Building My External Brain
productivity | stress
For the last decade Todd Greco has been using a variety of data sources to build up his exobrain, including recording every location he's visited, allowing him to call up each place individually or map them.
Automatic | Strava | swarm
Building My External Brain
I want to talk about my external brain. I’m more of a qualitative researcher, so I’m a bit of an interloper at this. Hi, don’t kill me. And so, this is going to be talking more about observational rather than experimental things if I want to use a descriptor yesterday morning.
But I think it’s interesting because I’m doing all of this stuff at scale. I’ve about 10 years of data, it’s just that it went up with serendipitous observational things that overlap, which is kind of fun.
So specifically, I want to talk about three apps I’ve been using for a while now at tracking different aspects of my life. And then I want to talk about overlap between those which should be kind of fun.
I thought I’d do this in this kind of situation because all these talks are super technical, and you know require that you get a Raspberry Pi and a 3D printer and track every single time you stub your toe. And that can get a little scary for people because they feel like they don’t have any agency and they can’t do it themselves. This is all about DIY stuff with consumer goods which can be a little bit easier maybe.
So, let me talk about a couple of apps. So one of them that I use is an app called Swarm. You probably know about it. It used to be called FourSquare. And so Swarm by itself is kind of boring especially if you, you know, don’t travel a lot. But for me as a researcher I end up going out of town a lot. I’m probably on planes every two weeks.
And so I’ve found myself in place I’ve never been before and then I don’t go back for a while. And so there’s this big gap between times that I’ll be in various places. And so I found that I’d forget all sorts of things like I’d you know, I’d probably have like a six-year span where I wouldn’t go back to Dallas, but I’d remember like there’s some great restaurants there.
So, as an example, here’s me in Shoreditch and it’s really handy to be able to talk about the various place that you go when you’re having you know, basic conversations. So, there’s me at a nightclub called XOYO if you’ve ever been there. And what’s fun about that is I can look at it and remember exactly like, oh man, that was that time that I saw Eats Everything do a drum base set which was completely weird for him, and the crowd was awesome. That was five years ago. I would never have remembered that.
So, it’s handy for that. But more specifically I want to talk about a funny moment. So, I went to DC a couple of years ago, maybe four years ago and I was doing some research on security. Specifically, I was looking at couriers and how it was taking them a really long time to deliver packages because they were running into security.
And I was like a-ha, let’s do some basic quant analysis and we’ll figure out where in the country they’re running into security issues, specifically like you know they’d show up in a place and they’d get frisked, and they have to wait 15 minutes before they could deliver you know, whatever it was that they had to deliver. And one of the quant studies was in DC as an option and I’m like, a-ha, this is perfect. We can find out why Scott Pruitt can’t get his famous lotion on time. And so, I was thinking it was going to be like all about that. It was going to be specifically we were going to find that they were trying to deliver to the NSA or something and they can’t get in.
The reality is, and this is the quant versus qual moment which is helpful. We got there, and we found out that actually the problem was that they had their station in a really bad neighborhood and it was really hard for them to get into the station, because there was an armed guard that was keeping them from being able to pick up their packages, so they could go to deliver them.
The reason I bring all of this is because my only view of DC because it’s the first time I had ever been there was because I was in a kind of a crappy neighborhood. And I was two miles away from the White House and I’m like, wow DCs weird. Anyone live in DC? Okay, it’s not really a bad neighborhood anymore. But at the time that’s all that I knew, and it was weird right. And so, I was like, I have to come back here sometime and see. And then I probably forgot all about it because I went to 10 other places.
So, now I go to DC all the time because I have a client there. He’s probably on that list. And so it’s interesting because it’s filled in the blanks, and so I have kind of a sense of space that I didn’t have before. So, remember that story because it’ll come back in a second.
What’s funny about all of this is that FourSquare of course has it’s own sort of leaderboard thing that they do, because you have to gamify things because of course, similar people care. It’s all fake at that point so you can feel like you’re on Reddit. A shout out to a DJ, Clint Kuper out there, who is number one on my leaderboard right now. He went to New York last week.
That I really enjoyed because it’s pretty low key. I don’t have to do a lot of work. I just check into places. And I’ve checked into I think it was 2700 places, like individual places globally since I started using it. So, I have this external brain moment where I’ll never remember every restaurant that I went to, but it’ll remember every restaurant that I went to. And so, the next time that I show up at one of those places I can find it again. And I have a general idea where it is relative to where I am. And it also gives me a better idea of how maps work which is hard.
Okay, second one. Strava, anyone here use Strava? Yay cool, so you guys know. So Strava is a tracking app, a sports tracking app. Its big amazing moment is that it figures out ways of splitting up your runs into segments. And then you can compare your segments against other people’s segments, so you don’t have to do the same run. You just have to do a run that includes another piece of another run, and then you can compare yourself against other athletes. Amazing.
You know over time there’s been a lot of what I would call passive tracking. So these are all the ones that I’ve had. I’m wearing my last one now. I love passive tracking as an idea, because it does a really nice job of just letting me just hit go, and then being in the flow.
I was going to do a whole talk on hardware because we’re essentially an industrial design firm, and I thought it would be kind of fun. But as I dug into it a little bit more, I realized that was not going to be funny.
So, here’s a kind of a fun moment. One of the things I love about Strava is they make their data open and so they have what they call a Global heatmap. And so as a traveling salesman essentially for me, what I love about that is I can drop into any city and have a general idea of where people run.
So this is Portland. The blue dot is where you are currently, and so if any of you are staying one extra day I kind of suggest that big circle in the middle, that’s running on the waterfront. Gorgeous, and it will be a beautiful day tomorrow and the day after.
But for me, here’s DC. So, when I started traveling back to DC, I mean one of my favorite things to do as a consultant is to kind of just drop in and see what’s out there, so this is a way for me to do it. So, the funny tie back is that dark area in the middle where nobody runs, one day I said, you know, I wonder what’s over there, so I went on a run. And low and behold, at the top of the triangle is exactly where I parachuted in two years before or five years before. That’s where the FedEx office is.
And I would never have known it, but I looked at both of those apps and went like oh wait, that’s em, em, and I kind of noticed it as I was running. Also, you can tell that I’m not super-fast, but that’s okay. This is all about transparency.
Okay, and then just one last thing while we’re talking about gamification, that’s my kid on Pokémon Go. Regular people use this stuff to and he’s walked further than the lead singer of the Proclaimers. You know it’s 1100 miles for the Europeans.
Okay, last one and really quickly, this is Automatic. And so, Automatic is a way that I can track my car. And again, it’s a passive tracker. One thing I like about Automatic is that it makes my really, really, really hot car, as you can see it’s a 2004, Honda CRV. Pretty amazing. I’m not really a car guy.
But what it does it that it turns it into a Tesla essentially. So, it self-tracks itself, reports everything into the cloud and then gives me lots of information. And so, with that you get these kinds of reports. And again, as a quantified group, you’re probably into this. You probably have smart houses, and so it’s like taking up a smart car without having to spend a lot of money on a smart car.
The really important thing for me on this one is just that it does a really nice job of letting me track my cars performance over time so that I can catch things before they happen, because mostly, I think about my car like a tool, like a chainsaw or an axe or something like that.
Mostly I don’t think about it. It’s sort of at the bottom of the Maslow pyramid and so until it makes itself know, like it breaks down, I don’t really think about it at all.
So, this gives me a chance to have a little bit of clarity on that to check engine life, because pretty much that’s all I care about. And it does a really nice job then of interrogating the cars computer to let me know that things are okay.
Okay, so I have those three different things I was working towards, and what I realized is that actually this is what they’re at, this is what they mean. And so, one’s my memory. I’m really all about serendipity with Strava. I went from performance as my thing, and now it’s much more about like let me go and see some stuff and maybe do it slower which is kind of nice. And peace of mind on my car one. I just wanted to be out of the way.