Outsourcing motivation

I’ve been watching the quantified self movement gather pace for the last year or so with increasing fascination. If you haven’t come across it before, it’s a group of people making the most of technology to measure elements of their life so they can better understand themselves and hopefully improve. There are a number of good talks about the subject, including this introduction by Gary Wolf of Wired Magazine in the form of a short TED talk, and a few good feature articles, the best of which is this one from the FT Magazine which covers the first big conference on the subject held in Silicon Valley in May this year.

There are a number of apps that I’ve had a play with, although I have to admit that I’ve struggled to keep up with all of them because some of them require quite a lot of data entry. The ones I’ve settled on are:

  • MyFitnessPal — noting down what I eat
  • NHS Drinks Tracker — noting down what alcohol I drink
  • iMapMyRun — measuring how much exercise I’m doing
  • TallyZoo — noting down a few other things I like to track such as how many coffees I’m drinking

So far at least, there’s no app that does all the things I want, so I put this data in a Google Spreadsheet that I try to keep up to date. It started out as a way of measuring my productivity including how many of my tasks on Things I managed to do each day, how many emails I sent and how many words I was writing each day, but I’ve expanded it over time to track the health related data.

There is something very geeky about all this. It suits people who love numbers and data and perhaps those hackers who are always looking for ways to do things that avoid hard work. You have to measure the right things which I guess is dependent on what matters to you — there’s little point in measuring things you don’t care about. But I do think it helps with motivation. In many ways it’s like outsourcing your motivation so you don’t need to worry about it yourself. Once you’ve understood your targets you have something that keeps you honest — be that a gadget or a website that gives you feedback from other people.

I’m fascinated by whether you could create much easier ways to help people analyse their nutrition and activity so that they could avoid health problems. I’m sure not everybody would want to but I think more people than we like to admit are a bit obsessive in hidden ways. The number of people on diets or with tiny things they have to do every day to remain happy is huge.

Personalised preventative medicine, if we can make it work, should be a lot cheaper than personalised medicine where treatment is needed. The savings for the NHS could be enormous. One idea I have is to give people an app that formats data in a way that is useful to them but also to GPs. The app itself is free and if you keep it up to date, you get free prescriptions. The idea would be that over time it would save GP surgeries money because patients wouldn’t be claiming prescriptions as often because they would be getting feedback on their nutrition and lifestyle that would improve their health. Taking on the extra cost of the prescription would be negligible for the GP surgery and the problem of older people not being able to use the technology wouldn’t matter because they currently get free prescriptions anyway.

I’ve decided I’ll head over to the European Quantified Self Conference in Amsterdam at the end of November to find out more. In the meantime I’ll keep collecting the data about my own health and productivity. Maybe by the time we come to the event I’ll have something to share.
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