Wandering minds, self-tracking, and citizen science

522517468_8bd0cf0106_m.jpgA reader over at my blog shared the NYT article Wandering Mind Is a Sign of Unhappiness, which reports on research by Killingsworth and Gilbert showing some surprises about distractedness. (My take: First, the least surprising result may be that the world’s happiest activity is reproduction. Second, almost half of the time we are not focused on what we’re doing, and this makes us unhappier.) The timing of this report is perfect given Ian’s recent Self-Tracking Tools post, where he talks about the Track Your Happiness project that the scientists used, along with supporting mobile apps and tools. The study is well-reported, so I’ll riff on it from two perspectives: How do we combine the results with self-experimentation to be happier? and What are the wider implications for citizen science and an experiment-driven life?

Using personal tracking to focus the mind

The article quotes Killingsworth as saying “We see evidence for mind-wandering causing unhappiness, but no evidence for unhappiness causing mind-wandering.” I see this as good news, because if the results hold true then we can use the directionality to be happier: wander less by focusing more on the task at hand. This is a popular time management topic (along with her sister, continuous partial attention), but let’s take an experimental attitude and ask how our quantified self work can give us some practical tools. (There are benefits to mind-wandering, but my focus here is on the value of staying focused.) A few ideas:

  • Objectify your wandering: I’ve found that applying our powers of scientific observation to ourselves helps to drain energy from the behavior. My thought is that capturing data about when our minds wander and then labeling it might get us back into the flow. A simple experiment is to just count each time your mind shoots off on a tangent. If you want to go retro (and get some tactile stimulation too), get an inexpensive mechanical hand tally counter. Just don’t tell anyone here :-)
  • Use triggers: The sampling that the study used is a kind of external stimulus that we could leverage to trigger a change. In this case you might simply set a periodic alarm that gives you an opportunity to check in with your thinking and adjust as needed. If you need a more organic reminder, try using events in your environment. One trick is to use a ringing phone to bring you back. The risk is that triggers can themselves be distracting and break our focus.
  • Experiment! Because each of us is different, the ultimate truth of what helps you to focus is personal. This means you have to try stuff out to figure out what works for you. For example, an experiment you might try is literally snapping yourself out of mental wandering – see Unwanted Thoughts? Snap the Rubber Band! The idea is to train yourself to stay focused. A disclaimer, though: applying willpower in one area might sap it from another.

From self-tracking through citizen science to citizen researchers

The second thing I took away from the study was how lovely an example it is of a large application of collecting personal data. This is a natural use of mobile technology – something that we all appreciate here – and the collaboration between scientific study and personal informatics will continue to gain momentum. I like the promise that Urban Atmospheres describes:

  1. Improve the science literacy of everyday citizens,
  2. Provide scientists with richer, finer-grain data sets,
  3. Increase grassroots participation in government and policy making, and
  4. Foster understanding and concern for our climate and environment

However, this kind of citizen science model (see this introduction from NSF) is still focused on expert researchers calling on us for data, and then sifting through the results to support (or disprove) professional theories. I think the next step beyond that is to move from citizen science to citizen researchers. My personal work is creating the principles, practices, and tools so that not just Harvard researchers but anyone with an idea to test can set up experiments that motivated self-trackers can participate in. And these would apply not just to health, but to all aspects of the human condition, such as the potential relationship above between wandering minds and happiness. In other words, citizen science writ large: DIY science + crowd sourcing + statistics?

I’m curious:

  • Did you participate in the Harvard study? What did you learn from the exercise? How did it change you?
  • What experiments have you tried for pulling your focus back to the moment? How did they turn out?
  • If you had a potential audience of 100,000 people, what experiments would you personally love to test?

[Image from RobertFrancis]

(Matt is a terminally-curious ex-NASA engineer and avid self-experimenter. His projects include developing the Think, Try, Learn philosophy, creating the Edison experimenter’s journal, and writing at his blog, The Experiment-Driven Life. Give him a holler at matt@matthewcornell.org)

About Matthew Cornell

Matt is a terminally-curious ex-NASA engineer and avid self-experimenter. His projects include developing the Think, Try, Learn philosophy, creating the Edison experimenter's journal, and writing at his blog, The Experiment-Driven Life. Give him a holler at matt@matthewcornell.org
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5 Responses to Wandering minds, self-tracking, and citizen science

  1. Wes says:

    I participated in this study and will continue to participate every 6 months or so. I found it very interesting for two separate reasons.
    As a way to gauge my own happiness. Some of my personal findings:
    - I am least happy at work (surprise, surprise) and most happy when outside the home, especially when socializing. The more people I am interacting with, the happier I am.
    - I am least happy on Tuesdays and most happy on Sundays.
    - There is a clear positive correlation between my level of productivity and my happiness.
    - No clear correlation between my amount of sleep and my happiness. Same goes with my sleep quality and happiness.
    As a way to gauge the methodology design and complicating factors.
    - For example, my happiness level while reading is very low. However, I actually enjoy reading. I think the reason is because I tend to read when I am bored and/or have nothing else to do. So I read during unhappy states. The reading is not causing unhappiness, it is a result of being in an unhappy environment.
    - I participated once in the winter and once in the summer. Because I hate the cold, my happiness while outside during the winter was extremely low and in the summer, it was extremely high.
    - I have stolen the idea of randomly emailing myself throughout the day for my own personal studies. I set the number of times I want to receive and email and then the timeslots and the email are random. For example, I may say I want 3 random emails a day: one between 8am-11am, one between 11am-4pm, and one between 5pm and 10pm.

  2. Matthew Cornell says:

    Hi Wes. Thanks a bunch for sharing your results. I love to hear what people learn, be it surprising or confirming. Have you made changes as a result of your experiment? I guess they’d be clear, if not straightforward: Change work to be better; socialize a lot; keep up your productivity systems, and sleep in Tuesdays and Sundays?
    Excellent points re: complicating factors, and your example analysis on reading makes sense. There are *so* many variables afoot in our bodies and lives. It calls for careful designs, plus advice from experts, I think.
    The random emails idea is brilliant! It leverages an existing tool, which is an example of lowering the barrier to experimentation, in this case random triggers. What tool did you use? I found

  3. Wes says:

    Hi Matthew,

    I don’t actually think I have made any changes as a result. I have noticed that with my self-experiments; they rarely cause changes in my behavior, even if they should. I am not sure why that is. Because of the experiments, I understand myself (and presumably others) more, but it’s more of a raised awareness than anything else.

    In terms of the random email too – I actually created a custom tool. I have a programmer friend who created it as a favor for me. I looked at a ton of reminder sites such as the ones that you link to, but I just couldn’t find one that did exactly what I was looking for – send me emails at random, multiple times a day, at time blocks that I specify. I couldn’t find a perfect tool, although I am sure one exists.

    p.s. Thanks for formatting my original comment (assuming you did it)

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