The fitness tracker industry has a problem: people love wearing their devices, but after a while, knowing how many steps you've walked gets boring. What if your Apple Watch or Fitbit did more than track your fitness - and made your mind a little bit healthier too?
Quick: mark how you feel - right now - out of ten. Ten is good, zero is bad. Remember this for later.
Chris Dancy records everything.
He feeds all of the data from his life into a special Google Calendar. From the week view, it looks like a crazed Piet Mondrian painting, packed with tiny colourful squares, squashed up next to each other. They seem randomly scattered, and yet the eye can detect a vague order.
Chris' calendar, via Flickr
Each calendar entry is a datapoint. The calendar is a dashboard, showing every bit of data Chris records.
Zoom out, and the calendar doesn’t just show Chris’ life - it is Chris’ life. Crazed but ordered. Obsessive, but thoughtful.
Chris Dancy created hundreds of ways to track and record data about him, his actions, and his dogs.
He used pretty much every off-the-shelf consumer tracking kit you can think of. Fitness trackers, smartwatches, and heart rate monitors were all in Chris’ toolbox - and for his pooches, a dog-tracking GPS system called Tagg. He also built his own tracking systems that recorded, for example, his mood at any given time, how many emails he read and sent, and what the weather was like.
It changed his life.
En route, he lost a load of weight, and gained a sharp hairdo, a sharper wardrobe and the ability to take better selfies.
Chris, before and after he started recording his data, via Flickr
Chris might now be the world’s most connected human. In a world where people vacillate between fear of using online services due to privacy concerns, and blindly over-sharing personal info on social media, this is not a straightforward boast.
But wait, you cry, I do most of this stuff already! I keep track of my finances in a notebook, watch my weight using good old-fashioned scales, and I use a FitBit - I just don’t call myself a “quantified human.”
Well, yes - that’s kind of the point. Because what Chris is doing now is taking lots of simple data points - just like the ones you record - then squashing them together, slicing them back up, and using them to make really useful things happen in his life.
Maybe you won’t be aware of it, but very soon, you’ll be doing the same thing and experiencing, to quote the Wu-Tang Clan, a better tomorrow.
In his personal FAQs, Chris names a few simple things he learnt as he started out on his quest to be hyper-connected:
- How late I could have a drink without getting up to pee in the middle of the night.
- How what I did on social media, and how I spent my time online, related to how much I did or didn’t exercise.
- How the nutritional value of my food stacked up against the money I spent on that food and the time it took to acquire.
And in this neat trio, Chris happens to also outline the three stages of Data-Overload Distress:
Usefulness -> anxiousness -> obsessiveness
Usefulness: Knowing when to stop drinking before bedtime is useful!
Anxiousness: But over-analysis of your public actions is unhelpful!
Obsessiveness: And when you start viewing food as value-for-money human-fuel, you’ve landed right in the Soylent wheelhouse.
Chris is no fool. He warns of how easy it is to unwittingly stroll down the data-driven path to unwanted, unintended, obsession.
It’s a warning that we could all probably heed.
“My life had become a Wikipedia of me.”
Virtually none of us are fully aware of the wild nature of our existing personal data-storm. But be sure that it does put stresses on our lives.
How many likes did your Instagram post get and what did it make you feel? How do you feel when your fitness tracker nudges you to go for a run and you swipe the notification away instead?
How many hours passed as you waited for the flirty message you sent got a green “read” tick? How anxious did you feel as you thumb hovered before you read their non-committal reply?
Pause for a moment before you blithely create more data: what if you decided to create less instead? Or figured out what it is that you already create, and what the value in it could be?
There is an argument that says tracking yourself and creating as much data as possible is a big step to fully owning your life.
It’s not a revolutionary statement: mindfulness meditation means allowing unwelcome thoughts to happen and facing them head on, so what if you did the same with your unwelcome data too? Would you focus on the good data?
How would you recognise it, anyway?
Collating everything means you get a huge, zoomed-out view of your life - and if you can figure out how to use this data, you can tweak your life into a series of slightly better versions of itself.
And fret not - you are already doused by a firehose of data, generated by your own actions, every day.
Example A: Here’s a simple, life-improving data-collection experiment that your doctor may have already asked you to undertake.
“I’m anxious,” you tell the doctor, “and I’m overworked, and I can’t sleep. I need to be less anxious, sleep better, and be more happy. Help.”
Idly tapping her pen against her knuckles, the doctor asks, “How much coffee do you drink a day?” And you immediately scoff: you need real help, not to keep tabs on your beverages!
But still, you dutifully track your mood throughout each day by marking it out of ten (hey, it’s often a 5, hmm), and record how many cups of coffee you gulp down.
It turns out that you swill a lot of the black stuff: big, strong espressos to wake you up, another long sugary coffee for the commute, and, well, the office does have that endless filter machine in the corner, just an office-chair-shove away - the one with the fresh-ground-locally-roasted beans…
So you compare the two, and slash your coffee habit to see if you are calmer as a result. And you are. And you sleep better. Simple. Why didn’t you think of this yourself?
Small, workable changes are hard to spot when you’re creating them. But when you integrate this data with new technology, you can start to integrate these changes with your world in a pleasant way.
And then you can use this data and make it play a fortune-telling role in your life.
Example B: And now, here’s a simple way that you could use tech that exists right now to make tiny acts of magic happen in your life.
Does the rain make you measurably sadder? What could you do to simply make life better, easier, more calming? What could happen automagically?
Let’s say that every couple of hours, your Apple Watch asks you to record your mood. And then this data, along with weather alert data, your geo-location, and your calendar, is automatically fed into a service like IFFT.
You then also dutifully connect your home’s internet-connected lightbulbs, wifi-enabled coffee machine, your phone, and your Google Home speaker as well.
Wait, wait, bear with me. This might sound a lot like building weird life-LEGO, but it’s the crux of your quantified future: lots and lots of seemingly unconnected data splicing in simple ways to subtly change your life for the better.
Data variables in, effects on your life out
Now consider the emotion sausage-machine you have built.
You already know that your mood dips when it rains - but when it rains, you feel too grumpy to do anything about it, and instead stomp through the storm, muttering darkly to yourself as your suede shoes get ruined in dirty puddles.
You also know that good music, a really bitter coffee and something as dumb as nice lighting makes you happier.
In a hyper-connected tomorrow, things will take a turn for the better before you even have a chance to contemplate the grumbling. Here’s how.
IFFT can see from your GPS data and your diary that you’re at home but about to leave for a meeting. It also hears via the National Weather service that it’s about to rain heavily, and notices from your self-collected mood data that you’re already hovering around a middling-to-gloomy 6.5 today.
So it quietly triggers some pre-emptive actions. Your favourite music fades up, the lights bloom into a calming pink, your favourite (decaff!) coffee steams and froths away in the corner of the kitchen, and a subtly worded notification reminds that it’s time to go - and you really should grab your umbrella before you leave.
Before you’ve even been able to let a bad mood take hold, you’ve built a system that gently steers you - literally - into calmer waters.
And this is a fairly trivial example. You could set this up in an afternoon. There's now limitless opportunities to remix your life-data in ways that are perfect for you. Finally, you’ve got something better to do with all that fitness wearables data than try and run around the park a bit faster.
Go back to the top of this article: how happy were you then? How much happier would you be if life was just that little bit simpler? Now you just need to figure out how connected you're willing to be in order to get it.