and altogether dropped the ball. Often times when this happens, I practice forgiveness. I mark myself as "0" on my spreadsheet to back-fill these botched days and then leave a google Note on the spreadsheet cell to indicate my failure. And then I move on.

Tags: Quantified Self Spreadsheet, Michael E. Karpeles (Mek), Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Goodhart's law, laissez faire, 2020-09-27, theory of change