Welcome to the Experiment-Driven Life blog!

This is the place to learn about the Think, Try, Learn approach to life, get news about Edison (the TTL experimenter's journal), and read thoughts and news about personal science, self-experimentation, and the quantified self. Feel free to get in touch with me if you have thoughts, questions, or want to get involved. Cheers! -- matt


12 Myths about Self-Tracking

Poseidon Statue

[Cross-posted to Quantified Self]

(Let me get a little provocative this time around and share some myths of self-tracking I've been playing with. I'd love to hear your thoughts about these and any other myths you might know about.)

Myth: You have to use technology.
Fact: A good guideline is to use a tool that's appropriate for the job. I know people who get good results using spreadsheets, and paper has some wonder affordances. (Read Malcolm Gladwell's The Social Life of Paper for a fascinating analysis of air-traffic controllers' paper-based system.) Then again, with large sets of data, visualization tools are invaluable.

Myth: Not everything can be measured.
Fact: I suggest that, with a little (or maybe a lot) of creativity, you can come up with something you can measure for any experiment. Check out Alex's post, How To Measure Anything, Even Intangibles. (Bonus: Do you have any that are giving you trouble? Let's play "stump the blogger!")

Myth: You have to be a scientist.
Fact: While it probably helps to have a background in science, and better yet one in statistics, we can still do valuable work with rudimentary skills, given you design a strong experiment that can teach you something.

Myth: You have to start with a goal or theory.
Fact: Sometimes we aren't to the point where we have a working theory, but we are ready to start poking and prodding to see what might emerge. However, I'd argue that, at a minimum, we should always start with a question. What you ask might change, but it'll get you moving. I'm still a believer that simply observing keenly can lead to awareness and eventually change.

Myth: Data-tracking is cold and dispassionate.
Fact: Far from it! Just think back to an experiment of yours where you had an insight or surprise - how exciting was that? Curiosity is an emotion, after all, which drives our love of exploration, adventure, and discovery. Plus, exploring the world with a curious mind is great fun. At the same time, it takes a level of detachment to see results for what they are, especially if they rub up against something that we are attached to.

Myth: Self-experimenting is just for problem-solving.
Fact: While addressing a specific concern is an excellent application of the self-quantification, I think of it more as a life-encompassing mindset. That is, a perspective on how to go about our lives, and one that asserts that our job of learning is never done.

Myth: Self-experimenting is easy.
Fact: I'm sure you've noticed that it takes discipline to consistently track things about your life, and to do the thinking and learning that results from your data. Key is a strong desire to learn something and, ideally, to get an answer.

Myth: Self-experimenting is hard.
Fact: The other side of the coin is that our work comes down to something simple: Thinking of a change to make, trying it while making observations, and then learning via reflection. Start out with something small that's easy to measure, and then work up from there.

Myth: Citizens can't do science.
Fact: This one is about the broader view of the validity of citizens doing science, and was what I was getting at in my post Making citizen scientists - that this work applies especially well to the individual. (For some reasons, see the excellent comments at the bottom of that post.) Related to this are two other myths, the sample size of one is not valid and the results need to be clinical-grade ones.

Myth: It's just for external things.
Fact: Some of the richest territory to mine via experiments is your mind, behaviors, and mental models. Treating your thinking and behavior themselves as data is valuable, and can lead to fresh insights that you can use for improvement.

Myth: You have to use numbers.
Fact: Scandalous, I know, but I've found that in some cases I can test out ideas without having to measure anything. However, I always make entries in my experimenter's journal, which keeps me engaged and gives me something for later analysis.

Myth: It only applies to health.
Fact: Related to my point above about the experimental mindset, I've had a lot of benefit from applying the thinking to all parts of my life. While health is the number one category in Edison, there are lots of other creative applications, including the social and work realms.


"I can always make myself better."

A Flute

I can always make myself better.

[From my 10 year old daughter's flute teacher, who is truly a master.]

This struck me profoundly, coming from a woman in her 50's who has clearly mastered many instruments. What an important thing to teach! This goes to the heart of Think, Try, Learn - how we can always learn more, in spite of our circumstances.

Question: What teachers have inspired you, and how? The most recent gift I've received is inspiration and advice from Peter Elbow (I'm trying his idea of freewriting here on Edison).


What group experiment would you most love to see performed?


I spoke last week with a reporter in London about the Experiment-Driven Life, Edison, Think, Try, Learn, and plenty of important issues around doing self-experimentation. Along the way she asked me what one group experiment would I like to see done if I had a large number of participants. I thought I'd put it to you:

What group experiment would you most love to see performed?

The domain she was interested in was health, but I'd love to hear any of your ideas. The experiment would need to have quantitative measures (at least one) and control and test groups. If you want to get more detailed, here are the questions in the forthcoming Create Group Experiment page from Edison (see tooltips for info):


  • forthcoming group experiment create feature for EdisonExperiment Title
  • Summary
  • Experiment Details
    • Requirements to Join
    • Instructions for Participants
    • Timeline
  • Measurements: For each measurement list:
    • Name
    • Type
    • Description

For me, ones near the top would revolve around debunking http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pseudoscience. I think these are ineffectual and dangerous. But in the spirit of true citizen science I'd really like to actually test them. A few possibilities:

In the psychology realm I found these possibilities at The Top 10 Psychology Studies of 2010:

  • 1) How to Break Bad Habits: The most effective strategy for breaking a bad habit is vigilant monitoring - focusing your attention on the unwanted behavior to make sure you don't engage in it. In other words, thinking to yourself "Don't do it!" and watching out for slipups.
  • 2) How to Make Everything Seem Easier: our tactile experience - the sensations associated with the things we touch, might have this same power. For instance, we associate smoothness and roughness with ease and difficulty.
  • 4) How to Be Happier: Savoring is a way of increasing and prolonging our positive experiences. Create plans for how to inject more savoring into each day.
  • 5) How to Have More Willpower. Our capacity for self-control is surprisingly like a muscle that can be strengthened by regular exercise. Work your willpower muscle regularly, engaging in simple actions that require small amounts of self-control (like sitting up straight or making your bed each day).
  • 7) How to Feel More Powerful: the relationship between power and posing works in both directions. In other words, holding powerful poses can actually make you more powerful. If you want more power - not just the appearance of power, but the genuine feeling of power - then spread your limbs wide, stand up straight, and lean into the conversation. Carry yourself like the guy in charge, and in a matter of minutes your body will start to feel it, and you will start to believe it.

Finally, here are some that my fellow Quantified Self blogger Eri Gentry recently came up with:

  1. How much sleep is enough? Do you feel better when you sleep 8, 9, etc hours? How different is this in other people?
  2. Have you "developed a relationship" with an infectious disease? For example, do you get a cold at the same time every year - or, do your illnesses have a cyclical effect, changing from summer to winter?
  3. If you go out in the rain, will you get a cold?
  4. Is chicken soup an effective remedy for colds?
  5. Is eastern medicine or herbal medicine effective?

Making citizen scientists

[Cross-posted from Quantified Self]

While talking recently with my QS fellows (thanks Alex, Eri, Seth, and Rajiv) I realized I've been using the term "citizen science" rather loosely. Expanding on my short section in Wandering minds, self-tracking, and citizen science, I'd like to use this post to explore how the expression is used, sketch a little vision of where it could go, and get your thoughts on what it means to you.

Current usage: Citizen-as-helper

vintage lotto markersIn looking around the net I've found that the general meaning of "citizen science" is that of individuals who help with scientific research by contributing time and resources to projects organized and run by professional scientists. Here's a how it's defined at Citizen scientist: Helping scientists help themselves:

Citizen science is a form of organisation design for collaborative scientific research involving scientists and volunteers, for which internet-based modes of participation enable massive virtual collaboration by thousands of members of the public.

Some cool examples include:

This kind of work is groundbreaking (literally) and important for many reasons. The site Science for Citizens (which lists projects you can sign up for) has a fine summary of benefits:

  • Enable and encourage people to learn about, participate in, and contribute to science through both informal recreational activities and formal research efforts.
  • Inspire greater appreciation and promote a better understanding of science and technology among the general public.
  • Create a shared space where scientists can talk with citizens interested in working on or learning about their research projects.
  • Satisfy the popular urge to tinker, build, and explore by making it simple and fun for people-singles, parents, grandparents, kids-to jump in and get their hands dirty with science.

With ubiquitous mobile technology, this kind of science is even more empowering. For example, iNaturalist.org is working on an iPhone App. (I love their tagline - "Explore, Learn, Record!")

(An aside: I was pleased to read Analysing data is the future for journalists, says Tim Berners-Lee where he suggests that citizen scientists need to be Personal Citizen Journalists too, which is especially relevant this week given the protests in Egypt and corresponding guerrilla reporting.)

Greater potential: Citizen-as-scientist

As exciting as this movement is (I launched Space Shuttles for NASA, so I'm a fan of big science), I think the expression is misleading and needs to be distinguished from what we do here in the QS community - a different, yet still valid, form of inquiry. The problem is that, as it stands, the current usage pigeonholes the role of individuals in performing science. I found three categories of ways people help: observing (wielding binoculars), labeling (identifying patterns), and computing (contributing CPUs). This puts control squarely under the authority of professional scientists, with citizens as assistants. There are good reasons some projects should work this way, but it ignores the prospect of our taking control of our lives through self-experimentation.

Here's my proposal: Let's hijack the language a bit and frame it to mean "what citizen scientists do," i.e., to move the conversation about our role from helpers to researchers. Maybe a way to look at it is that citizen scientists are people who get genuinely curious about something and decide to test things out for themselves, ideally inviting in like-minded explorers to join and enrich the results. You'll know them when you hear them ask "I wonder why X is happening?", "What if I tried changing Y?", or when someone wonders "Oh really?" when she hears a health claim or recommendation. The recent buttermind experiment is an exciting example (see Seth's analysis here).

Put another way, how about defining it as the intersection of three things:

DIY science + Crowdsourcing + Statistics

Fortunately, I think the timing is right, and momentum is building. Take the upcoming Quantified Self Conference 2011, for example. Or look at how Eri says it at 5 Citizen Science Ideas for 2011 from BioCurious:

  • There will be a change in the locus of control- to the individual- when "N," the participants in a health study, goes from n=They to n=Me to n=We.
  • When citizen scientists can go from postulating theories to creating studies in which participant created data provides insight into their questions.

In my own Edison project, my hope is that two forthcoming features (group experiments and a quantitative data layer) will provide us self-experimenters with a platform for getting answers to our personal burning questions, and getting ideas, data, support from others along the way.

I'm curious

What do you think?

  • What is the role of citizen-as-scientist?
  • What kinds of projects should be left to the professionals, and which to the amateur explorer?
  • What collaborative self-experiments have you done?
  • What ones would you love to see happen and participate in?
  • Finally, what tools do you know that support the "DIY science + Crowdsourcing + Statistics" junction?

How to experiment: Guidelines from Stewart Friedman's "Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life"

[cross-posted to Quantified Self]

  1. Curiosity: An emotion related to natural inquisitive behavior such as exploration, investigation, and learning.
  2. Exploration: To travel for the purpose of discovery.
  3. Discovery: A productive insight.

I've been thinking of this triumvirate as essential characteristics of scientific inquiry - get curious about something, try out some different things to dig into it, see what you learn, and repeat. My personal interest in this, in addition to the tools and sites we share here on QS, is to figure out how specifically we navigate the process of curiosity, exploration, and discovery.

Taking a cue from Alex's summary of How To Measure Anything, Even Intangibles, I want to share an impressive work called "Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life" by Stewart Friedman (see below [1] for where to find it). I'll focus on the experimental aspects of his work and pull out some highlights related to process.

Friedman describes a four-step process, where each step relates to his four general domains of life - work, home, community, and self:

  1. Reflect
  2. Brainstorm possibilities
  3. Choose experiments
  4. Measure progress

The first step, reflect, is where you think about your priorities in each of those four domains and compare them to how you actually allocate your time and energy. This will identify conflicts that should guide your choices of where to start experimenting. (I think of this kind of goal-driven approach as "top down" experimenting, as distinguished from "bottom up" where you start from an observation that catches your attention, such as when I noticed I am moodier after drinking alcohol, and start self-experimenting from there.)

In step two you brainstorm possible experiments that will close the gaps identified in step one and bring you more satisfaction in life. The author stresses the importance of putting together a long list of small experiments. The author notes that keeping them small helps minimize risk and gets results quickly. I especially like his guideline that the most useful experiments feel like a bit of a stretch: not too easy and not too intimidating.

The third step is to choose which of the candidate experiments to perform, i.e., which are most promising and will improve your fulfillment and performance in his four dimensions of life. I liked his suggestion that the experiments be ones that would have a high cost of regret and missed opportunities if you didn't do them. He goes on to say that it's not practical to try out more than three experiments at once. Not only do experiments take effort, but in Friedman's experience two turn out to be relatively successful and one "goes haywire."

The final step is to measure progress. He has you develop a scorecard for each chosen experiment where you specify its life dimension, your goals for it, and how you'll measure success. Metrics may be objective or subjective, qualitative or quantitative, reported by you or others, and frequently or intermittently observed. He gives sample ones like cost savings from reduced travel, number of e-mail misunderstandings averted, degree of satisfaction with family time, and hours spent volunteering at a teen center. Friedman stresses the common wisdom that, like a scientist, the only way to fail with an experiment is to fail to learn from it, and metrics help ensure that doesn't happen. They give you hard data to analyze, and can teach you how to make better ones in the future.

Here's a sample experiment, courtesy of the BNET article below:



Exercise three mornings a week with spouse.

Friedman gives plenty of advice beyond the four steps. In particular I like his description of the overall experimental approach:

"...systematically designing and implementing carefully crafted experiments - doing something new for a short period to see how it affects all four domains. If an experiment doesn't work out, you stop or adjust, and little is lost. If it does work out, it's a small win; over time these add up so that your overall efforts are focused increasingly on what and who matter most. Either way, you learn more about how to lead in all parts of your life ."

Finally, I love how he describes the value of the experimental mindset. One example is how framing an experiment as a trial can open doors that would otherwise be closed. Saying "Let's just try this. If it doesn't work, we'll go back to the old way or try something different" lowers resistance because the change seems less threatening. This is valuable because it's our nature to fear change. In fact my wife and I regularly use this with each other, such as when, during a kitchen remodeling when she got me to accept trying a vintage sink that initially, well, made me a little queasy. She pointed out that "It's just a little experiment" and that it was relatively reversible (standard plumbing placement meant a different one could be easily installed). The result: It worked out fine. In my case I suggested we experiment with a couch in the kitchen, an idea she despised but came to love. Give it a try!

Overall, I highly recommend Friedman's work. His book is my next read.


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