Quantified Self

Is Technology Destroying My Intuition?

A Personal Experiment Recap and Reflection

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Are my systems turning me into a robot?

There are two dueling forces within me that seem to be locked in a never-ending battle. On the one hand, I love simplicity and minimalism. I love using default settings and apps, simplifying my needs, and generally reducing the number of requirements I need to be productive and happy. On the other hand, I love using highly specific software that has features beyond the basics. For the tools I use everyday, I love finding the best and then customizing them to my exact specifications and I love using technology to create systems and processes that help me offload the need to remember to do thing. These opposing forces ebb and flow within me and you can usually tell my current status by just taking a peek at the software I’m using (and since I’m writing this in Bear instead of Notes my expansive/non-minimal aspect must be winning right now).

I recently found myself reflecting on all the systems and processes I had created to get myself to do the “right things” at the “right time.” As a huge proponent of the Getting Things Done (GTD) personal productivity approach, I’m very good at offloading my tasks into an external system. Every thought that starts with, “I should do…” is regularly captured in a piece of software and a decision is made about what to do about it on a very regular cadence.

Even beyond my robust GTD system, I enlist technology for several other jobs in my life. I use an automatically recurring checklist in the morning and in the evening to help me get through my morning and evening routines successfully. Every day at the same time 5–7 reminders pop up on my devices to encourage me to do things like, “Read for a bit,” “Journal,” and “Meditate.”

Finally, I’m also using technology to track several different categories of data about myself, both physical and mental. I track sleep and physical activity with my smart watch, subjective experience with Exist.io, computer usage with Moment and Rescue Time, and finances with Mint, just to name a few.

All of these external systems I created for myself are designed to help me focus my attention and effort where it is most needed. At least, that was the theory… but what if I’m actually harming myself instead?

What if my GTD system is making me capture and make decisions on the inessential at the expense of what I really needed to be doing? Would I be more likely to work on what really matters, the truly essential, if I didn’t have a system that tracked all my work and instead I had to make decisions based on my gut?

Are my automatic morning and evening checklists offloading the responsibility to notice how my routine is making me feel in favor of just mindlessly checking items off a list? Do I really need a piece of technology to tell me to take the actions I know make up routines that are important to me?

Is my quantified self habit causing me to take certain actions not because of how they make me feel but because they move certain numbers up or down? Shouldn’t I be doing things because I like the way they make me feel and not because they make my graphs prettier at the end of the year?

In a nutshell, am I outsourcing my intuition by using processes and technology to take care of large aspects of my life?

Would I be a more sensitive, calm, and responsive person if I stopped relying on these systems and instead tried to get in touch with my own thoughts, feelings, and sensations? The more I dug into what an experiment to test this might look like the more nervous I got, which told me I was probably on the right path.

Ultimately, I decided to commit to 30 days where I removed as many of these sources of information, tracking, and outside support. I would revert back to a place where I didn’t have any kind of technology telling me what I should be doing or feeling with the hope that it would re-awaken what I was calling my intuition — my ability to notice how I’m feeling in the moment and make decisions or take action based on that information.

I won’t bore you with the day-by-day play-by-play, but some of the things I ended up doing included:

  • Stopped tracking my sleep

  • Stopped filling out my weekly personal metrics spreadsheet with things like steps, sleep duration, number of workouts, journal entries, and meditation duration.

  • Stopped weighing myself daily

  • Didn’t use an app to track workouts or meditation sessions

  • Didn’t use automatically recurring checklists in the morning or evening

  • Turned off as many notifications as possible

Importantly, there were a few things I didn’t do (although I definitely thought about it):

  • I didn’t stop using Things or the GTD methodology for tracking my work

  • I didn’t turn off Mint since it tracks my finances passively and I knew I didn’t want a big hole in my yearly data

Doing those two things felt too unsafe to try right now so I excluded them from the experiment.

The Results

The one thing that always bothered me about being a PhD student was this expectation that we were supposed to always know how our experiment would turn out. I’m not sure anybody ever explicitly said that, but the message was still there. By the time you had reviewed all the literature and prepared the methods and done pilots and worked through every possible contingency, running the experiment was just a matter of getting the data you needed to write up your findings (and if you disagree with that please point me to where all the “failed” experiments are being published… nobody moves forward in the academic world with failed experiments).

That was definitely not how I approached this experiment. It was truly an experiment in every sense of the word. I didn’t know what the results would be. On the one hand I was hoping that maybe this would unlock some kind of blissful, free, and responsive state of mind that would liberate me from all my systems and keep me much more rooted in the moment. That would have been an interesting and exciting result of this experiment. On the other hand, I had a sneaking suspicion that there was a reason I felt drawn to things like GTD and recurring checklists and quantified self. That removing these important aspects of how I make sense of the world would make me feel like I was adrift with nothing to latch onto.

The real results were somewhat more mixed.

I think I started to see some glimpses of my intuition coming back. I definitely became more aware of my body and my mind by creating more space. On the positive side, removing nearly all notifications was something that created a noticeable improvement in my state of mind. I felt like I could have longer thoughts that had the freedom to roam and grow. In a notification heavy world those thoughts would often be cut off before they could become something interesting.

By the end, though, I decided to revert to my previous systems and habits almost completely. I learned that these systems I’ve created for myself give my brain and energy positive direction. Without them, I would start ruminating or obsessing over things that would just end up making me feel bad.

I also learned that without my systems that prompt me to take positive action, to do the things I know I should be doing, I mostly end up not doing any of those things at all. I worked out very little over the course of this experiment. I meditated very little over the course of this experiment. I wrote very little over the course of this experiment. I know that I feel better when I do all three of these things regularly. For whatever reason, when I removed all external structure I didn’t keep doing these things that I know are positive for me.

Does this mean that I’ve been tricking myself and that I’d actually be happier if I stopped doing them? If I can’t do them without collecting data about them or being reminded by a technological system does that mean I shouldn’t be doing these activities? I wrestled with this for awhile because for a significant amount of time I thought this might be the case. Was I doing my habits for the wrong reasons?

Ultimately, I decided that it’s better to do the right things for the “wrong” reasons than it is to not do them at all.

I’m happier when I’m working out, meditating, and writing regularly and if there are tools, systems, or processes that help move me in that direction then I should embrace them with open arms. It was actually extremely eye-opening to realize that what really matters is simply doing these activities and that it doesn’t matter what it requires to get my ass on a cushion, my feet in a gym, or my fingers on a keyboard. The real battle begins when I close my eyes and start breathing, lifting those weights, or moving my fingers; I don’t need to make it harder than it has to be. If a recurring checklist makes it easier to meditate, great. If being able to track my workout data over time makes me more likely to go lift weights, awesome. If keeping track of how many times I write in my journal every week makes it more likely that I’ll sit down and write, excellent.

I admire the folks who don’t need systems to get themselves to do the things they know they need to do. What this experiment showed me, though, is that I’m not one of those people. And instead of feeling badly about that, I’m going to lean into this realization and continue building the external systems that help me be the best version of myself — completely guilt free.

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Making a Weekly Personal Metrics Spreadsheet

The times where I collected the most data about my life were not necessarily the times where I felt like I was making the most interesting insights about my life. Said another way, more data doesn’t always mean more better conclusions. Ahem. Something like that.

For the past year or so I’ve adhered to a pretty simple weekly habit that has made my efforts to quantify aspects of my life so much more useful. I call it my Weekly Personal Metrics spreadsheet.

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The problem it’s trying to solve is — in a world of lots of data easily collected, how do you even remember what you’re tracking, let alone actually remember to go look at it and see if you can glean any insights? In a perfect world all of the interesting data I want to collect would be done so passively and a smart app or operating system would crunch it and feed me interesting tidbits (yes, I know Exist.io and Addapp exist but I have found them…. wanting).

The simple trick is to sit down once a week and collect all my various data points and manually add them to a simple spreadsheet. Then, I can look at them and compare them against the previous week (which is what I do most often and where the red/green cell colors come from). If I was more industrious I could make all sorts of visualizations to show how I’m doing on the various metrics I’m tracking (that might be an end of year project actually).

This simple little addition to my weekly routine has actually been pretty great. It helps me notice when I’m letting things spin out of control (I’m looking at you Sleep and Weight) and make changes before things get totally out of hand. It lets me really lean into as many passive sources of data collection as possible because instead of just letting them slip away into the ether I know I’m going to extract everything once a week.

I’ll go into more depth about why I track what I track in a future article. For now, you’ll just have to be happy with the nuts and bolts of setting up a Weekly Personal Metrics spreadsheet.

Making your own is as simple as figuring out a.) what’s important enough (or easy enough) to track? b.) when will you update it? That’s about it. Find important things that are easy to track (sleep is a good starting point if you have an Apple Watch and weight is kind of a no-brainer if you have a scale) and once a week pull the data into a spreadsheet. Do that every week for a long time and you’ll start to see the patterns emerge.

This is part of my semi-regular* series where I conceive of an article idea, write it, edit it, and publish it in 30 minutes or less. Have a thought? Leave a comment or follow me on Twitter.

*Where semi-regular means I sometimes go weeks without writing.

Closing Loops, Sleeping, and PhD Failure. A Look at Some Priorities.

Every three months I take stock of how my life is going and figure out some statements I can use to guide my behavior and decisions. The structure of these statements, something I learned from Holacracy, take the form of “Good Thing #1 even over Good Thing #2.” we tend to throw the word “priority” around with abandon without actually attaching much meaning to it. But if something is truly a priority then it means you are willing to give up other good things in order to pursue it.

A Recap of My First Quarter Priorities

1. Sleep even over feeling productive

Near the end of 2015 I developed a new appreciation for the power of getting enough sleep. I decided to explicitly focus on getting enough sleep for the first three months of 2016 even over feeling productive. I have gotten into situations in the last where I would stay up extremely late and/or get up extremely early in order to “be productive.” No more! At least 7 hours of sleep per night is what I need to feel good and I couldn’t let things get in the way of that requirement.

According to my sleep data I averaged just over 7 hours for all three months. This is mostly a function of doing a decent job at going to bed on time and having a job where I have leeway in terms of when I get to the office. I explored using a sleep mask in order to have total darkness but I discovered I hated the feeling of something on my face while I slept. I also tried using blue light blocking glasses in the evening which I’m not sure helped. I also tried to do a better job of winding down in the evening by not looking at devices right before bed and drinking sleep inducing tea. My adherence to that routine was kind of hit and miss so I’m going to keep playing with it. Overall, I’d give myself an A in this priority.

2. Nutrition even over convenience

When I moved to NYC I quickly learned about the glory of Seamless. Even though I love cooking I got sucked into the convenience and allure of simply tapping a couple buttons and having delicious food delivered to my apartment. My lazy side came out in a big way. I realized I needed to nip this habit in the bud especially since I had consciously decided not to worry about working out for the next few months. If I kept that routine going I would have easily gained some serious weight.

The goal was to cook more and use Seamless and eat out less. My success with this was hit and miss. Looking through the history on my Seamless app I see I ordered food 14 times between January 1st and March 31st. That’s roughly once per week. From September through November 2015 I ordered food 21 times. The other relevant metric, weight, also went in the right direction. I started January 1st at roughly 204 pounds and finished the three months at 200 (even getting as low as 194 in early March — some business travel later in the month got me headed in the wrong direction again). Considering I went to the gym a grand total of 0 times the past few months and ran 0 miles the fact that I’m not 220 pounds right now is a win. Overall, I’d give myself a B on this one.

3. PhD even over all other extracurriculars

This was the big one. I needed to truly prioritize my PhD work over other fun things. This meant saying no to cool opportunities in order to buckle down on my PhD responsibilities. I did a pretty good job on the saying no part. Eric and I paused The File Drawer on my request (although we are restarting it soon!), I turned down some requested coaching, I punted some decisions to April, and I said no to a handful of interesting projects. Unfortunately, that didn’t translate into meaningful PhD progress. I received a draft of my thesis from my advisor in January with many comments and I still haven’t finished responding to all of them and resubmitting the draft. This is a pretty monumental failing on my part. One thing I did well, though, was scheduling a PhD retreat away from the city where I intend to finish my thesis. Overall, I give myself a D on this one.

My Second Quarter Priorities

1. Closing loops even over indulging curiosity

I go through a basic cycle where I get excited by all sorts of things and start doing and trying a whole bunch of different stuff. Before too long I start to feel like I have too much going on and I go through a period of focus. I’m currently deep in the midst of one of those expansive periods and it’s time for me to do some pruning. For the next few months I’m going to focus exclusively on finishing things I’ve already started.

I’m also going to focus on closing as many “infinite loops” as possible, too. An infinite loop is something like email or a social media feed that can never actually be truly finished. It’s always replenishing itself. I think a key part of my mental health resides not only in closing the discrete open loops like a project or a video game but also in limiting the number of infinite loops I allow as well.

2. Consistency even over spontaneity

I deeply admire people who create productive and useful routines for themselves and then stick to them without fail. That kind of discipline seems both otherworldly and incredibly important. For the next three months I’m going to explore a variety of different places in my life where I can install automation, routines, and rituals that can become habits. What I eat, how I dress, how I work — every area of my life is ripe for experimentation.

3. Clean lines even over integration

I have a hypothesis that not creating clear distinctions between work and leisure is profoundly draining. I’ve particularly noticed this with my PhD work. I haven’t created a distinct place for it to live in my psyche or work routine so any time I’m not actively working on it I have a low-level sense of unease or guilt permeating everything I’m doing. I go back and forth between work-life balance and work-life integration. For the next few months I’m going to walk down the path of separation and balance instead of integration: Normal and sane work hours, active and deliberate leisure, and heads down work when I’m actually supposed to be working.