Discuss: How Has Data Surprised You?

Thanks to a flurry of wonderful comments on last week’s discussion about what people are tracking, these discussion posts will become more regular. Feel free to also comment if you have an idea for future discussions! This week’s topic:


How has data surprised you? Did you learn something new from self-tracking that you weren’t expecting? Did you not find what you were looking for? What has been the most surprising or unexpected thing you’ve experienced through your data?
For me, self-tracking has become a test of my daily random hypotheses. A recent example is that I was convinced my kids whine much more when I sit down to eat than at other times. So I went about testing this: Do my kids whine more at meals, or do I just notice their whining more when I’m trying to eat?


I started recording every whining episode, and whether or not I was eating at the time. After a week of this tracking, I discovered, to my kids’ great pleasure, that my hypothesis was wrong. They actually whined much more outside of mealtimes! 
I learned: 
  • my patience must be less when I’m trying to enjoy a quiet meal
  • don’t make blanket statements without data to back them up
  • instead of chiding my kids for always whining during meals, I can instead give them a lesson in testing their own hypotheses in the world, and show them that Mom is not always right
So that’s how data surprised me. What about you?
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9 Responses to Discuss: How Has Data Surprised You?

  1. james says:

    Whining in our house takes place just before meal times, with hunger at its peak.
    My most surprising discovery was that I have depressive episodes after eating certain foods. It took a few years to work out because the delay to onset of an episode is about 48 hours after eating the food. The depressive episodes last a week, almost to the day.

  2. Michael Netsch says:

    Not that earth shattering but I had some revelation when starting to use Audioscrobbler/Last.FM in 2005. I always thought I listened mostly to electronic music. But when looking at the data The Beatles came out as a clear number one. This experience convinced me to go on tracking my musical tastes and other stuff in my life.

  3. Matthew Cornell says:

    A few surprises:
    o When I dressed professionally I got better service.
    o Exercise has no impact on my sleep. Ditto for Melatonin (jibes with your fascinating results at http://curetogether.com/blog/2010/05/12/does-masturbation-work-for-insomnia/)
    o Also around sleep, I seem to wake up in the 11a hour no matter what.
    o Writing every morning is effective, and the noisy coffee shop environment does not get in the way. (This was surprising because I’m extremely sensitive to sound. Go figure!)
    o When I put a NASA sticker on the back of my laptop to see if anyone would come up, I got a bite! (http://edison.thinktrylearn.com/experiments/show/236)
    o In outsourcing Facebook Connect for Edison, I found that my contractor was less professional than I expected. Then again, I’m comparing him to the people I worked with at the Kennedy Space Center and in Umass research labs.
    o Thanks to your plug, I got far more viewers on my Experiment-Driven Life slideshare than expected. I was further delighted by contact by a couple smart folks including Rajiv Mehta.

  4. Justin Wehr says:

    Exercise: At least for me, exercise is negatively associated with things like productivity, sleep, and even satisfaction, but I continue to do it either because I am stubborn and irrational or because the benefits are more than what is captured in my data. (More: http://wehrintheworld.blogspot.com/2009/12/analyzing-my-exercise-past-year.html)
    Sleep: With all of my outcomes of interest, including wakefulness, there is nearly zero correlation with the amount of sleep I get. I do not interpret this to mean that I can get as much or as little sleep as I want and feel equally awake and alert the next day, but that if I sleep a reasonable amount (as I do nearly every night) then it really makes no difference. (More: http://wehrintheworld.blogspot.com/2009/11/analyzing-my-sleep-past-year.html)
    Weight: I was surprised to see how much my weight fluctuated the past year: My low was 133.5 on March 11, and my high was 151 on August 28 — a 17.5 pound difference without any real attempt to gain or lose weight! (More: http://wehrintheworld.blogspot.com/2009/11/analyzing-my-weight-past-year.html)

  5. Alexandra Carmichael says:

    Interesting surprises, and also interesting how many fewer comments this discussion got than the last two. I wonder what makes some questions more discussion-sparking than others…

  6. Alex C says:

    Just wanted to say that although I’ve been reading Cool Tools for ages, it was only recently I stumbled across this section. Fascinating stuff. I agree with Michael that last.fm has really helped me discover trends and artists I would never have noticed otherwise. I finally got a smartphone a few months ago and have been searching for easy ways to keep track of various parts of my life. So far, I’ve mainly focused on weight and caloric intake since I changed my eating habits, and the most surprising thing was how FAST calories add up, even in things I usually considered trivial. Reading the last discussion pointed me in the right direction for more apps (on a Droid X) to help track metrics. I look forward to some of these useful apps making their way over to Android! :)
    Some ideas I’ve been kicking around for tracking:
    + Intervals of productivity in the day
    + Diet/sleep correlation
    + Mood vs many different metrics (Never been much for journalling or mood tracking but comments here are inspiring me otherwise!
    I love reading these posts and comments, hopefully they’ll inspire me to look for more metrics to track and find ways to increase the value of the data gathered!

  7. Imran Ali says:

    As a practicing Muslim, there are five mandatory prayers to be performed pre-dawn, midday, mid-afternoon, sunset and evening.
    I’m usually pretty haphazard about stayin on top of it all, so I started keeping “score” in a spreadsheet.
    I always thought the pre-dawn prayer was the one I was least regular with (being early morning and all!), but it turns out the evening prayer is my weak spot.
    I realised, I make the effort for the morning and am more mindful about missing it due to a narrow time window. However, with the window for the evening prayer being several hours, it’s easy to be undisciplined and put if off until late at night.

  8. Matthew Cornell says:

    @james I’d be curious to hear what foods you found had the biggest impact. I’m subject to depression as part of Bipolar Type II, and I’m always looking for things that help.
    @Justin In my case (above) I discovered exercise seemed to have no impact on my sleep. PS Your links are broken.
    @Alexandra Re: fewer replies, how about the hypothesis that it’s harder to find patterns than it is to collect data?
    @Alex C Re calories, oh boy do they add up. My wife was in Weight Watchers, and I found that pasta, rice, and breads really shot up the weight. Also, a huge un-surprise: When I was stressed I ate more ice cream (consciously) and put on two pounds within a few weeks. Re: Intervals of productivity in the day, in the other 1/2 of my life I’m a time management consultant, and my specialty is bringing an experimental perspective to productivity. We are all different re: what affects our productivity, so tracking is important when diagnosing and trouble-shooting. I’ll make a very tiny pitch for my ebook “Where the !@#% did my day go? The ultimate guide to making every day a great workday” (http://tinyurl.com/y9ymlsk) which has experiments for time management.
    @Imran Your neat experiment reminds me of Benjamin Franklin’s 13 virtues (http://www.flamebright.com/PTPages/Benjamin.asp). I see there’s even an iPhone app for them! http://reasoninteractive.com/tools/benfranklin/about/index.html. How about a Muslim five prayers one?

  9. Alexandra Carmichael says:

    Great discussion – the quality of insight is impressive. Thanks everyone!
    @Matthew Thanks for calling out the CureTogether insomnia study! The Ben Franklin iPhone app link is http://reasoninteractive.com/tools/benfranklin/about/index.html
    @Justin You just had brackets at the end of your links – here are the working ones:
    Exercise – http://wehrintheworld.blogspot.com/2009/12/analyzing-my-exercise-past-year.html
    Sleep – http://wehrintheworld.blogspot.com/2009/11/analyzing-my-sleep-past-year.html
    Weight – http://wehrintheworld.blogspot.com/2009/11/analyzing-my-weight-past-year.html
    What other topics do you want to discuss?

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