Quantified Self


I was an early adopter and believer in the Quantified Self (QS) movement. Eventually I would come to question if one could get meaningful insights by self tracking. After 2.5 years of daily self tracking, I walked away from QS and gained insights that has made me a vocal critic ever since.

Why was I so drawn to Quantified Self? It was a combination of my love of health and my background in databases.

From 2002-2008 I worked for an energy management company that collected mounds of data from devices attached to meters and HVAC systems across thousands of retail establishments. Using my database skills, I was able to gain insights these units held related to energy usage and performance. I talk more about that project in the post MAS Saves Energy – A Lot of Energy.

energy meter

Meter by Ben Stevinson 

If I could merge my new love of health and nutrition with my background in data analysis, I could greatly increase the quality of my health. Not that my health was bad. I was actually very healthy, but I was fascinated my the idea that I could use my data skills to take my health to even greater levels. This also appealed to my DIY (do it yourself) nature that was also distrustful of the medical profession.

Below is a list of the best posts I have on the topic.

The Pro Quantified Self Posts

My Case For Self Experimentation – I still support self experimentation, but these days I am more humble going into any experiment that the human data is messy and we are too quick to draw false conclusions.

The Quantified Coffee Drinker – This is a post I did for INeedCoffee about dialing in optimal coffee level based upon sleep quality.

The Anti Quantified Self Posts

Once I realized that QS is about control and control is a cause of stress and stress is a cause of health issues I stopped my 2.5 years of self tracking. I surrendered and ended my quest to use data to optimize my health. Doing this ended up being the best decision I could have made. My health improved immediately.

Life After Quantified Self – This is the post where I realized that the stress of QS was the cause of my health problems.

Some Quantified Self Honesty – This post highlights two other QS practitioners with better math skills than me that are honest about the lack of insights they got from their data collection and analysis.

Quantified Self and False Pattern Recognition – Because human data is very messy, it is far too easy to draw false conclusions and see patterns where none exist.

What Weight Lifting Should Have Taught Me About Quantified Self – Years ago I learned that chasing numbers in the gym often led to injuries. It is better to learn how to develop intuition.

Changing My Opinion in the Future?

I thought I’d add a little addendum here. I do think there can be tremendous value and insight into collecting and analyzing health data.That collection would need to be passive and the analysis done by someone else. That data would need to aggregated with many others for meaningful insight. Someday we will have nanobots in our bloodstream collecting and transmitting this data. But we aren’t there yet. Not even close.

The problem with Quantified Self is the self. We can use sensors to collect data and control machines. But we aren’t machines. We are always changing. We are human.

Instead of directing our analytic mind towards isolating variables that may or may not be affecting our health, a better more resilient approach is to develop the skill of learning how to improve our response to whatever challenges we face and accepting that we won’t always know what they are. And being OK with that.

Also check out the blog The Unquantified Self.