Quantifying Myself

Alexandra Carmichael

As Gary mentioned in his earlier post, I track myself - 40 things about my body, mind, and activity - every day. The fact that I do this tracking seems to interest people. Whether they are driven by curiosity about the phenomenon of personal data collection, or by the desire for a yardstick by which to measure and compare themselves, the fascination exists. To address this interest, and by way of introducing myself as a hopefully regular guest blogger at The Quantified Self, I have put together a FAQ about my personal tracking. Read on and you'll probably know more about me than you ever wanted to know.

What data do I collect?
As you may have seen on my QS wiki profile, I track these things about my health and personal patterns every day:

AC Tracking.png

- sleep (bed time, wake time, sleep quality, naps)
- morning weight
- daily caloric intake (each meal, total calculated at end of day)
- mealtimes

- mood (average of 3 positive and 3 negative factors on 0-5 scale)
- day of menstrual cycle
- sex (quantity, quality)
- exercise (duration, type)

- supplements I take (time, dosage)
- treatments for vulvodynia (a chronic pain condition)
- pain of administering the vulvodynia treatment I take (0-5)
- vulvodynia-related pain (0-5)
- headache,nausea (0-5)

- time spent working, time with kids
- number of nursings and night wakings (I'm a mom)
- weather
- unusual events (text)

The mood factors I measure every day are:

   1. Happiness
   2. Irritability
   3. Calmness
   4. Sadness
   5. Feeling beautiful / self-love
   6. Feeling fat / ate too much

I chose these emotions as the most common ones I feel on a daily basis. I rate each one from 0-5 and then calculate my overall mood = 1 - 2 + 3 - 4 + 5 - 6.

When did I start this data collection?
4 months ago, August 2008.

How do I track?
I started out using the spreadsheet application in Google Docs, and I'm slowly transitioning to using CureTogether's tracking features (more on that below). I record nighttime data and morning weight when I wake up, and the rest of the day's data in the evening before I go to bed. I keep track of my per-meal calories on scraps of paper by the calendar in my kitchen. The three charts I pay the most attention to are shown above. There was a week when we were on vacation and I didn't record any data - it's obvious on the chart as an unusually smooth part of the line.

What have I learned from collecting data about myself?
I found two interesting trends or patterns in my data, one of which surprised me. The first trend was that my mood went up significantly on days that I did more exercise. My highest mood days were during Tai Chi workshop weekends, when I did 5-6 hours of Tai Chi each day. The second, more surprising one for me was that on days when my mood was down, I ate a lot more - up to 3,170 calories one day instead of my usual average of about 2,050! This suggested to me that I use eating to process emotional upsets, which I always knew subconsciously but had never been forced to face.

With the chart in front of me, I clearly saw things about myself that I had turned a blind eye to before. I realized my relationship with food could use some work, so I started trying to observe and change my thought patterns. I've taken up journaling and crochet again as a way to process my emotions. I'm also working through a great book to help restore a positive body image, something I haven't had since I was 10 years old. And in digging through the research on body image, it's been a relief to discover that I'm not alone. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 80% of American women are dissatisfied with their appearance. My guess is that statistic is an underestimate.

I hadn't expected my tracking to unearth such deep, emotionally charged issues. I did expect the optimization which often accompanies tracking, but when striving for an optimized ideal, the question becomes how to decide what "ideal" means. I just don't have an intuitive sense of what the data "should" look like. Are such wild swings in caloric intake normal? What do other people's patterns of mood, sleep, and exercise look like? I'd love to see some kind of comparable, to get some sense of where my patterns fit on the distribution curve. Part of my motivation in sharing my data is to encourage others to do the same. Let's learn from each other!

Why did I start tracking myself?
It came out of the CureTogether project I'm working on, which my co-founder Daniel Reda presented at the most recent Quantified Self Show & Tell on Tuesday. We launched in July as a way to bring patients with 3 chronic conditions together to share their symptoms and treatments with each other and contribute their data to crowdsourced health research. It quickly expanded to 148 conditions, all suggested by members. It's amazing to me to see people checking off symptoms and treatments they've experienced and tried, keeping daily Twitter-like logs of their health, and starting to track basic things like weight, sleep, caloric intake, and exercise.

I started tracking so I could see first-hand what it's like, what is frustrating, what can be learned, what I felt most comfortable sharing (sleep, medications, mood) and what I was more reluctant to share (caloric intake, chronic pain, how often I have sex). I wanted to learn about myself and at the same time figure out how to make the process easy and fun for others. I realized from my own experience that unexpected discoveries can emerge from self-tracking, so I'm very interested to see what happens when a large enough group gets together to track and compare with each other.

How long will I keep tracking?
The short answer: As long as it's not impacting my enjoyment of life.
The slightly longer answer: As my Dad always says, "I don't like to throw anything out because I never know when I'm going to need it." While I disagree when it comes to accumulation of material things, I agree when it comes to data. I think it's wise to collect as much information as we can and figure out what to do with it later.

Well, I hope you've enjoyed this somewhat narcissistic dive into my world. I look forward to hearing from you about your tracking projects and comparing notes. And if Kevin and Gary will have me, I'll be posting here again soon! Thanks for reading. :)



#1 | Sun, 12-14-08 04:50 | Gary Wolf

Thanks Alexandra! Your account of your self-tracking has made me think about adding a calorie counting column to my self-tracking data. A question for you: how do you calculate the calories of the food you are eating. Obviously there are different ways to do this. What is your method, and why?

#2 | Mon, 12-15-08 12:07 | Marie-Claire Camp

Fascinating. How long does it take you, per day, to input all of these little bits?

#3 | Mon, 12-15-08 12:33 | Sandy Lane

Does it measure your narcissism too?

#4 | Mon, 12-15-08 01:29 | Alexandra Carmichael

Thanks for the questions!

Marie-Claire, I’d say it takes me about 3 minutes in the morning and 7 minutes at night to go through entering and looking at my data, then about 10-15 minutes once a week to look back at the past week, make sure the graphs are working, look for patterns, etc. It’s actually quite fun once you get going!

Gary, I started out measuring my food using standard measuring cups/spoons, and Googling at every meal to find out how many calories were in each of the components of my meal. The Google search usually ended up at http://caloriecount.about.com or http://www.thecaloriecounter.com. For packaged foods, it’s obvious to look on the package, but since I eat a lot of whole, unprocessed foods, it took me a while to get an intuitive sense of how many calories were in a dish of almonds and raisins or a bowl of caponata. I still occasionally look things up if I eat a new food. When I eat out, it is harder to estimate, although increasingly places like Starbucks (and even some restaurants) are posting the caloric content of their offerings online.

#5 | Mon, 12-15-08 01:43 | anne

I love this. I’ve been trying to do variations of it for years but I can never stick with it — I always run into a period where I don’t have enough time, and then it gets easier and easier to not do it…

Stats I’ve tracked are similar to yours: mood, weight, food intake (calorie estimate), energy, RLS severity (my particular fun disease), sleep (amount and quality), which meds & vitamins i took, how much exercise, alcohol intake, menstrual cycle, etc. Not nearly as many as yours but along the same lines. I also never really started to graph & correlate them but you’re making me want to try! I also used Google spreadsheets; this way I can update from work as well as from home.

Now that I’m pregnant, at least jotting down bits of data has helped with tracking my weight gain and pregnancy symptoms too. But I haven’t gotten back to the whole spreadsheet.

#6 | Mon, 12-15-08 02:16 | jane

This is an amazing project! I have done something like this in the past, but never in this much detail.

So you’re able to track all these things in CureTogether because you’re a co-founder? Unless I’m missing something, it’s pretty limited at the moment.

Also, looks like it’s in need of some user testing. I accidentally added a condition when all I meant to do was search for it (I admit, I searched for a condition and it came up with a second screen that I didn’t read, just assumed it said “No results, search again” - oops! Sorry!).

I love the idea of CureTogether, but with the functionality it currently has, it’s not useful to me yet.

#7 | Mon, 12-15-08 02:55 | Gary Wolf

Sandy Lane asks Alexandra in the comments if her system measures her narcissism, too. OK - that comment makes it past the filter not because it’s insulting; random insults and spam will be filtered out here. But in fact along with the insult there is a critical opinion worth taking up, perhaps in a separate post and discussion. The critical opinion is something like:

Self-tracking is a sign of narcissism. Or, perhaps: Self-tracking is narcissism.

I’ve had the chance to talk to a lot of people about self-tracking and this is one of the common responses. It is more common, by far, than “wow, I do that too! What have you learned?” Of course we created QS to share information and analysis among people interested in self-tracking, but one can be interested in a critical or a hostile way, and since these criticisms are uninfluenced by our own varieties of wishful thinking they might have great value.

I want to know more about this concern about self-tracking. One approach would be to divert ourselves with the important background material - for instance, the great jeremiad of Christopher Lasch, “The Culture of Narcissim.” But it might be more interesting to take this external criticism and do something with it using our own methods. Is narcissism a coherent concept? Can it be measured? If so, can these measurements be correlated with other measurable elements of human experience and behavior? And then, back to the question: does self-tracking correlate with narcissism?

This type of approach is not very witty; or rather, I think it does have a kind of wit, but the humor is intrinsic to the procedure. I’m willing to entertain the idea that self-tracking is correlated with narcissism, but I’m not going to take it as true without evidence!

#8 | Mon, 12-15-08 03:39 | Chip

I use http://www.nutritiondata.com/ for calorie counting. The “MyND” tab has some nice tools for tracking and tabulating.

#9 | Mon, 12-15-08 06:57 | Alexandra Carmichael

Jane, thanks for your candid feedback on CureTogether! The tracking part of our site has only just been released, as of last week actually, with a new update to be released probably tonight. :) Thank you for the bug report too, I’ll get on that.

Gary and Sandy, I was wondering about the narcissism comment - mostly with interest, because I did bring up the subject myself. I think it would definitely make an interesting follow-up post! I’d be willing/curious to measure my level of narcissism, although I’m reasonably certain it would be on the low end, since I have battled low self-esteem for years. A quick search for measures turned up the NPI-16, a scale for assessing narcissism described in this paper: http://www.columbia.edu/~da358/npi16/npi16_jrp.pdf

Anne and Chip, thanks for sharing your experiences - tracking can be hard to stick to at times, but having a community to share it with and fun tools to use does make it easier.

#10 | Tue, 12-16-08 07:05 | Nancy Jane Moore

I went through a period of doing something similar many years ago — so many years ago that I did it on paper. Alas, my charts are one of the things I decided I no longer needed when I moved recently, so I can’t share the hard data. But I can share a few things I learned from the process.

Most importantly, I figured out that my moods and general emotional state followed a regular pattern tied directly to my menstrual cycle. I was invariably very depressed and easily made angry just before my period - classic PMS, I suppose. And I hit a significantly creative and emotional high about mid-cycle, when I was probably ovulating. I learned not to make serious decisions during either of those times, because my emotional reaction at both times was skewed — especially just before my period.

Cynthia Heimel has a very funny essay in one of her books about the clothes choices you make just before your period starts. And she’s dead on: I used to get a desire to buy some new clothes just before my period started — even though I actually hate clothes shopping — probably because I felt like I looked ugly. And any clothes I bought then — as Heimel points out — never looked good on me. I took that knowledge and projected it out to more significant decisions. For example, don’t quit your job when you’re in the throes of PMS; if it’s still driving you crazy when you’re not at the mercy of your hormones, then think about quitting.

Anyway, I found tracking data — and I included moods, productivity, weight, menstrual cycle, exercise, food, and other things that sound similar to your project, though I didn’t go so far as actually counting calories and tended to estimate things — helped me understand myself better and make better decisions. Now that I no longer have a menstrual cycle — and btw, I love menopause — I should probably try this again, to see if I can find any new patterns.

I don’t think this is a narcissistic practice, though I suppose narcissists could take it and use it as another way of showing that they’re superior to everyone else. I found it instead to be a useful form of self-therapy — a way of understanding certain things about myself so that I could either deal with them or not worry about them.

#11 | Tue, 12-16-08 08:03 | TImm

Wow for the first half of your graph it seemed that exercise and mood directly correlated. THen them mood dipped when exercise was applies.

I guess you figured out that exercise is chumps.

#12 | Tue, 12-16-08 10:48 | AnneShirley

I’m excited about CureTogether and really hope those additional tracking fields become available soon.

To the narcissism comment, I’d like to say that I’m aghast at narcissistic behavior every day that is socially condoned, but, at least for me, tracking my health helps me to do the work that I want/need to do.

I take care of a lot of people and have a full life that includes community work in addition to my career responsibilities. To the extent that I’m not depressed, overweight or caught in the healthcare system, everyone around me benefits.

It’s far more narcissistic, I’d say, to “take care” of yourself with trash tv and bonbons, as so many people do.

#13 | Tue, 12-16-08 11:54 | Lee Buckler

Is it possible that your mood lowers when you eat too much rather than thinking that you eat too much when your mood lowers?


#14 | Tue, 12-16-08 08:59 | Alexandra Carmichael

Nancy Jane, I love your idea of tracking as a form of self-therapy. It is, for me, a way of taking an honest look at myself, seeing what needs to be improved, and understanding my patterns. The result is often taking action to make improvements to and optimize my health, so in that sense the therapy seems to work! Or at least I feel better knowing I’m learning about myself.

Timm and Lee, thanks for your astute observations. My best guess is that exercise and mood feed on each other in a positive spiral, and eating and mood feed on each other in a negative spiral, so it’s hard to say definitively which causes the other, except based on my subjective feeling at the time.

AnneShirley, I agree that tracking helps me to keep everything in balance so I can juggle the many balls I always have up in the air. It will quickly tell me if I am not getting enough sleep, for example. So the time it takes to do it does seem to be worth the effort.

Great comments, everyone! :)

#15 | Wed, 12-17-08 01:36 | Mark Elliot

Interesting comments - and great suggestions for specific behaviors and data to track. I’m new to tracking. Like others here, my motivation seems to arise from a quest for greater understanding about my own behavior - a will to cure, so to speak. Particularly interesting is the sharing aspect of the ‘personal informatics’ movement that is nicely profiled in the linked WSJ article. FWIW, I don’t see it as individually narcissistic as much as a sign of a more organized, collective self-regard. I suspect it says more about privileged Westerners and our advantaged position in the hierarchy of needs as it does about any one of us.

I have found daily tracking to be a real challenge (as one poster mentioned). I TRY to track my daily objectives and task accomplishments; wake and retire times; exercise achievement (miles ridden daily); waist (in contrast to weight) and - more subjectively - diet and productivity. I use a week wrap-up to evaluate progress towards better habits. I haven’t yet punched this into a spreadsheet but instead use a paper sheet that I’ve cobbled for the purpose. I’m curious if others struggle to ritualize their personal informatics program as I do, or if like riding a bicycle.

#16 | Wed, 12-17-08 04:02 | Gary Wolf

Welcome Mark -

I also have been enjoying this discussion. In talking with many self-trackers, my impression is that there is a pretty clear division between two types/temperaments. There are people for whom collecting data is itself a rewarding activity. The data feels like a valuable possession, and the systems for gathering it up have inherent interest. I’ve even talked with Seth Roberts, the psychology professor and expert in self-experiment referenced in earlier posts here on QS, about what he sees as an occupation hazard among academics with this temperament - sometimes they get so into collecting data that they never get around to doing anything with it!

There is another type of person who is after an answer, and collecting data is just a step - and often not a very pleasant or appealing one - on the way to this answer. The drive to get an answer is so strong, however, that the data-averse or data-neutral person gets into collecting data because they have to.

One of the things that seems to be going on here in the QS space is that people with both these general temperaments are conversing/sharing information. It makes for some fun discussions, because there is a push both towards DATA and towards MEANING.(Of course in any individual there is a mix of goals - I am drawing very general distinctions, here.)

In answer to your question about the struggle to ritualize the program: I definitely share this problem. Cure Together, Zume Life, TweatWhatYouEat, and others who have presented at the QS Show&Tells and contributed to the conversation are trying to make this easier. Some mix of increased automation and increased meaning/interpretation rewards may help.

#17 | Sun, 12-21-08 09:37 | Shane

I was wondering if you have the mood scale/questions documented anywhere…

#18 | Fri, 12-26-08 11:46 | Alexandra Carmichael

Thanks to Mark for your comment and to Gary for your insight! I definitely enjoy tracking for the most part, so I would fit primarily into the data-loving group. My process to create a ritual was to sit down and write out everything I could think of tracking, then create a spreadsheet, then build it into my morning/evening routine of checking email and reading blogs. I leave my health tracking spreadsheet (hosted at Google Docs) open as a tab in my browser so it’s always there, along with my Gmail, Google Calendar, and BaseCamp to-do list. Having these things open reminds me to get to them every time I open my laptop.

The hard part for me in terms of motivation is not so much developing the ritual but sticking with it on days when I deviate from my ideals. There is a harsh honesty to tracking that can be hard to face. Yesterday, for example, I really didn’t want to record the 3500 Christmas calories I consumed! The desire for a “perfect” chart with smooth lines and a big helping of self-control is another one of those illusions that set you up to feel like a miserable failure. It works the other way too: on days when I stay under 2000, I definitely feel a rush of short-lived victory.

Tracking myself is like standing naked in front of a mirror: there’s nowhere to hide, and new lumps and wrinkles become visible. But along with this undoctored reality comes the opportunity to learn about myself, understand myself, and ultimately love myself. If there were a way to expedite and replicate the path from tracking to self-love, it would really take off in the mainstream culture.

#19 | Sun, 12-28-08 12:01 | Shane L

How exactly do you measure your mood? What factors go into it?

#20 | Mon, 12-29-08 02:28 | jovial_cynic

In response to this post, I have created http://trackeverything.org, which is an application that lets folks track arbitrary data about their own lives and have it displayed visually on a graph.

Here’s a write-up on it: http://newprotest.org/details.pl?1338

#21 | Tue, 12-30-08 09:56 | Kevin Kelly

Thanks, Jovial!

#22 | Wed, 12-31-08 04:01 | Alexandra Carmichael

Hi Shane, Thanks for the question about mood. It’s basically just what I describe in the post. I subjectively assign 0-5 ratings to the 6 mood measures, then calculate the overall mood using the given formula. I’d be interested in finding a more objective way of measuring mood at some point (suggestions, anyone?), but for now this is serving my need to have a general sense of where my mood is on any particular day. Hope that helps. Happy New Year! Alexandra

#23 | Fri, 01-02-09 05:00 | Dustin

Yay! Aspergers!

#24 | Sat, 01-03-09 10:33 | jovial_cynic

As a result of this post, I made http://trackeverything.org to allow people to easily track and graph arbitrary date about their own lives. Thanks for the inspiration!

#25 | Mon, 01-19-09 06:24 | berrett rice

Amazing. Tell me how you track the weather? Do you have a single number you track (e.g., high temp), or is it a qualitative number (how much I liked it, 0-5)?

#26 | Tue, 01-27-09 04:19 | Lucien

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