Types of Self-Tracking

Like most of us, I found my way into QS “from the bottom up” — that is, I got interested in a particular type of self-tracking (in my case, spaced repetition software) and then discovered this larger movement. Since then, and particularly in organizing our first Berlin meetup, I’ve learned a lot more about the wide range of motivations that bring people to self-tracking and QS. For those who are new to the subject, here’s my own (probably incomplete) list of some of the difference types of self-tracking, with a few examples of each.

1. Motivational: You know what you want and how to achieve it, and tracking yourself will help you to actually do it. The focus is often on social features and/or habit formation, but the mechanisms can be more complex: Phil Libin (of Evernote) lost 30 pounds just by tracking his weight on an Excel chart, without making any deliberate changes to his diet or routine. A lot of the best-known products in this vein are focused on fitness, like Runkeeper or Nike+.

2. Facilitative: You know what you want and how to achieve it, but without tracking yourself it would be very difficult and/or inefficient. This is particularly common with SRS software and other study tools, and also with management of chronic medical conditions, e.g. MySugr and other blood glucose trackers.

3. Experimental: You know what you want but not how to achieve it, and tracking is a way to compare potential methods and/or generate ideas for new ones. The authority on self-experimentation is Seth Roberts, whose blog I’ve been reading for years, and in my opinion the best place to start is his 2004 paper on the subject or his book excerpt here.

4. Documentary: You don’t have a specific goal in mind, you just want to get a more accurate, complete and/or unbiased view of your life/health/time/etc. Can be a way of generating new goals and methods, but can also be a purely aesthetic or self-discovery project. The best-known example of this is probably Noah Kalina’s Everyday video on Youtube, which was popular enough to inspire a Simpsons parody. This recent QS presentation by Sharla Sava covers a related self-photography project and the things she learned from it.

5. Collaborative: Your individual data might not tell you very much, but you’re collecting it to contribute to an aggregate data set for research purposes — often because you have a personal interest in the research subject, but maybe just because you’re a volunteer who wants to help out. A good example would be the openSNP project, which I learned about from this interview at the main QS site.

Of course, many tracking habits and tools fall into more than one of these categories. A lot of the self-improvement literature that overlaps with QS (like that of Tim Ferriss) involves a combination of the first three categories. The same is true for RescueTime, Getting Things Done and many other productivity tools and systems. And the “collaborative” and “experimental” categories often overlap as well, as in networks like CureTogether or the data collected by Roberts from people following his popular diet.

In talking to other self-quantifiers, I’ve already noticed that many of us at first don’t “get” the people who are doing it for very different reasons. As organizers, it’s part of our job to strike a balance among these different self-tracking goals in the mix of presentations and demos at our meetups — but for everyone, it’s also good to realize that they’re not only equally valid goals, but can often complement each other as well.

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