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Welcome to part 3 of the QS book on mood tracking that Robin Barooah and I wrote. This chapter explains how to prepare for your self-tracking journey. We hope it helps you in your future tracking adventures!
Before you start tracking something new, there’s an important first step you can do to lay the groundwork for a rewarding self-tracking experience. How you approach tracking your mood and looking at your results can make a significant difference in what you end up learning from it. So in this chapter we’ll explore how to cultivate a helpful mindset, accept what you discover about yourself, and keep your mind and body open to building intuition.
Cultivate The Right Mindset
When you look in the mirror, what goes through your mind? Do you judge that part of your body that you just can’t bring yourself to like? Do you gush with warm appreciation? Do you notice something out of place and calmly adjust it or make a mental note to investigate?
It’s an interesting exercise to do on its own, noticing what thoughts you have when you see a reflection of yourself. According to several recent studies, a healthy mindset involves being mindful of your thoughts without jumping into problem-solving mode, and being kind to yourself.
If you think about self-tracking as a different kind of mirror, the same logic applies. What you record about yourself is actually a very personal reflection of your inner world, and so the kind of self that you bring to bear on it will influence what effect the information has on you. If you bring a judgmental mindset to looking at your data, you will feel like you’re being judged. If you bring a curious attitude to it, it may be easier to see new patterns in what you’ve collected.
Many of the activities that make up our fast-paced modern life are easier to handle if we can make quick decisions to get results based on patterns of judgment we’ve learned through personal experience. An important principle behind the training that professional scientists receive is to learn to step back from this routine mode of thinking and consider what the data could be telling them that they haven’t noticed before.
Because we’re not used to working this way in our daily routines, it’s easy to fall back on our normal problem solving methods, and in the case of mood this often includes self-judgement.
Of course, it’s easy for us to suggest avoiding a problem-solving mindset when looking at your data, but practically speaking, how can we change our own minds?
One thing we’ve found to be effective is to name some alternative mindsets that we can cultivate. These are mindsets that most of us have experienced at one time or another, and there is nothing mysterious about them. Often just remembering that there’s another way of looking at things is enough to find a different perspective.
Here are some of the attributes we’ve found helpful when cultivating a mindset for looking at our own data:
You might find yourself starting out with reflexive judgments when you start looking at your data. “How can I be depressed again? What’s wrong with me?” This approach can lead to a painful feeling of defeat, and sometimes people give up tracking entirely soon after they begin.
If this judgmental voice comes up in your head, redirecting it towards being realistic and pragmatic can help. For example, if you’ve been depressed for much of your life, it’s pragmatic to realize that simply by recording your mood, you’re learning something, as opposed to expecting an instant cure.
This attitude can also help you weather and understand the ups and downs you will find in your mood, without necessarily trying to optimize for being up all the time. Each mood can be respected for what it is without wanting to only be happy. Another consideration is that extreme moods may interfere with tracking, and this should be expected rather than considered to be a failure.
So, a mindset of clarity can help you be more gentle with yourself, as well as not delude yourself. It’s important to look at your empirical evidence carefully, in order to avoid flights of fantasy, and to not make up negative stories about yourself. The evidence for the conclusions you reach may be in the data, or may be in obvious life history that you can remember, but you want to make sure what you conclude is based on facts, not judgments.
When you see your data, a common reaction is to want to compare yourself to others. “I hope my moods aren’t the most wildly swinging ones in the office!” This is a competitive flavor of the unkind, judgmental voice that can lead to depression. When this voice comes up, just observe your data without judgment, be very kind and gentle to yourself, and get curious.
For example, you might want to ask questions like whether your moods correlate to things like sleep or exercise, as the Optimism iPhone app does:
Long-time self-trackers have an almost insatiable curiosity. When a really good or really bad mood day happens, the analytical mind kicks in to try to see patterns. Comparing this time to previous times that were similar in some way, we try to figure out possible variables. “I took extra vitamin D this morning” or “I haven’t seen people for two days.” Then we can test these variables and see if the high or low mood is reproducible.
A benefit of this kind of self-experimentation is that it’s personalized. Rather than relying only on scientific studies that look at population averages, you can start to tease out individual ways in which you respond to your internal and external environments that may be different from conventional wisdom. More on experimentation in Chapter Four.
Finally, a good baseline attitude for life in general is one of compassion. We’ve found that self-compassion is an essential part of maintaining a tracking practice. A good technique for increasing self-compassion is to think of all the people out there who are in the same situation as you – anxious about a job interview, stressed out from dealing with fighting kids, completely in love, whatever it is. Think kind thoughts towards them, and it will help you be kind to yourself. Your data is what it is, and it’s ok. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about.
Closely related to compassion when trying to make sense of data about our own lives is the idea of humility. In our experience, mood tracking can lead to powerful and helpful insights, but they don’t always come quickly. It’s an inevitable part of the process to be confused and to not have answers when we’re learning and exploring. The reality is that a lot of the time, we just don’t know what our tracking data means, and there’s no reason why we should.
Humor is another powerful tool for developing compassion, rather than taking yourself or your data too seriously. As the Buddhist saying goes, quoted by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, “Act always as if the future of the universe depends on what you do, and laugh at yourself for thinking that whatever you do makes any difference.”
Accept What You Discover
The practice of acceptance can be incredibly transformative. If you can accept yourself as you are, accept other people as they are, accept your data as it is, and accept situations around you, you will be free from secondary layers of emotion that prevent you from just dealing with whatever you need to deal with.
For example, let’s say you discover that every time you see your mother-in-law, you get angry followed by a week of depression. You have a choice here – layer frustration and resentment on top of the situation, or accept it and think about what your options are. Maybe you can talk to your spouse about finding a way to ease the trauma. It might not be as complex as you think to minimize the harm of the situation, but if you’re frustrated, you’re less likely to see the answer.
As Zen master Suzuki Roshi says, “It’s like putting a horse on top of a horse and then climbing on and trying to ride. Riding a horse is hard enough. Why add another horse?” Acceptance helps you just ride one horse at a time.
Also, feelings change us simply by being accepted and experienced even if we don’t have a plan for what to try in response to them.
Expectations come into play here. What we’ve learned is, the fewer expectations you have, about how you will respond to any particular experiment or about other people doing anything in particular, the easier life becomes. Keep moving strongly towards your inspiring intentions, just don’t expect anything to work out in the exact way you imagine.
Humans have been learning new skills for thousands of years, since long before the advent of modern science or even reason. Learning from our experiences is an innate gift we all have. The question is, which experiences do we learn from? We’d like to suggest that the experiences we learn from are the ones we pay attention to. There’s no need to take this at face value – it’s a question you can answer for yourself.
So the major gift that acceptance brings is that simply by trusting yourself to have your experiences and not trying to figure out what to change, you are still learning. Mood tracking can help us to pay attention to our mood and learn from it directly.
Build Your Intuition
This is one of the main benefits of self-tracking. A dedicated effort to look at something over time can help you to see patterns you didn’t know existed, and give you a greater awareness of yourself and how you function in the world. In the case of mood, building an intuitive understanding of how different triggers affect you makes it easier to manage and even change your mood.
A general principle we talk about at Quantified Self is: use a tool, learn a lesson, incorporate it into your life and body, then drop the tool because you don’t need it anymore. Of course, some people like to continue tracking for the sake of having data to look back on in the future, but sometimes it’s more helpful to track one or a few things deeply, until you’ve learned what you need to learn, then move on. There’s no hard and fast rule about when to be done with a particular form of tracking, but it’s worth periodically evaluating why you are tracking something and what you hope to gain from it, rather than continuing out of duty or habit.
Take the following mood chart, published by the Center for Quality Assessment and Improvement in Mental Health, which is operated by Tufts and Harvard Universities. It’s a great tool to start to be able to see your mood patterns, and can be especially useful for people with Bipolar Disorder, but you might not need to use it forever.
As part of preparing your mental state for tracking mood, recognize that by tracking you’ll get to know yourself better and that the learning isn’t just a list of facts – it affects how you feel about yourself, and you may not always have words to describe it.
For example, a person can know that she likes the taste of banana when he eats it without having to say “I like banana” in her head. Similarly, you know the mood of a painting, or a song, or someone’s expression, whether you say it to yourself or not. And after two years of mood tracking, Alex (from the story in the Introduction) can feel if she’s getting too depressed or manic and needs to change her behavior with some mood hacks to compensate. We’ll talk more about mood hacking in Chapter Four.
So armed with the right mindset of clarity, curiosity, and compassion, as well as a sense of acceptance and intuition, you’re now ready to start tracking mood. Tips for getting started are coming up in the next part of the book.