Quantify Thyself

Socrates was a fan of the ancient Greek maxim carved into the walls of the Temple of Apollo: “Know Thyself.” He even took it up a notch by saying “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Now, 2400 years later, technology is making it a lot easier for you to know yourself. The Quantitative Self Movement seems to really be gaining momentum. Every week I hear about new ways people are using apps, wearable devices, and websites to track information about their activities, then geeking-out over the wealth of data collected. Mature products like the Nike Fuel Band and the FitBit are coming to market and becoming increasingly easier to use by the average consumer. Will the rumored Apple iWatch be the easiest one to use yet? It definitely seems like a convenient time to join this trend, if you haven’t already.

Here are some of the apps and websites I’ve been using lately to track my own behavior:

Lift  (iPhone App)

The Lift iPhone app lets you identify some positive habits (e.g. floss, exercise), then quickly “check-in” each time you do them. I recently read “The Power of Habit” and was interested in finding ways to establish good habits. A habit I wanted to develop is reading more books. Although I listen to audio books during my commute, physical books tend to put me to sleep at the end of a long day. I have a stack of “guilt books” in my room that lie there unread while I pick up the iPad and watch another Game of Thrones episode.

So, I started checking-in on the Lift app every day I read my book. I looked forward to marking my progress as a reward for my efforts. Lift started sending me emails congratulating me for a “3-day reading streak!” Before I knew it my book was finished. The digital encouragement was surprisingly effective. On to the next one!

Nike+  (iPhone and Android App)

Before jumping onto the elliptical for some cardio, I open up the Nike+ Running App, initiate a new “Run” and then slip my iPhone into my pocket. The app uses the iPhone’s accelerometer to calculate how far I’ve gone. A friendly voice interrupts the podcast I’m listening to, informs me when I’ve gone a mile and tells me my pace. After my workout, various famous athletes from around the world chime in to congratulate me for achieving some milestone or another (most miles in a week, fastest mile yet, etc). As with the Lift app, I found the encouragement highly effective. I’m not used to receiving praise after exercise. I find myself saying “thanks” out loud. Yes, I’m now the weird guy that talks to his phone at the gym.

I can see all my running stats on my phone or by logging into the Nike+ website. It’s nice to know that my data will follow me around as I upgrade devices. Nike has done a great job on the UI/UX. It’s a simple, intuitive and consistent user experience across web and mobile.

Mint.com  (Web Service)

Mint.com is a popular, free website that helps track your finances. After linking up your financial accounts it starts tracking how you’re spending your money. You can log in and see detailed graphs that categorize your spending habits. I analyzed six months of my financial data to help create my monthly budget for 2013. Mint.com sends me a weekly email with a summary of my spending that shows where my money went. It points out when spending in a category is much higher than normal. Sometimes I feel like it’s sending me too many email alerts, but you can go into the settings and turn off any annoying ones.

One very helpful email I received from Mint alerted me that my bank had charged me a service fee. I called up the bank, learned they’d changed their free checking policy, and got it corrected. I may not have noticed that $13 monthly charge without the helpful hint.

Rescue Time  (Desktop App)

Ever wonder exactly where the work day went? RescueTime can tell you by measuring how you spend time on your computer. After installing it on your PC it will run in the background, silently tracking the applications and websites you use most. The results may surprise you. RescueTime has a sense of which activities are productive and which are distracting, but you can specify the category for each app/website yourself. Each week you’ll receive an email summarizing the time you spent on productive vs. distracting apps.

After it becomes clear which program you’re using most, it makes sense to increase your expertise with that application. Another observation is that I now subconsciously avoid lingering on addictive web sites (I have a weakness for Hacker News and TechMeme) as I know my productivity report card will suffer next week if I do.

Conclusion

What is it, exactly, that you do? Would you like to know? The computers in our pocket, our car, and the clouds can track us and help answer that question. Soon there will be smaller computers in more places, tracking us in new and interesting ways. All that monitoring may feel a little creepy, but it can also be empowering. Once you see the data, you may decide to make a change.

Do you have a favorite app or device in this category? I’d love to hear about it!