Welcome to the IdeaMatt blog!

My rebooted blog on tech, creative ideas, digital citizenship, and life as an experiment.


Hey - I'm published! Check out "Mindhacker: 60 Tips, Tricks, and Games to Take Your Mind to the Next Level"

A gigantic congratulations to Ron and Marty Hale-Evans on their great new book, Mindhacker: 60 Tips, Tricks, and Games to Take Your Mind to the Next Level. From the Wiley press release:

Ever wish you could tinker with your brain the way you can with your computer, to make it run faster, stay better organized, and get more done? Upgrading your brain's "software" can dramatically escalate your personal productivity, improving such skills as efficient learning, personal organization, time management, mental control, creativity, and decision-making.

For those looking to improve their mental skills, authors Ron and Marty Hale-Evans deliver a witty, compelling, and action-oriented cache of personal productivity tips and techniques in Mindhacker: 60 Tips, Tricks, and Games to Take Your Mind to the Next Level (Wiley; 978-1-1180-0752-5; September 2011). Readers can tune their brains to peak performance by using this array of clever, practical techniques founded in current research.

I'm fond of this book for three reasons. First, I loved Ron's book Mind Performance Hacks: Tips & Tools for Overclocking Your Brain, which, if I adopted a tenth of the techniques would make me a genius. Second, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ron in my post A conversation with Ron Hale Evans, author of "Mind Performance Hacks", which I enjoyed very much. But most exciting is that Ron asked me to contribute not one but two (!) hacks to this new book:

  • Hack 21: Get Control of Yourself. Lost control of your life? Get back in the driver’s seat with Jetpack, the pocket-sized system for managing your work and freeing up your brain for better things.
  • Hack 54: Think, Try, Learn. Live life as a series of scientific experiments.

Working with Ron and Marty was a pleasure, and it was quite an experience having professionals help me create writing that was tight and industrial strength. I'm tickled pink to be included.

Their product page is here, and the Amazon link is here if you want to buy a copy. And as a special treat to you, dear reader, you can download the PDF of Hack 54.

Happy experimenting!




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]


What makes a successful personal experiment?


As I continue trying to stretch the concept of experiment so that a wide audience understands applying a scientific method to life, I struggle with defining success. While the trite "You can always learn something" is true, I think we need more detail. At heart is the tension between the nature of experimentation's trial-and-error process (I prefer the term Edisonian approach) - which means outcomes are unpredictable - and our need to feel satisfaction with our work. Here are a few thoughts.

Skillful discovery. Rather than being attached to a particular outcome, which we have limited control over, I've found it's better to focus on becoming an expert discoverer and mastering the process of experimentation. Because you have complete control over what you observe and what you make of it, you are guaranteed success. Fortunately, there's always room to develop your investigatory skills.

Fixing the game. At first it might seem contrived, but carefully choosing what you measure can help implement a scientific perspective on success. For example, instead of framing a diet experiment as "Did I lose weight?," it is more productive to ask "How did my weight change?" The former is a binary measure (losing weight = success, not losing = failure) and one that you don't necessarily have control over. After all, you are trying an experiment for the very reason that you don't know how it will work out. The latter phrasing is better because it activates your curiosity and gives you some objectivity, what I call a "healthy sense of detachment."

Improving models. As essentially irrational creatures, we run the risk of not questioning what we know. Updating our mental models of people, situations, and the world helps us to be more open to improvements. And the leading edge of that is the conflict between expectation (predicted outcome) and reality (actual results, AKA data). The quantified way to work that is by explicitly capturing our assumptions, testing them, taking in the results, and adjusting our thinking as necessary. This also leads to better predictions; from The Differences Between Innovation and Cooking Chili:

Of course, all of the experimental rigor imaginable cannot guarantee success. But it does guarantee that innovators learn as quickly as possible. Here, "learn" means something specific. It means making better predictions. As predictions get better, decisions get better, and you either fail early and cheap (a good outcome!) or you zero in quickly on something that works.

Getting answers. Another way to guarantee success is by going into an experiment with clearly formulated questions that your results will answer. Structured correctly, you know you will get answers to them. I think of it as regardless of what happens, you have found something out. (Hmm - maybe thinking of the process as active discovery is a richer concept than the generic "you learned something.")

Designing for surprise. If the product of your experiment was not very surprising, then maybe you should question your choice of what you tried. Exciting experiments probe the unknown, which ideally means novelty is in store. Fill in the blank: "If you're not surprised at the end of your experiment, then __."

Zeroing in. Because we usually dream up experiments with a goal in mind, chances are we come out the other end having moved some amount in the direction of attaining that goal. Progress is a success, so give yourself a pat on the back.

Taking action. Finally, each experiment is a manifestation of personal empowerment, which is a major success factor in life. While health comes to mind (do difficult patients have better results?), I think generally the more we take charge of our lives, the closer we get to happiness.

What do you think?


[Cross-posted to The Quantified Self]


The best worst hobby

(Here's a fun little story I thought I'd take a chance and share. I hope you enjoy it. -- matt)


If you ask around about having a hobby, many people will say it's a good idea. Dig further and I bet you find that 90% don't have one themselves - too busy. There is plenty of advise on the web about they're being beneficial, though (develops the brain, relieves stress, are fun, etc.) - such as Importance of hobby and Benefits Of Having A Hobby. As an adult I've never had one, but a recent slump got me thinking about starting one. (I mountain bike but that doesn't count. Here's a riddle: What's the difference between a sport and a hobby? One makes you get plumper the more you do it ;-) I wanted a challenge, and I've always been fond of helicopters (probably influenced by having a VertiBird as a kid), so I thought I'd jump into remote control models. The story reads like a drug habit.


I bought a Blade mCX2 RTF (a tiny hobby-grade coaxial heli complete with batteries, charger, and transmitter - AKA "Ready To Fly") and absolutely loved it. (Amazon link here.) These are hobby grade ones that are far better than the inexpensive toys you can find at big box stores (more fun, more durable, and finer control).

phoenix-stockholm_outrage550BIGI absolutely loved it. Zipping around our kitchen, practicing different orientations (tail-in, nose-in, side-in), precision landings, and staging rescues - great fun. At the same time my brother and I decided to buy the Phoenix RC flight simulator. As a Mac user I had to upgrade Boot Camp, buy and install Windows, then install Phoenix. Not for the faint of heart, but I was motivated. The graphics and physics are stunning, we play online at night, and it's a hoot, not to mention a comfortable way to stay in touch.

After lots of research, I decided to take the plunge and buy a full collective pitch helicopter, and here's where we get into my title. "CP" helis are:

  • Complex machines,
  • extremely difficult to fly (100 hours on the simulator before I could do it confidently),
  • expensive, and
  • easy to break.


Needless to say, it's not for everyone. It's also why you'll see one helicopter pilot for every dozen or so airplane ones. You'll know the former by the tears. I again decided on RTF, this time a Blade 400.

Flying these is exhilarating and frightening. The sound they make spinning up usually causes your taking a few steps back, and controlling one is a rush. All that simulator work paid off, but it was still hard to control, and I crashed it twice (the first on only my fifth flight), which moved me from the hobby's challenge of flying to the the inevitable need to learn how to repair them. Again, not for the faint of heart. Fast forward two more crashes and painful, expensive repairs, and I know had the RC heli bug pretty bad, leading to my next step of...

trex-450-kx015074_1... buying an ALIGN T-REX 450 Pro Super Combo. This is the industry standard for high-performance CP helis, and comes as a kit. Putting it together was another major challenge (it took me two weeks, lots of tools, and many mistakes lessons), but I got it together and set up, and amazingly - it flew! I had my new helicopter friend John fly it for me, and what a reward seeing the result of transforming a box of 200+ parts into a mechanical marvel. A very important side benefit is the feeling of a tangible, relatively short term success, especially with a string of multi-year challenges and struggles under my belt.

I had my first destined crash of my T-rex yesterday, and the Blade 400 is still on the bench, but that thrill of flying keeps me going. To be in control of one of these good-sized "birds" zipping past me is such a thrill that it makes me actually giggle a tiny bit, and that's a gift. They're expensive, complex, and difficult machines, but I'm hooked. A few success factors are having a local hobby shop (yes they still exist), getting to know local people who fly rc helicopters (I discovered the old-school activity of rc flying clubs - definitely a new experience for me), and utilizing the many smart and helpful folks in online forums. I'm fortunate to have been able to try this hobby, for which I'm profoundly grateful.

I'm curious

  • Do you have a hobby?
  • What is it, and what's your story?
  • If not, what's holding you back? In my case it took some searching before I found something that sucked me in. In fact my 10 year old daughter suggested I look through our library's non-fiction section for inspiration, which worked.

Personal Development, Self-Experiments, and the Future of Search

[Cross-posted to Quantified Self]

Confusing Traffic Sign, Boston MA We experiment on ourselves and track the results to improve the way we work, our health, and our personal lives. This rational approach is essential because there are few guarantees that what works for others will work for us. Take the category of sleep, for example. Of the hundreds of tinctures and techniques available, clearly not all help everyone, or there would be exactly one title in the sleep section of your bookstore, called "Sleep," and no one could argue about its effectiveness. Treating these improvements experimentally, however, requires a major shift in thinking.

But being human isn't that simple. There are variables and confounding factors that mean you have to take matters actively into your hands if you want to really know what's personally effectual. That's why what we do here is so exciting. Instead of accepting common sense, we take a "prove it to me" approach and work to find out for ourselves. Operating from this basis, rather than faith, is more effective in the long run. (It's why we use science to understand the world, rather than astrology or phrenology, for example. Just look at what we've accomplished.)

As I tried to say in Making citizen scientists, this is heralding a move from citizens-as-helpers to true citizen scientists - people who get genuinely curious about something and decide to test things out for themselves, rather than simply trusting what others say will work. If we expand that vision five or ten years in the future, I think there could be a major shift in how we search for ways to improve ourselves, and that's what I want to share here.

Picture that you have something you're trying to change, and you want to find starting points, especially what's worked for others. Ideally you know someone who can point you in the right direction (medical professionals come to mind), but rarely do our social and professional circles cover everything we want to improve. Normally we are on our own, and must sit down and courageously cast ourselves into the vast sea of the web. What do we find? An insane number of hits mysteriously organized by clever algorithms. Again, take sleep. My search for insomnia yielded over three million hits. How do we decide how to use these results? I think the fundamental issue is of trust. How can I trust what I read if there is nothing backing it up? Google is great for some things, but for self-improvement, what I want isn't necessarily what's popular (let's face it, the popular kids at school weren't necessarily the smartest - spoken from experience). What I want is something that's a reasonable starting point. That is, something that has a high likelihood of yielding useful information that moves me quickly in a helpful direction. (My scientific colleague calls this exploring the "search frontier.")

Instead, what we have is a immense collection of definitions, blog posts, news articles, how to's, marketing literature, product reviews, fringe nuttiness, and the like. In other words, a Wild West of self-improvement. Exciting, dangerous, risky, unproven, and loaded with potential.

What's closer to what we want are the discussion board threads and blog comment exchanges where people shared what they tried and what has and hasn't worked. After a quick search, two examples that came up in the sleep realm are at talk about sleep and iVillage. However, we have three problems. First, my search for insomnia discussion boards still generated almost three million hits. That means we don't know where the quality work is taking place. Second, and far worse, is that the way people have gone about their search for solutions is rarely principled. This is because applying a scientific approach to self-help, as I tried to explain above, is still rare. (Want to test that? Just try to tell someone why you're reading this site, and watch the confusion on his face. "You're tracking what? But WHY?") With questionable methodologies come questionable results. Finally, if there truly are well-run experiments, they are scattered throughout the site on various threads, the data is not likely in a form we can analyze, and it's very hard to find who else has tried the experiments and what they discovered. In other words, the knowledge, experiences, and results of everyone's hard work isn't structured or centralized. And that's a massive waste. personal-informatics-venn-diagram

Now imagine that there is a community of self-experimentation tools that meet the three characteristics I outlined in my experiment-driven life talk (my original post is here): Broad, Social, and Scientific. On these sites will be records of millions of past and in-progress experiments being performed daily by thousands of citizen scientists, both individually and collectively. They will be structured to expose what folks did specifically, how the process went for them (in some ways as important as results themselves), what the data was, and how they interpreted it. And they will have targeted search tools to find experiments in a variety of ways - topic, treatment type, ratings, etc.

Visualize yourself going to one of those sites and searching folks' work for your topic. Assuming they're structured reasonably, you could find something marvelous: Actual personal experiments, around your situation, with their data and conclusions. Wow! This should allow you to get a summary view of the things people have tried, who else tried it, and what they learned. In other words, it would be a data-driven entry to deciding what I should start trying.

Ultimately, I envision this moving towards a kind of personal development "general store" where instead of facing an intimidatingly large self-help section in your bookstore (i.e., the big-box help-yourself model), you come to a desk with one person sitting and asking, "How can I help?" You tell her your topic and a little about yourself, then ask for advice. The clerk, who has read all of the books on the subject, answers, "For someone like you, the most effective experiments were ..." and lists five or six to look at. I think of it as a kind of intelligent, experiment-based search engine that factors in personal data, demographics, and topic (maybe as simple as keywords, for starters) and serves up ballpark suggestions.

What do you think? My ideas are still developing, so this is still a little rough, but I honestly believe we could build such an ecosystem. Are you with me?