What Is Quantified Self? The Complete Guide to Lifelogging

Macgill Davis

The tagline of the Quantified Self movement, as stated on the official website, is "self knowledge through numbers." This refers to a quantitative approach of getting to know yourself — and improving upon what you find out.

Nowadays, this is possible thanks to a host of tracking technologies and devices that compile the data into insights about various aspects of life — diet, physical activity, sleep patterns, mental health, and more. Almost anything can be tracked and measured. But the big question is: How do you really benefit from self-tracking and act on the insights derived from it?

We created this guide to help with that. You'll learn more about what quantified self means, the benefits and challenges it poses, and how to implement it in your life.

What Does Quantified Self Mean?

The quantified self can be understood both as, one, a concept of self informed by numbers and, two, a social movement.  

In the first sense, the quantified self is a framework that allows you to get to know yourself through measurable metrics. In that framework, you assume that by proactively collecting information about your physical and mental health, behavior, and environment, you can expand your self-knowledge and, over time, improve those aspects of life. An inseparable concept here is self-tracking (or lifelogging), which refers to the activity of recording your personal data.

In the second meaning, the Quantified Self refers to the global community of self-trackers who rely on data collection as a way of improving themselves but also of communicating with each other. Often, they use new technologies (such as Fitbit, Nike+ activity trackers, smart watches, and others) to gather and share relevant data. The Quantified Self movement has spread across the globe and members communicate through forums and blogs as well as online and offline meetups.

It’s important to highlight that you don’t have to be a part of the official movement to reap the rewards of the concepts behind quantified self. In this guide, we’ll show you how lifelogging can benefit your health, self-awareness, and overall wellness.

A Brief History of the Quantified Self Movement

Although humans have been spontaneously tracking personal information for centuries, the official beginning of the Quantified Self movement traces back to 2007. That's when Kevin Kelly (founder of Wired magazine) and his partner Gary Wolf started it. Initially, the movement was contained within a local group — the Bay Area Quantified Self Meetup Group, which continues today. Over time, it grew into a global network of self-trackers.

In the early days, a few people from the network shaped the movement more than others. One of them was the late Seth Roberts, an experimental psychologist who helped create the self-tracking culture in the first years. He spoke about why quantified self matters, including at international conferences dedicated to the topic that started happening in 2011. 

Meanwhile, self-experimenters from all over the world were starting personal blogs to report their results and share methodologies. Some of them — like Measuredme.com — have been active for close to a decade now.

The Quantified Self movement grew with accelerated technological growth. The availability of wearable devices that allow elaborate data collection encouraged whole segments of society to record their physical activity, mood changes, spending habits, and countless other things. Thanks to the development of data science, it also became possible to receive personalized recommendations based on individual data.

Today, there's hundreds of Quantified Self communities around the world, meeting both online and offline. Some extreme enthusiasts of the movement turned themselves into biohackers, like Dave Asprey, determined to test the maximum capacity of their minds and bodies by tracking the smallest details of their daily lives.

But you don't have to go extreme to reap the rewards of self-tracking. You can use the basic premises of self-quantification to become healthier, happier, and live with more purpose.

How Self-Tracking Can Empower You

Quantified Self: elderly woman checking her smart watch

As the rationale behind the movement, the Quantified Self community sometimes refers to article 27 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948. It states that, "Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits. Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author."

In the face of big data companies collecting and using personal data for profit, the Quantified Self movement is an attempt to empower the individual. Dawn Nafus and Jamie Sherman from Intel Labs refer to the quantified self culture as an "important modality of resistance to dominant modes of living with data." 

By self-tracking their activities, moods, and feelings, anyone can be in charge of their own data and the insights it brings. The Quantified Self community sees that as a move toward more common participation in "scientific advancement," as the UN declaration has intended. 

Even if you're the only respondent, your self-tracking is still a valid research project. Quantified self is a kind of personal science, enabling you to run mini-experiments on your own mind, body, and routines — and then learn from them to improve your life.

Most Common Examples of the Benefits of Self-Tracking 

A meta-analysis of various lifelogging studies shows that self-tracking can significantly contribute to one's health and well-being. The ways in which that happens can vary from person to person.

Different people have different motivations behind the quantification of their data. Some want to make a change in an aspect of their lives, and collecting metrics around that aspect helps. Others want to get better at a skill. And some simply want to develop self-awareness and learn more about how they're using their time and energy.

Below are a few common examples of how tracking various aspects of daily life can benefit you and your wellness.

1. Sleep Patterns

Tracking technologies (such as SleepScore or Sleep Cycle apps) now allow us to track how much we sleep — but also our sleep quality. This usually means giving you an estimate of how much time you spent in each of the sleep phases, which in turn can give you an idea of how you rested that night.

Those insights, combined with other data, can help you understand what allows you to get better, uninterrupted sleep. For example, you may notice that you sleep best between certain times or that the temperature of the room influences your sleep.

2. Heart Rate

Quantified Self: person using her phone to track her heart rate

Tracking your heart rate can give you a lot of insight into the general state of your health and fitness. Various healthcare and fitness apps — such as Cardiio or Instant Heart Rate — enable this.

When you monitor your heart rate during workouts, you can determine whether you're exercising at the right intensity. This can be helpful for people trying to lose weight, as going too hard in your workout can actually prevent you from burning fat.

3. Diet

Speaking of getting in better shape, one study found that keeping a food diary may even double the amount of weight you lose. But tracking what you eat isn't just about losing weight. It can also help you instill healthier eating habits that have an impact on your overall wellness.

Food tracking apps, such as Noom or Tasty, can make you more aware of when and why you eat certain foods. For example, you may discover you have tendencies toward emotional eating. This can empower you to find other ways to take care of yourself and find emotional comfort.

4. Time

We know this may sound cliche, but time really is your most valuable resource. It's something that, if wasted, you can't get back. On the other hand, if you spend it intentionally and on the things that are important, it can be an immense source of satisfaction.

Tracking your time today helps you improve how you spend it tomorrow. A time-tracker like Rize can help you not only record where your time went but also support more efficient scheduling of your days in the future — thanks to its data analysis functionalities.

How to Start a Self-Tracking Project in 5 Steps

Person writing her meal plan while eating a bar of chocolate

When done wisely, self-tracking can help you with just about anything, from becoming better at time management, to improving your fitness, to deepening your relationships. But what does it mean to do it wisely?

Below, we compiled a short guide to getting you started on your journey to quantified self. We were inspired by the methodology from the Quantified Self website; however, we also have a few of our own tips to share. 

1. Ask Yourself “Why?”

Because of the omnipresent trend of lifelogging, you may feel like you "should" be tracking certain aspects of your life. All your friends wear Apple Watches to count their steps, and colleagues use habit trackers at work. It's easy to just parrot them and assume that what helps them will help you.

But self-tracking will bring you the most benefits if you find your own motivation behind it. Most common motivations include exploring personal interests, addressing a health concern, or excelling at work. But this list is by no means exhaustive. Your reason behind self-tracking might be completely different and still valid.

Ask yourself, “Why do I want to do this? What am I trying to achieve, change, or find out about myself?” You can even write a short paragraph in response to those prompts, which will help you get clear on your why.

2. Decide What You Will Observe

Once you’ve identified your why, it's time to decide what metric will help you quantify a relevant area of life. What exactly will you observe and record in your daily life?

Let's say your motivation is to gain better control over your time. What will you track? Is it a detailed log of your day's schedule or the amount of time you spend on social media? Or maybe, you'll decide to count the number of times you get distracted during work? The possibilities are endless.

When deciding what you will track, remember to pick something easy, especially in the beginning. We mean something that'll remain easy enough once your initial excitement about this self-tracking project wanes and the business of life creeps in. At the same time, it should be relevant to the motivation you're trying to explore.

Don't worry too much if you don't pick the "right" metric right away. You can always change it later as you keep learning.

3. Choose How You Will Record Your Data

Once you get clear on your motivation and what you'll track, it's time to decide how exactly you will do it.

A few factors come into play here, but the most important may be practicality. What self-tracking tools will you need to record and aggregate your data in one place?

Say you decided to track your daily social media time. The first question may be whether to use tracking devices — like an app on your smartphone — or record it manually with pen and paper? The first is a more passive method of data collection, while the other requires more conscious effort to observe and record what's happening in real time. You'll decide which one is more beneficial.

Another aspect to consider, especially if you’re using wearable technology and apps, is data privacy. Make sure to do some background research of the software and hardware companies you're using — especially if the data you're recording could potentially be sensitive (e.g., involves tracking your physical location).

4. Make Sense of Your Data

Once you start collecting data, you'll want to be able to draw conclusions from it. And not just any conclusions but those that are actually helpful.

A Harvard criminology student once found out that Nicolas Cage's appearance in movies seems to be strongly correlated with people drowning in swimming pools. Say what? Exactly. This is a good example of how an apparent correlation doesn't imply causation. This makes it irrelevant when it comes to preventing drownings.

To avoid such pitfalls in thinking, you need to carefully consider how you'll represent your dataset. For example, recording daily numbers against a timeline, calculating a baseline score, or finding a median can be the first step. Once you have a good representation of your data, you can start looking for connections with other data points.

Remember not to jump from correlation to causation too fast!

5. Draw Insights and Act on It

Once you have a record of your data — be it in the form of a table, graph, calendar, etc. — it's time for an important question. What does this mean for the future you?

Hopefully, by this time in your self-tracking experiment, you’ve gained enough self-awareness to decide this for yourself. Are you happy with how things are now? Would you like to change anything about this tracked aspect of your life? Or maybe you discovered that things are not nearly as bad as you thought?

Give yourself some time to reflect on your lifelogging journey before deciding what's next.

Start Self-Quantifying With Time Tracking

We may be biased, but we believe one of the most useful metrics for personal growth is how you spend your time. Time tracking has many benefits. Improving focus, identifying unhelpful patterns, and getting better at prioritizing tasks are just a few of them.

Ultimately, this isn't just about being able to report on how you spend your days. In the long run, tracking your time can shed light on many unconscious behaviors and deepen self-awareness. This can have far-reaching benefits in many areas of life.

Manual time tracking can be daunting and generate unnecessary stress. That's why we created Rize — a smart time-tracker that can be fully customized and integrated with your calendar. Try it now for 14 days, free of charge. It can be your first step into exploring your quantified self.