Sunday July 18, 2010

The Data Driven Life

Millions of us track ourselves all the time. We step on a scale and record our weight. We balance a checkbook. We count calories. But when the familiar pen-and-paper methods of self-analysis are enhanced by sensors that monitor our behavior automatically, the process of self-tracking becomes both more alluring and more meaningful. Automated sensors do more than give us facts; they also remind us that our ordinary behavior contains obscure quantitative signals that can be used to inform our behavior, once we learn to read them.

That quote comes from an article in the New York Times called the Data Driven Life. It almost sounds frightening. Almost inhuman. Where does it stop? Do we hope to eventually have some sort of ultimate tune up where every waking (or sleeping) moment is governed by a set of strict parameters and success conditions?

I wrote ReadMore because I wanted to better understand what takes me so long to read certain books. I had a lot of hunches. I tried keeping records in notebooks or spreadsheets. Eventually, I realized I have a smart device in my pocket almost all the time. Why can’t it do the work for me?

Tracking one’s behavioral data isn’t new. Athletes have been doing this long before computers. And mentorships or apprenticeships are the apex of feedback oriented learning. Having your behavior reflected back to you can be invaluable for maturity and mastery.

Tracking these details can work well because you confront yourself with what really happened. Procrastination and disillusionment thrive on vague thoughts. The more specific you tune your expectations, and therefore the more irrelevance you cut out, the better your focus and even your enjoyment of what you’re trying to master.

So, back to ReadMore. How long does it take me to read books? Turns out, it’s not very long at all. Looking at a 500 page book feels daunting. Until I realize that the last one of similar dimensions only took me 5 hours of total reading to complete. And I only have 7 reading sessions left if I want to finish. That doesn’t sound bad at all. The act to complete the book doesn’t distract from the content anymore.

Now, regarding a future where we could be slaves to our own nit-picky personal data mining: I think it’s unwise to take it too far. We don’t want to get distracted from living by all these details. But between the chaos of my young creative mind, and the hypertracking über-nerds described in this article, there is much to be learned from logging and tracking some behaviors. Who knows. I might have another app to write soon. :)