J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

Self-Quantification — Beyond Narcissism

What are you measuring, and why?

Someone who is obsessed with how many grams of protein they consume, how many hours they sleep a night, or how much they can bench press can quickly become annoying — especially when they insist on sharing that information with us.  Broadcasting such information on social networks is even more of a faux-pas (polluting the stream).  I don’t care how many miles you ran this week, and neither does anyone else.

What’s behind our nation’s self-quantification fad — especially among the tech elite?  It’s a combination of:

  1. Ubiquity of user-friendly tracking systems.  Spreadsheets, on-line health tracking sites, iPhone apps, etc.
  2. New user-friendly tech for recording and measuring physio stats — including heart rate, hours of REM and Stage IV sleep, blood pressure, blood sugar, body fat, vitamin levels, etc.  What what once only possible at the doctor’s office or a diagnostic lab is now available at home or easily ordered online.
  3. Younger generations (Gen X and younger) that have been raised with an individualistic orientation, and are generally more focused on “I” than on “we.”

I’m not against self-quantification in general.  I think it can be useful for fixing something that’s broken, or making progress towards a specific goal, or for generally improving health or productivity.

The main problem with self-quantification is that the people who need it least do it the most, and the people who need it the most don’t do it all.  The hyper-fit know exactly how much they’ve exercised in a given week, and which nutrients they’ve consumed in what quantities.  The rich know how much their net worth has increased.  Productive writers know how many words they’ve written.  People who are interested in a certain area tend to measure it and track it (and excel in it).

We’re least likely to measure and track areas where we don’t shine.  This could be because we value that area less, or because we know we don’t excel in that area, or some combination.  If you don’t think money is important, maybe you don’t track how much you earn or spend.  Same thing for health, or productivity.  Maybe we don’t want to face the truth, so we don’t step on the scale, or count how many words we write every week.

When we obsessively track parameters in our strongest areas, we veer into narcissistic territory, with ever-diminishing returns.  On the other hand, if we start to measure and gather data in our weakest areas, we can potentially pick the low hanging fruit, making huge progress with relatively small behavioral changes.

What gets measured gets managed. -- Peter Drucker

3 Rules for Self-Quantification

  1. Don’t broadcast your personal stats on social networks — nobody cares.  The exception would be if your progress is remarkable/inspirational.
  2. If you’ve used self-quantification to establish a habit that is getting you the results you want (daily flossing, daily writing, deep restorative sleep, etc.), consider dropping the tracking and measurement.  It’s the habit (not the measuring and tracking) that’s getting you results.  You can always resume tracking/measuring later if you find yourself slipping.
  3. Look honestly at every area of your life and considering applying self-quantification to your weakest area.  Everyone’s got one.  Money?  Clothing/fashion?  Fat-loss?  Blood-sugar control?  Physical strength?  Productivity?  Creativity?  Community involvement?  Effectiveness in helping others?  Anything can be measured and analyzed.

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7 Comments

  1. JD, It’s good to hear from you (and I heard about your blog thru a social network!).

    I appreciate your insights into the intersection of self-improvement and social networking. Not having read your other posts to get the background of this narrative, I’m going to take a spontaneous leap and respectfully disagree with Rule #1.

    SOME PEOPLE DO CARE: When you say “nobody cares”, it’s not clear what evidence you have for this. Many “oversharings” in social media do send the dial on my sarcastic Like-I-Really-Care-O-Meter spinning because the information is just not immediately relevant for my personal journey. But my experience tells me that people do care, especially if they have invested themselves in support for the change in behavior (like they might be engaged in it simultaneously, such as in a support or peer group. Think of Weight Watchers or AA or even a friendly bet among a group of runners or meditators).

    NETWORKS FOR FEEDBACK: The mere act of broadcasting one’s behavioral stats can be a an effective form of holding one’s self accountable. By exposing to other people what might have been held secret for all the reasons humans hold stuff secret, we now have a more objective feedback loop that says: “hey, you’re trending towards your goal” or “man, you are falling off the wagon. Better get your butt back on.” For some people, that is effective motivation to stay on course.

    Peace, TB

  2. Hey Tobias!

    Fair enough — I welcome the debate! I did put in the “remarkable/inspirational” qualification — I’m impressed when friends and acquaintances take steps to turn their lives around and I do care.

    My main pet peeve is when people use web services for self-quantification and then turn the Facebook or Twitter setting to “On”. Then every time they make a journal entry it turns it into a post … and creates too much information IMO.

    But if you lost twenty pounds and want to tell everyone and/or post before/after pictures, no problem. I’ll be as impressed as everyone else.

  3. And on the feedback question … here’s a good argument for keeping one’s goals to oneself:

    http://www.ted.com/talks/derek_sivers_keep_your_goals_to_yourself.html

  4. nefnie

    ah, I was trying to figure out just from the post what stick had got stuck in your craw – it’s less the posting than the instant notifications of said postings, yes? The Derek Sivers was totally interesting, almost like hoarding your energy/intention in service to your goal, rather than ‘sharing’ it.

  5. I think the post came off as more of a polemic than I meant it to — I’m really pro self-quantification in general.

    Re: Sivers — exactly.

  6. Ms Olivicie

    JD you are a refreshing breeze in the jungle! Your blog reminds me of the wonderful Janis Ian tune “At seventeen”…in books and magazines of how to be and not be… The fourth estate is still playing this song.

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