Some of the most inspiring self-tracking projects.

Some of the most inspiring self-tracking projects.

Some of the most inspiring self-tracking projects.

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The Hive
Collective wisdom.
Dec. 3 2010 6:16 PM

Living the Quantified Life

Some of the most inspiring self-tracking projects.

The Quantified Self site has an apt, Socratic motto: "Self knowledge through numbers." (Though maybe it should deploy a hyphen in there.) It's where I go to learn from the most dedicated self-trackers, the people who are pushing this idea forward. Let's take a brief tour of some of my favorite videos from Q.S. meet-ups.

Seth Roberts, a professor of psychology, is in some ways a poster boy for the movement. He has the impish confidence of the handyman, and a kind of countercultural curiosity about how his mind works. In this talk, he discusses how he measured his brain function by timing his performance on a daily three-minute arithmetic exercise. He noticed an anomaly in the data where his scores suddenly became much better. What could be causing this unprecedented brain speed? His hunch was butter.

To test his hunch, Roberts increased his butter consumption by half a stick per day. His buttery brain was able to duplicate the results—he was 30 milliseconds faster. Listen for the shocked laughter in the audience. In the question-and-answer session, a doubter points out that though Roberts may be improving his brain function, he's also setting himself up for death by heart attack (which is known to slow down one's math abilities). Roberts' response gets at the essence of the Q.S. philosophy. The science that correlates diet with increased risk of heart attacks is not entirely proven and based on studying large numbers of people. His butter experiment is a study of one, and the results are completely clear to him.

Next up are Hulda and Josh Klein, who were faced with the task of moving from Seattle to Iceland. They made a list of their possessions and set about categorizing them in a smart way, emotionally. This was the list of categories:

I Love This Thing, and I Use It All the Time.

I Love This Thing, Because It's a Good Memory.

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I Love the Way This Thing Looks, and I'm Going To Keep It.

This Is Useful, But It's Lacking Somehow.

This Is Useful, But I Don't Love It.

If the item fell into the first three categories, the couple would keep it. Otherwise, gone. Using this process, they discarded half of what they owned, put one-quarter in storage, and brought the remaining stuff with them. The lessons learned were not completely surprising, but they were tailor-made. Because cooking was important to them, they brought great chef knives but realized they couldn't care less about flatware. In general, they became much less afraid to throw stuff away. Partly because they had put an Eames chair in storage and then practically forgot they owned it.

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Then Hulda took things to the next level and rated every piece of clothing in her closet—and every piece of clothing that she wanted to own—according to four categories: Seasons, Weather, Social Situations, and Care Requirements. This was helpful, but she found that she sometimes bought things that did not fit well with her other stuff, so she added a "Matching" criterion. Josh relates that this "seemed a little insane to me" but then adds, "Suddenly Hulda always had the right thing to wear for every situation." Her experiment shows how much work quantifying can be, but also the serenity that it can lead to. Show me the woman who's happy with her closet, and, well, wow, that would be kind of a miracle. Congrats, Hulda.

Finally, watch the presentation given by Jon Cousins, an Englishman who had "bouts of dreadful depression" since his 20s but managed to hide it and be reasonably functioning in the world. In his mid-50s, he finally went to see a psychiatrist, and she told him that it seemed likely that he was bipolar: Would he mind tracking his mood for three months so that the condition could be verified? Cousins couldn't find a ready way to do this, so he started using a psychological test that was a set of 20 cards with adjectives. He also tracked his scores on a graph, noting the ups and downs in his mood.

It's when Cousins is unspooling his mood graph that he reveals that he's got a touch of the magician about him (skip to 7:25 in the video). At the end of one summer, some of his friends ask to be kept informed of his mood scores, and all of a sudden his scores rise to a high plateau and stay there. As Cousins relates, the "sheer act" of knowing that other people cared about his mood had the effect of lifting his mood. He's not cured, he still has his down days and weeks, but measuring and sharing has helped, sometimes remarkably. He's moved the whole system online to a site called Moodscope.

There's much more to be found here. Share your favorite gleanings in the comments.

Slate is looking for great ways that we can collect and analyze data to improve our lives. You can submit your idea by clicking the button below. The deadline for submitting ideas has been extended until Wednesday, Dec. 8. We'll be tracking your most interesting ideas throughout the month. And don't forget to vote on the proposals you like best. We'll take a closer look at the three top-vote-getting ideas and write about them.

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