For some, self-tracking means more than self-help

People who identify with the “Quantified Self movement” are, as expressed in the movement’s motto, seeking “self-knowledge through self-tracking.” They want to know how to sleep better, stay fit or have a more productive morning. They do this by keeping count of how many times they roll over in the night, how many steps they take in the day or how many emails they respond to in a week.

At their informal gatherings, known as “Show & Tells,” participants speak to three questions: What did you do? How did you do it? And what did you learn?

At the inaugural Quantified Self Show & Tell, in Pacifica, California, in 2008, the first presenter was unsure about what he had learned. As Quantified Self co-founder Gary Wolf wrote on the following day, the presenter “had a beautiful graph of his work, sleep and other activity, based on data he had been tracking for three years. And he was at the meeting to get ideas about how to extract more meaning out of it.”

The psychology of self-tracking

“Meaning” can mean a few things.

Among those at the first Show & Tell, there was a focus on utility: how to make the data meaningful toward some useful end.

But, for some, the practice of self-tracking is compelling in and of itself. As Wolf himself confessed, “The utility of self-tracking in achieving some specified goal doesn’t fully explain its fascination. There’s a compulsion, a curiosity, that seems to operate in advance of any particular use.”

In my research on life hackers, I’ve seen evidence of this thinking, which psychologists speak of as the systematic – or rational or analytical – cognitive style. That’s a disposition in thinking and behavior that seeks patterns and makes use of rules. Studies have found an association between the rational style and computer students and hackers.

Not surprisingly, patterns, systems and rules are central to the life hacking ethos, independent of any utility – and sometimes contrary to it, as when life hackers naively optimize dating yet remain single.

There can be benefits in tracking a facet of your life, even if you are not the quantifying type.

There’s abundant evidence that self-tracking can help ordinary people manage their eating, steps taken, insulin levels and fertility.

Self-tracking can also be distracting and anxiety-making. For example, one study showed that fertility-tracking can make women feel burdened, obsessed or trapped.

There is also a lot of confusion and snake oil. One famous self-tracker believed that eating half a stick a butter a day made him smarter – that is, a bit faster on arbitrary math puzzles. However, that butter might have also contributed to his lethal heart disease.

Patterns can be illusory and the new rules based on them premature.