The Point Of Self-Tracking Is Not The Data

There are multiple tools out there to easily record data about yourself: steps taken in a day can be tracked with Fitbit, will track all of your spending and Apple Watch will track your sleep. Steps, expenses and sleep could all be tracked before these tools became available but the record-keeping was time-consuming, requiring a commitment that only a very few had the patience to muster. Now, all of the data can be tracked unconsciously — and that’s the problem. The point of self-tracking is not the data, it’s the meaning; generating meaning is an activity of consciousness. A certain amount of friction is needed in the data collection process or it will be ignored and no benefit will be gained.

I think paper is still the killer app in self-tracking. Automation suffers from the drawback of “out of sight, out of mind.” If you don’t give any attention to collection, you may not integrate the data into your consciousness in a meaningful way. It takes longer to write things down, which is the point. Manual collection, while more laborious, also provides opportunities for increased self-awareness.

The point of taking the time to look at your credit card statement and enter the expenditures into a budget manually is to force you to come to terms with how you are spending your money. Since does all the heavy lifting all of the automated charts it creates have little effect on curbing spending.

Self-tracking tools also suffer from the double-edged sword of measurement–just because it’s easy to measure doesn’t make it important. The kinds of things that really need our attention to improve our lives are things that can’t be automatically tracked: time spent with loved ones, helping others and being a good person. But thanks to the difficulty of tracking these most important things, we’re forced to use paper — and therefore reap the benefits of conscious, manual collection.

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