Tracking yourself for fun and profit

TLDR version: What you measure, you optimize. But there are important caveats.

Two things happened in a day that triggered pattern recognition (no, not the looting and rioting in Charlotte):

  1.  A study reports that fitness trackers make people lose less weight.
    (For those not yet subscribed to the world’s only readable newspaper, here’s the link to the original study)
  2. A family member cut his smoking habit in half – and trending downwards – just by making a mark on a piece of paper every time he lights up.

Hmm. Those kind of look related. Keeping track of things affects how much you do them.

But wait. What’s up with fitness trackers making people lose less weight? Shouldn’t they be doing the opposite?

Well, no. Because I suspect tracking things you want more of, and tracking things you want less of, affects your behavior differently.

With the smoking, it’s “Holy shit, I smoked how much today already?”

With the exercise, it’s “Meh, that should do it for the day”, and/or “Nice, go me, I should reward myself with a bacon cake”.

(I suspect there’s a similar mechanism at work in the folk intuition of “jinxing” stuff – when you direct a sort of appreciative attention towards a good thing that’s not yet mature, it invites complacency and makes you less likely to complete it – the brain treats it as already done and stops working on it. At least that’s the one explanation that doesn’t resort to superstition.)

The thing people actually optimize there isn’t the absolute amount of exercise, but the cost/benefit ratio – getting the minimal amount of exercise they deem sufficient. Just over the hurdle and that’s it.

As mentioned in a previous article, people think of exercise as a sort of currency they buy other things with, a means to an end, and the instinct is to pay the lowest price possible. Only, to slightly stretch the metaphor, they seriously overestimate the purchasing power of what they are doing.

The remedy is an upside revision of standards, which I advocate consistently, vigorously and energetically.

What other things are there that can benefit from formal tracking? A lot. Turns out the act of tracking is the effective part of many things people think they’re doing for other reasons.

For example, calorie counting is overkill for normal humans as a weight loss method, but it helps you eat less by focusing attention on restricting calories in principle.

Keeping record of $2 expenses balanced nobody’s finances ever, but the mere act of paying more attention to responsible management of your money does the trick.

Personally, I’ve found that having checkboxes to fill every day (“write 500 words”, “do 100 pushups”, “annoy five French people”) is a great way to form enduring habits. When you have twenty consecutive days checked for <desirable habit>, you keep doing it out of loss aversion until it becomes second nature. Think of it as training wheels…

It’s not an accident that Alcoholics Anonymous has people keep track of how long they’re sober. (Incidentally, I keep track of the number of bottles of Barolo that gave their best to turn into internet articles this month. But I’m maximizing.)

Part of the method’s effectiveness is that it gives you relevant data about your favorite topic – yourself. Self-referentiality is a powerful attention-grabber (and holder).

I’m sure many of you are coming up with more uses for tracking something you are doing right now. Feel free to share them in the comments.

Technical note: For the sake of integrity and completeness, it looks to me like the tracker study is bullshit – the sample was super unrepresentative, consisting exclusively of overweight millenials undergoing health counseling at a university – i.e. people with the attention spans and impulse control of a school of horny goldfish, primed for just-past-the-goalpost attitudes by definition, while there are bound to be massive differences based on different peoples’ specific psychologies. For an obsessive challenge-accepted-let’s-make-it-go-to-eleven type (like me), it will probably do the opposite – a hypothesis we will verify soon enough when my Apple Watch 2 arrives.

But even a flawed study can point out interesting questions, to be answered by better studies in the future. In reality, fitness trackers probably make some people exercise less, some more, and others might not register an appreciable change. Those differences are precisely what will make for interesting research.

Technical note 2: as health and social psychology studies these days go, that’s, tragically enough, actually an impressively rigorous sample – most would ask their five friends and call it a thesis.

If you’re one of the world’s remaining smokers, why not try the pen-and-paper method and report your success? It would be fascinating to get more data on this.

If I helped you quit smoking, consider buying me a beer with a tenth of the money I saved you.