The Year of the Quantified Self-Revolution

Glen Lubbert
Mar 28, 2014 · 7 min read

“The first thing you have to know is yourself. A man who knows himself can step outside himself and watch his own reactions like an observer.” ― Adam Smith

I was struggling to sleep.

After well over a decade living the entrepreneur lifestyle, I began to struggle with its weight. Its roots are the theme of anxiety pervading many of the Silicon Valley war stories I’ve talked about multiple times with fellow entrepreneurs.

It was in those conversations, the concept of using data to help solve my sleep problem made so much sense. After all, analytics are the heart of any business, especially online businesses where I have lived and breathed for nearly two decades. It’s the same strategy of data I was schooled in using on our university track and field team to optimize my training and gain an edge against some of the best — at the biggest meets, Olympic — runners. Of course one of the keys for success in both was to find a way to easily track and get feedback to help optimize and improve a part of my life, in this case, my sleep.

I purchased the Jawbone UP a year ago and it was then I dropped deep into my Quantified Self-Revolution.

Would you like the blue pill or the red pill?

“We will measure everything and feed that information back into the system,” begins the opening to the insightful, video poet Jason Silva’s take on what he called the Quantified Self-Revolution.

“All the metrics that we use to measure how this system of biology is operating are now getting fed into a machine and we’re pooling the data from millions of people eventually finding patterns in the data, learning how to optimize the way that data is managed, and feeding that data back into ourselves… Imagine how these insights into ourselves will transform the possibilities.”

The Quantified Self-Revolution is about using personal data to gain awareness and a greater understanding of who we are and what we do, to transform ourselves.

Quantified Self is often linked to Lifehacking, lifelogging or simply personal data tracking, and the term is attributed to WiReD magazine editors Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly who lead an organization of Meetups and an annual conference that began five years ago.

“While there is a lot of talk of big data, as if the bigness of the data contains in itself by the very nature of it being big some answer that we’re seeking,” Wolf explained at a recent Bay Area Meetup in January. “Quantified Self is not really about big data or about small data, but about our data. And the domain that opens up is not a domain of smallness or bigness but a domain of ourness, a very close to us… And so what we do in Quantified Self is that we explore the personal meaning of our personal data.”

How far down the rabbit hole are you willing to go?

From my DNA to my BMI, the list of personal tracking experiments goes on, and after this past year tracking mood, exercise, sleep, and nutrition with my Jawbone UP, I have a few insights worth sharing from the year of my Quantified Self-Revolution.

1. Tracking It. My first sleep tracking solution wasn’t the Jawbone UP; it was the Zeo, a device you strapped to your head that measured your brainwaves to help you optimize your sleeping. Besides my boyfriend refusing to sleep with me while I was wearing it, the headband often fell off at night and as a result, I didn’t get consistent tracking. The Jawbone UP is more comfortable and less conspicuous on my wrist at night and doesn’t fall off when I sleep.

While the Zeo data was clinically more accurate, I couldn’t consistently get the data, so the accuracy level was irrelevant. There are lots of choices for tracking solutions from apps on your smartphone to wearable devices such as Jawbone’s UP, the FitBit, Nike FuelBand, etc, and plenty published on the differences in the tools.

I personally love the Jawbone UP because of the form factor and its well-designed app. Walk and Talk Wonder Woman, Nilofer Merchant, who highlighted the benefits of walking meetings with her TED talk last year, is a big fan of the FitBit. During our walk and talk in January, I asked her why she likes the FitBit, and she said it was because of its accuracy over the other devices.

From Withings CEO Cedric Hutchings TEDxBrussels talk:

“I think the degree to which you are willing to lie to yourself about what you eat, I think you are also willing to lie to yourself about how active you are,” Merchant said. “I don’t really need a distortion field around that, I just need it to be accurate.”

While each of the popular devices gives you some type of feedback loop for your personal data, what the Zeo experience illuminates is that the best tools or devices are the ones you actual use. For this reason, the future of the Quantified Self is in passive tracking where more and more personal tracking data will be available to you without you taking the time to input or track.

This is happening fast as the trends in wearable computing and the Internet of things “is coming on strong, faster than the typical 10 year cycle of tech trends,” as James Wilson wrote in his recent post for the Harvard Business Review.

“From pens to office furniture to clothing to household tools, consumer goods are increasingly decked with sensors and auto-analytics functionality,” Wilson wrote. “While some are ‘wearables,’ many more are just ubiquitous items with which we occasionally interact, only now these interactions are also occasions to create useful insight.”

2. Finding Analysis Time. Just like your financial metrics each month, you get the most out of your personal data if you review it for trends and some analysis, something the devices don’t make it easy enough to do. A fellow TEDActive colleague of mine, David El Achkar, presented at the Quantified Self Annual Conference this past October about tracking his time, an impressive dedication to gain insight into how he spends each of the 1440 minutes of the day. While this is a fascinating talk that gave him insight on such things as procrastination and flow, the data showed he spent about an hour and a half each week logging and reviewing his data.

“You have all my data — do something meaningful with it,” Merchant said. “Add insight to my data — Am I working out more or less as I normally do on Tuesdays? Is my year over year data showing anything of interest? How am I doing with someone of my age (45)? In other words: help the user see something new that they can’t see easily themselves. That’s the service arm that Fitbit and others should add. With greater knowledge you can make better decisions. Plus it adds to the game of health, which is a game for life.”

The future of personal data tracking is in giving you more insights into your data, making more correlations, visualizing your data, creating a Timehop of your data, year over year, month over month, the rolling trends of your life.

3. Cultivating awareness. I participated in a Bay Area Quantified Self Co-Lab a couple months ago with researchers and users of the Jawbone UP, and a researcher asked me if I used its mood-tracking feature. In my thinking, I hadn’t used it in any actionable way and told the researcher that I tended to input my mood only when I was at extremes such as really happy or dragging. She asked if it made me feel better when I entered my mood when I was sad, and after a moment I admitted that it probably did.

Maybe the data isn’t even to improve you or to lifehack, but to just be aware. Allowing the question, how am I in relation to the body, the brain, and the system? Or what Wolf calls short cycle reflective learning.

To me, it feels very close to what Will Kabat-Zinn referred to during the last Wisdom 2.0 mindfulness meditation retreat as “a steadiness and openness, a fortitude of awareness.”

Know Thyself

Ultimately, I think what personal data tracking hints at is that calling to go deeper, to know more about who you are, who we are, how we can hear more clearer and listen to what is our inner most story, or what Merchant refers to as our onlyness — that distinct spot in the world only you stand in.

The Jawbone UP wasn’t my first tracking tool, but it was the one that dropped me down the Quantified Self rabbit hole, and a year later I definitely sleep better, and it’s still a challenge, a professional hazard it seems that I continue to experiment with.

I found that data tracking can be cumbersome and sometimes not so easy to analyze, but as the trends toward wearable computing grow at exponential rates and more and more passively collected data about you and your habits begin to become apparent, your “fortitude of awareness” will be at your doorway and the year of your Quantified Self-Revolution will be upon you.


As Neo enters the Oracle’s space in The Matrix the words in Latin above her doorway present the calling of passage into his next level of awareness, temet nosce, know thyself.

The filmmaker, poet and all around maestro of the viral video, Jason Silva summed up his take on the Quantified Self-Revolution in this brilliant piece.

    Glen Lubbert

    Written by

    Serial entrepreneur at the intersection of tech & wellbeing, I combine behavior design & mindfulness in projects that help people thrive.

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