Wandering minds, self-tracking, and citizen science

November 20, 2010

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)

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