Quantified Self: Measure What you Want to Manage

Woodworking Measuring Tools on the wooden table background by wuestenigel is licensed under CC BY

“What gets measured gets managed”

– Typically associated with Peter Drucker, although seems like V.F. Ridgway

Tracking Things

I like measuring things and keeping track of data points. In a way, you could say I resonated with the Quantified self movement.

I really jumped into it when I received my own laptop at University and discovered WhatPulse, an application to track keyboard/mouse usage. Growing up I played a lot of video games where character progression is always about making numbers go up. With that in mind, it’s easy to see why I would gravitate towards something like WhatPulse.

So Much Data!

Over the years I added more things that I decided to tracked:

So even with all this data, what do I do with it? Well, not much…

To further illustrate this, I’ll break down what I track, the reason I started, and its usage right now.

  • Fluid Data
    • Reason: Wanted to know if I was drinking enough.
    • Usage: My average has been pretty steady for the last year. I pretty much always have the same drinks each day as I work from home.
  • Food Data
    • Reason: Wanted to know my calorie and weight and how they change
    • Usage: I’ve basically been the same weight (plus/minus 10 pounds) for all my adult life.
  • GPS Data
    • Reason: The app seemed super cool! I could keep track of where I’ve been.
    • Usage: I just keep collecting data, granted with COVID and moving to work from home there is less travel.
  • Productivity Data
    • Reason: Wanted to improve my productivity when I’m on my computer.
    • Usage: It nudges me with reminders on how much time I spend on my computer in various applications/activities. Granted… I don’t think it is helping that much.
  • Step, Heart Rate, Sleep Data
    • Reason: Good health indicators I wanted to keep track of. It also comes for free with the Apple Watch.
    • Usage: I look at these quite often as it’s always on my wrist and phone via Apple’s ecosystem and their Health data.

As we can see, not a lot of usage coming from the data. Most things are consistent, habitual, not a problem, or not providing any tangible value.

Existential Crisis

There have been a few moments that made me question “why am I doing this?”, and ultimately should I stop tracking something? Moments like data loss (i.e., I had lost several years of GPS data by accident), or moving to different platforms (Fitbit to Apple Watch). It’s been hard to stop collecting as I see it as a data trove in a hoarding sense.

I’ve recently come to terms that the act of measuring is in a way causing me some anxiety and inconvenience. The following are just two examples:

  • I must ensure Arc is running to capture GPS data points before leaving the house.
  • I keep mental notes at times to backfill foods/drinks.

Ultimately, it boils down to the mental burden of tracking and ensuring things are being captured correctly.

Not everything is free in measuring data. Either you are paying for a service/storage/tools, the time, the cognitive burden (with manual tracking), or even resources on a device (i.e., running the GPS on a phone).

The final straw which broke the camel’s back is that Arc no longer has a free tier, and is now a subscription (or a hefty lifetime purchase).

So… this goes back to “Why am I doing this?”

The Power of Correlations and Trends

The counter-argument to keep tracking is to identify correlations and deviations in the data. This is the goal of the Quantified Self, and I would say the ultimate benefit; to identify when things might be slipping and need a course correction.

Being able to synthesize all the data and pull out trends and correlations (like Exist does – but costs a subscription) looks powerful. But I’ll be honest, I never gave understanding correlations a solid shot. I was always thinking of trying to build my own tool (but yeah… that never happened).

The critical measurements around health are pretty easy to identify though as you can typically see/feel the changes (even if they are happening slowly).

As it stands, where I am in my life right now, the extra effort in measuring, curating, and consuming all the data is not worth the small short- or medium-term gains for me.

Moving Forward

All in all, this isn’t to say I’m abandoning all my data collection. I’m just going to be more selective, and intentional by thinking about the following:

  1. Prefer passive measurements with no/low data loss issues.
  2. Measure what I want to manage.
  3. Re-evaluate periodically what I’m measuring and ask if it is still useful.

I can now simplify what I collect right now and boil it down to the following:

  • Health metrics via Apple Watch
  • Computer productivity via ResuceTime

Both of these require no effort on my part as these are always collected without any manual intervention.

This means I can free myself of Lose It! (Food), WaterMinder (Fluid), and Arc (GPS). These all took a toll on me for no reason as I wasn’t currently benefiting from their results. I was measuring stuff I didn’t really care about or didn’t need to care about anymore. Initially, measuring these things played their part, but it is time to move forward.

If I need to manage something and I can measure it, you can bet I will at least for the short-term.