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Notes from Quantified Self Toronto, October 27, 2010

Bits from the meetup: automated tracking of computer activity, for aggregated health self-reporting of conditions and treatments, and the oddly popular desire for a statistical silver bullet that will crunch your data and tell you what’s potentially interesting about you, instead of you coming up with questions and designing proper experiments. This makes me think about t-tests and how you can do too many tests for significance (PDF). Intentional experiments may be slower, but I think they’re worth it.

Anyway, here are the notes!

I took these notes using Microsoft OneNote 2007 on a Lenovo X61T tablet. I then exported the graphics to the Gimp, did a little bit of editing, and uploaded them to Gallery2 on my blog. See my other sketch-related blog posts, or check out my other sketches in the gallery.

Quantified Self Toronto: Second Meetup

I went to last night’s Quantified Self Toronto meetup, a get-together for people who are interested in tracking data about their lives. It was good to hear about people’s projects and questions. I shared what I’d been doing with my new Android phone, too. Here are my notes:

For me, the most interesting point was that of analyzing the data you already have in order to understand your patterns.

Correction: I haven’t just had my phone for three days, I’ve had it for a week. (Ah, time flies when you’re having fun.) I’ve only been tracking activities for three days, though, so I guess that’s why that number got stuck in my brain. =)

What do I track, why do I track it, and how do I track it?

I want to experiment with getting up earlier, and to see if I still get enough sleep. I knew that tracking would help me stick to my alarm clock, like the way that tracking time helps me stay focused. I’ve written about tracking my sleep, so you can check out the detailed screenshots there. So far, I’ve been waking up within a few minutes of 5 AM, getting an average of seven hours of sleep, and feeling reasonably awake and energetic.

I want to capture and share as much as possible. On my computer, Org-mode is working well for me – big text files that I dump notes into, with a bit of structure along the way. I’d like to have a structured way to capture notes on my Android, particularly if I can pull those notes into my Org-mode text files. I haven’t settled on any one application yet, although I’m working on tweaking MobileOrg to fit me better. I’m also playing around with mindmapping (Thinking Space supports Freemind maps), and I’m looking for a good way to keep outlined lists.

I want to track how much time I spend on different activities. This will be useful for calibrating my time estimates, comparing my time with my priorities, and identifying opportunities to improve. This definitely has to be a mobile app, as I do things away from the computer too. Time Recording has been working well for me so far.

I want to track my finances. I do this on my laptop so that I can take advantage of all the wonderful reporting tools that the ledger command-line tool gives me. I’ve figured out a virtual envelope-based system that works for me, and I enjoy balancing my books. I don’t particularly feel the need to use my Android to capture this data, as I try to keep my transactions electronic. The occasional note about cash expenses can be handy, though.

I eventually want to get better at tracking my contacts. I like the way Gist gives me a dashboard sorted by importance or filtered by tags. I want to get to the point of deliberately reaching out to people on a regular schedule.


Monthly review: October 2010

Reflecting on life as an experiment, gender gaps, and privilege

Is there a gender gap for self-experimentation? Maybe. I’m not sure. But I can tell you about the things I take for granted that might be making it easier for me than for other people, and how some of the barriers might be correlated with gender.

1. I have the privilege of time. It takes time to reflect. It takes time to track. It takes time to analyze. It takes time to be curious. I know lots of other people struggle with work-life balance issues. W- and I share household responsibilities fairly (if anything, he does more work), so we both have the time to hack. Many women bear a disproportionate burden of household and child-rearing responsibilities, which cuts into the time needed to reflect and experiment.

2. I have the privilege of asking my own questions. It means I can ask my own questions. Many people struggle with questions and goals posed from the outside. People are under pressure to ask themselves: "How can I lose weight?" "How can I get out of debt?" "How can I have more time for myself?" "How can I deal with other people’s expectations?" I’m lucky that I’m not under pressure from these questions, so I can ask my own. Women receive a lot of this self-image policing, well-meant or not.

3. I have the privilege of experimenting with and building tools. I’ve saved up an opportunity fund for things like my smartphone. If I have an idea for something I want to track, I can prototype something using spreadsheets, customize my Emacs, or develop an application for
it. Many people aren’t as comfortable with technology as I am, and many women have less exposure to technology for a variety of reasons.

4. I have the privilege of enjoying math. I like tracking my finances and my time. I like analyzing my trends. I like seeing the numbers and the graphs. Many people are uncomfortable with math, and many women haven’t had opportunities to discover how much fun it can be.

5. I have the privilege of a network. I know people (male and female) who geek, who track, who hack. They inspire and encourage me, and sometimes they help me figure things out. Many women aren’t as connected with other technical people.

6. I have the privilege of confidence. It’s not easy being the odd one out, being one of a few women in a room or in an online space. It helps to know I can hold my own, that no one’s going to patronize me because of my gender or perceived inexperience. Many people don’t have
that experience, and women run into those subtleties more often than men do.

7. I have the privilege of understanding the big picture. To an outsider looking in, self-tracking or self-quantification might seem like a lot of work for little benefit. Why would anyone want to track when they wake up, or how much they spend on things, or what their mood is? It really helps to understand the bigger picture. For example, I track my finances because I like knowing when I can afford to grab an opportunity, and because I want to make sure my spending
lines up with my priorities so that I can live a better life. We geeks often talk about the trees without showing people the forest, so many men and women don’t see why it matters.

Knowing the privileges I take for granted, then, I can think about ways to reduce the barriers that other people run into. It’s hard to solve other people’s work-life integration issues for them, but it
might be possible to inspire people to learn more and grow. It’s hard to fight advertising and culture, but I work on counteracting common messages. It’s hard to get everyone into programming or math, but I might be able to help early adopters with tools and blog posts, and
that can ripple out to others. I can’t help everyone get connected or become confident, but I can share stories and help people come in. I’ll periodically lapse into jargon and geeky delight over obscure details, but I can also share my big picture.

What privileges do you take for granted when it comes to experimentation, self-tracking, technology, or other areas? What can you do to reduce the barriers for others?

Thinking about time tracking

One of the insights I liked from “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” was on getting more out of your time by combining different needs or goals. Instead of keeping exercise and socializing separate, for example, you can combine them by jogging with a friend. It’s like the way the negotiation book “Getting to Yes” reminds me to focus on interests rather than positions, opening up creative possibilities that combine different aspects.

A lot of what I do is like that: interests that support more than one goal, activities that build on each other. The straightforward time tracking I did with Time Recording (Android) allows me to capture one category for each time segment, but it doesn’t capture those subtleties.

Time to take a step back and think:

  • What questions do I want to ask about how I want to spend my time?
  • How do I want to shift the time I spend?

Here are some things I’m working on learning:

  • How much time does it take me to accomplish common tasks, such as getting ready for work, getting to work, or doing my daily routines?
  • Am I spending too much time on formal work activities or other tasks? Can I shift the time to things that are important but may not be urgent?
  • How early can I push my wake-up time while staying in sync with other people?
  • Am I getting enough exercise each week? How can I build in more consistent exercises for strength?
  • How much discretionary time do I have? Am I happy with the way I spend it? Can I get more value from that time?
  • What are the little things that make me happy or unhappy?


  1. Continue to use Time Recording. Use the tasks to track the primary category and the notes to track any secondary or tertiary categories. Use fancy spreadsheet wizardry to generate reports.
  2. Find another time tracker that keeps separate category timers and exports data as CSV. Possibly write my own numbercrunching program.
  3. Track only one thing at time.

I like the first option the most, because it works with my existing system and it’s flexible. I may write a short program for doing a little bit more analysis once my reporting settles down, because I’d like to see how often I get to creatively combine goals. Option 2 is more work, and option 3 won’t let me easily see other shifts while I’m tracking. So Time Recording it is, but with a slightly different way to use it.

Sketchnotes from Quantified Self Toronto meetup #3

Click on the image for a slightly larger version.image

Topics: neurotropics, step counting, tracking through low-cost devices ( doesn’t seem to work – correct URL?)

I also shared my time tracking, grocery tracking, and price book. People found the batch cooking stuff interesting. =) Here are the slides I used:

See past notes: second meetup, first meetup. Check out more sketchnotes, more sketches, or more things about the quantified self. Learn about upcoming Quantified Self Toronto events on Meetup – see you at the next one!

Thinking about personal random moment studies

John Handy Bosma (Boz) proposed a personal productivity random moment study. His goals are:

  • Find out how he’s spending his time in terms of the proportion between important and unimportant task
  • Show the connection between what he’s working on and the business priorities
  • Improve his productivity
  • … and do all of that with at most 5 minutes of tracking a day.

The interesting thing about randomness is that it might have a different effect on behaviour. If you can’t anticipate when you’re going to get polled and you’re honest about your responses when you do, would that help you focus on more important things so that you don’t catch yourself goofing off during the polling time?

What are good questions to ask during the sampling moment? Boz has:

  • What are you working on?
  • Who are you with?
  • How important is this?
  • How is this related to the business objectives?

These questions also helped Boz stay focused – immediate benefit.

Questions/ideas related to tracking:

Is the effect of uncertainty worth the added effort required to build a custom tracking solution (or buy one), or will fixed time intervals be acceptable? If fixed time intervals are okay, then off-the-shelf apps can be stitched together for this functionality.

Is there value in full randomness (ex: five reminders randomly set for one day, even if those reminders all come in the morning) or is it more about moment-to-moment randomness (ex: a reminder set randomly in each 2-hour period)?

In which circumstances would interrupt-driven methods like this be better than time tracking or time-and-motion-type studies? Boz shared that he never quite got the hang of time tracking, so it might be about enabling a different set of people to explore this class of experiments.

Does measuring time (either through sampling or through time-tracking) offer significant benefits over, say, tracking quantity of tasks completed in different categories (like Andy Schirmer does) when it comes to measuring alignment with priorities?


I might give it a try. I like my time-based analysis, though, so I may increase the granularity of my time-tracking (track at the task level whenever possible). I can then simulate work-sampling based on that data. I might also try fixed-interval sampling using KeepTrack on the Android, although I tend to skip interruptions.


2011-02-09 Wed 10:58