Welcome to the IdeaMatt blog!

My rebooted blog on ... who knows. Feel free to get in touch with me if you have thoughts, questions, or want to get involved. Cheers! -- matt


"Constraints force creativity"

 small alley

"Constraints force creativity. Run on limited resources and you'll be forced to reckon with constraints earlier and more intensely. And that's a good thing. Constraints drive innovation."

Getting Real: Fund Yourself

I've also found that constraints simplify. Rather than seeing one as a frustration, I've had luck turning around my perspective and treating it as a relief - one more thing that I don't have to consider. You?


How self-tracking and experimenting can generate wisdom

Wise Old Pug

In How to Track Wisdom, Alex asks about how self-tracking might help us to get wiser, and gets some great responses. Here's my take. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

In Think, Try, Learn I claim you can track almost anything (hopefully debunking a self-experimenting myth), though coming up with specific metrics may require some creativity. My thought is that the relationship between self-experimenting and wisdom is direct, and that experimenting makes a good tool for becoming wiser.

Let's start with a definition:

  1. The quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment
  2. The soundness of an action or decision with regard to the application of such experience, knowledge, and good judgment
  3. The body of knowledge and principles that develops within a specified society or period

This provides some clues. First, we gain wisdom through experience, which is exactly what experimenting is about. In that sense, gaining experience is built in because the whole idea is to try things (i.e., to make changes), measure what happens, and then learn from it. Put another way, experimenting plants the seeds for wisdom to sprout.

Second, we gain knowledge because we learn a lot when we are excited about a topic. In the self-experimenting case, our motivation stems from the subject being ourselves. My first step when I design an experiment is to research the issue to understand possible cause-effect relationships, and then choose a starting point of something to try changing. For example, when researching improving my sleep, I learned about the importance of having a regular routine and going to bed as soon as I first feel tired (see Install a new bedtime sleep routine in Edison). Because you're putting the knowledge directly to use in a personally relevant way, it sticks. Just ask someone about an experiment they tried, and you'll see their eyes light up when they share what they learned.

But what specifically should you track? A process that's helped me get insights into my (often irrational) behavior is to model my thinking, put it to the test, and adjust according to what conflicts (or not) I discover. A primary application is in making decisions. I think that every decision has an underlying model or theory that it's based on, which makes for a natural test:

  1. Write down your decision when you make it, including a short analysis of what you think's going on in the situation, along with your predicted outcome,
  2. Follow the consequences long enough for them to mature, and then
  3. Compare the results to your theory when you started, dissect the differences, and learn from it.

I've found that over time this helps me improve my accuracy and understanding of how to world works. It also helps with anxiety, which makes decisions stressful and difficult. By tracking the decision I get some relief through objectivity. Sometimes it even changes my fear into curiosity, because I honestly start to wonder what will actually happen. For fun I'll occasionally assign probabilities to possible outcomes, which usually leads to surprises, such as a less likely one happening, or one happening that I didn't expect at all. This has also helped be more optimistic, since I usually assume the worst, but things don't always work out that way. Finally, this helps to make explicit any hidden biases and assumptions that are at play, such as my noticing how pessimistic I can be.

The tool I use for tracking this is my experimenter's journal (in my case a big text file), where I tag each decision made, then come back to it later and update them with my conclusions. I've been doing this for years, and you can read more in my old post, A key to continuous learning: Keep a decision log.

Another exercise that's been helpful in facilitating wisdom is tracking lessons I've learned. I use them two ways. First, capturing the lesson cements it in my mind and helps to take the sting out of unpleasant ones, and second, tagging it makes it easy to review ones I've made so I don't make them again! Read more at Some thoughts from tracking "lessons learned" for a year.

Finally, I think the experimental mindset can permanently change how we look at the world by switching our thinking from having answers to asking questions. I think every experiment should start with a question, which puts us into a learning mode that makes us open to changing our thinking and behavior. This differs from being stuck in an echo chamber where you get deeper into a mental rut by hearing the same answers repeatedly - a real risk of how we use the internet.


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?
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