« Hey - I'm published! Check out "Mindhacker: 60 Tips, Tricks, and Games to Take Your Mind to the Next Level" | Main | What makes a successful personal experiment? »

Keeping motivated in your self-tracking

Measuring West I recently received an email from someone having trouble keeping up with her experiment. While there is lots of general advice about discipline and motivation, this got me thinking about how doing personal experiments might differ. Following are a few brief thoughts, but I'd love to hear ways that you keep motivated in your quantified self work.

The desire to get an answer. The main point of an experiment is to get an answer to the initial question. "Will a Paleo diet help me manage my weight?" "Does talking less bring me closer to my kids?" Maybe the principle at play is that experiments which motivate start with great questions.

Built-in progress indicators. If you've set up your experiment well, you should have measures that come in regularly enough to keep you interested. This is assuming, of course, that you care about the results, i.e., that you've linked data and personal meaning (see below). But unlike other types of projects, maybe we can use the periodic arrival of measurements to stimulate our motivation, such as celebrating when new results appear.

The joy of satisfying a mental itch. Curiosity is a deep human motivation, and experiments have the potential of giving your brain a tasty shift - such as when you are surprised by a result. I especially like when a mental model of mine is challenged by a result. Well, sometimes I like it.

Sharing with like-minded collaborators. At a higher level of motivation, experimenting on yourself is an ideal framework for collaboration with folks who are either 1) interested in your particular topic (e.g., sleeping better or improving your marriage), or 2) are living an experiment-driven life. It is encouraging to get together with people to share your work, and to receive support, feedback, and ideas. Of course it feels good to so the same for them.

Desire to make a change. Finally, if we come back to why we experiment, there should be a strong self-improvement component to what we are tracking. My argument is that, ultimately, it's not about the data, but about making improvements in ourselves for the purpose of being happier. If the change you are trying is not clearly leading that direction, then it might make sense to drop it and try something more direct. Fortunately, with self-experimentation there is usually something new you can try.

Underlying all of these, however, is the fact that the work of experimentation takes energy. Every step of an experiment's life-cycle involves effort, from thinking up what you'll do (creating a useful design), through running the experiment (capturing and tracking data), to making sense of the results (e.g., the "brain sweat" of analysis). Given our crazy-busy lives, there are times when we simply can't take on another responsibility. So if you find yourself flagging and losing interest in one of your self-experiments, then maybe that is itself some data. Thoughts?

[Cross-posted from Quantified Self]

Reader Comments (16)

You think you know the answer because the first results are 'obvious'. Motivational bummer. So remind yourself of the fact that you wanted to know something you didn't know and not to know somehting you already know. Allure to your instinct of curiosity is a motivation hack (soryy for the term) that you can use and which is, and that is my point here, unique to experiments, in a certain way at least. Anyway, it worked for me in praxis.
July 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChristopher
Great idea, Christopher. You've hit a key motivation on the head. Thanks for commenting!
July 25, 2011 | Registered CommenterMatthew Cornell
Hey great blog! I like doing life experiments too and the one thing I do before beginning is being honest with myself about my decision. I've learned that just because I want to do something, I would like to do something, or even need to do something, doesn't really mean that I decided to do something.

Once I've made a true decision, I give myself no other option but to go forward with the experiment. The exact same holds true with my goals. Wanting and deciding are two different things in my eyes.

Thanks for letting me get some thoughts in out of my head and in writing :)
September 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRalph
I'm impressed by your discipline, Ralph. You've identified the classic tension between intention and action. Thanks for stopping by.
September 9, 2011 | Registered CommenterMatthew Cornell
Your Blog is very insightful- the experimental life - takes courage to think creatively and with curiousity about the nature of things.
Thanks for sharing- If your readers are interested in another perspective on the experimental life check out my blog at http://www.figsandgold.com - peace to you, Michaelj
November 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichael J Hardy
Welcome to the Experiment-Driven Life, Michael. I'd like to see a post that shares your specific thoughts on experimenting and life.
November 15, 2011 | Registered CommenterMatthew Cornell
Great post here Matt! You have shown the difference between the motivation and self-need. Thanks a ton!
March 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGabb
For me, the main motivator is the thought of the positive outcome, the future, my plans, and what I'll do with it. Looking forward to the future thriving to find an answer is key. It's mainly natural personal motivation, though.
April 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Liongosari
@Gabb Glad you liked it. Thanks.

@Andrew I'm always looking for ways to stay positive (I'm naturally inclined to be the opposite), so any tips from you would be helpful. The Think, Try, Learn work I've been doing builds in some exciting through the thrill of discovery and the unknown. I wonder if your point about thriving in the future could relate to that... Good to hear from you.
April 9, 2012 | Registered CommenterMatthew Cornell
Self improvement is such a project! It's difficult to accept when one is young that continuous self-improvement is a road they must follow for a lifetime. But anyone who doesn't understand this basic fact won't succeed at much. Keeping inspired and thinking positively is more difficult than one realizes. Here's a program that is interesting. http://vharlow.mindzoom.hop.clickbank.net
September 29, 2012 | Unregistered Commentervharlow
Self motivation is a important work in daily routine life it's a that kind of work which give us positively results.This is a good post Because Motivation in life very Important.
October 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLars Andersson
Agreed, Lars. Thanks for stopping by.
October 4, 2012 | Registered CommenterMatthew Cornell
Due to some family circumstances, my mind becomes unstable sometimes. I become so unhappy that I don’t like to speak to people. Don’t like to go to public places. I always try stay lonely. I want to advance in my career. However, due to the fact I am unable to communicate properly. I scare go for job interviews. Also, I am not able to make decisions. I would appreciate if you could help me with the solution. Thanks and regards
October 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRobert K.
Robert, I'm sorry for your troubles. I suggest you get some experienced help, such as a psychologist. Good luck.
October 9, 2012 | Registered CommenterMatthew Cornell
I keep my goal tracking attached to my daily planner. This planner sets it up nicely for me. It eliminates any excuse not to track because its always with me and always in front of me. Ive found by simply noting whether or not I accomplished my goal each day (in my case meditating) makes me do it more often.
November 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJack Peterson
Good idea, Jack. Thanks for sharing.
March 17, 2013 | Registered CommenterMatthew Cornell

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
All HTML will be escaped. Hyperlinks will be created for URLs automatically.