Self-Tracking: Becoming Your Own Big Brother

Guest

Holly Finn, columnist, Wall Street Journal

How was your workout? Did you sleep well? How far are you in that book? These questions used to be general queries. New apps and gadgets allow us to keep track of every minute detail of our daily movements and activities — a practice known as self-tracking.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

So, how was your workout? How'd you sleep? How far did you get in that one book? Those questions were all, at one point, pretty general questions - no longer, though. I don't answer: good, I slept well and about halfway. I say I did 1.9 miles in 27 minutes. I got four hours of deep REM-cycle sleep, and I'm 64 percent finished with that book. New apps and gadgets allow us to keep track of every minute detail of our daily movements and activities. It's a practice known as self-tracking to find out quantified selves.

So, self-trackers out there, we want to hear from you. What have you learned by tracking your self? Give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Holly Finn joins us now. She's a columnist for the Wall Street Journal. In her weekly "Marvels" column, she writes about how science and technology are changing our lives. She joins us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Holly, thanks so much for being on the program.

HOLLY FINN: Hi, Celeste. Nice to be here.

HEADLEE: You use a self-tracker, right?

FINN: I do. I just signed up.

(LAUGHTER)

HEADLEE: How did you sleep last night?

FINN: I can tell you exactly. I slept eight hours and 21 minutes, six and a half of which were deep sleep, and only one and a half of which were light sleep. And I fell asleep in 26 minutes, and I woke up zero times.

HEADLEE: So what...

FINN: I'm quite proud.

(LAUGHTER)

HEADLEE: What does this tell you? How does this - how does that actually help you, having that knowledge?

FINN: Yeah. To me, I think the thing is it's the nuanced knowledge that's interesting, knowing that I slept eight hours. I could have slept eight crappy hours, and I would feel crappy and not understand why. Today, I can understand precisely why. Most of that - if it was light sleep, then there's my reason, and therefore I can slightly adjust, one hopes, my behavior towards others based on the fact that I'm a little peaky today.

HEADLEE: So what does this term, the quantified self? Is it just...

FINN: Yeah.

HEADLEE: ...you know, completely, you know, anal attention to every single thing that we do, every breath we take?

FINN: I think it can be as pedantic as you make it, really. The term quantified self was coined by a couple of journalists five years ago, a couple of Wired journalists. It's not a new notion, but they put a term to it. This has been around for literally hundreds and hundreds of years. In the 1600s, a man called Sanctorius of Padua, who was a researcher into metabolism, actually worked in what he called a weighing chair, which weighed everything that he ate, everything that came into his body and everything that left his body...

HEADLEE: Oh, yeah. (unintelligible)

FINN: ...because he was attached to a calibrated scale, you know. So this isn't brand-new knowledge. Clearly, if he'd, you know, he'd gotten out of the chair, maybe he wouldn't have studied it so much. But it's not a brand-new science. It's just that technology has supercharged it.

HEADLEE: Well, I mean, I have to say, I'm a self-tracker myself. I use two of them. I use a BodyMedia armband, and then I also have the Nike FuelBand...

FINN: Yeah.

HEADLEE: ...partially because I'm training for some bike races. And it's helpful...

FINN: Yes.

...information to me.

Yes.

HEADLEE: What are the most popular - I mean, are most people going as detailed as I? Or are there - people just kind of sticking their toes in?

FINN: I think there's such a spectrum, certainly, for folks like you, the kind of - the athletic tracking and the ability to magnify performance. That - I mean, that's hugely valuable, just giving you the knowledge in what areas, what sort of things you can tweak in order to do better.

But the spectrum runs for - from everything from something recently introduced at CES last week in Vegas, the Happy Fork, which is a fork that actually tracks how much you eat and buzzes if it feels like you're eating too much. For me, something like that has crossed the line from helpful to slightly judgmental. I don't want to worry what my utensils think of me. But on the other end of the spectrum, our health giving apps and devices - things like, for instance, an asthma inhaler that is fitted with a GPS so that every time a person or, for instance, a child has an asthma attack, it logs where and when and possibly what air conditions, et cetera, are in place at the time. And over, you know, you can track that and see trends, and that's pretty interesting.

HEADLEE: And the CES you're talking about is the Consumer Electronics Show that happens every January in Las Vegas. But, I mean, the thing that's amazing to me is that one of the reasons there's so much research going into this and so many products is it - it's making money. I mean, people are buying this. There's tons of people using their iPhones, their Androids to lose weight - to keep track of everything they do.

FINN: Well, that's actually how - I actually started - I made a bet last summer with a friend that whoever - whichever of us lost 15 pounds first got a free dinner anywhere in the world. And I'm not a competitive person, like, athletically, but I like my dinner and I respect a bet. So I signed on to something called MyFitnessPal, a free app, on my iPhone, which logs your food and literally the first day I was on it, I ran out of allotted calories by 1:30 PM, which told me...

HEADLEE: Oh, wow. Kind of an eye opener.

FINN: Yes, told me something about my eating habits, and I've now - it told me yesterday I'd logged on for 160 days in a row, and I've lost 20 pounds. And it was incredibly helpful as, what I call a personal lie detection device. We're in this universe of social media and self-branding and a little bit of posturing, I think we can all agree.

(LAUGHTER)

FINN: And these devices actually help us not lie to ourselves, and I imagine that that might help us not lie to each other as well.

HEADLEE: Well, we're going to talk more about that in a moment. But let me read a couple of emails from listeners. This is Linda in Portland, who says, I've learned I don't get nearly enough sleep during my workweek by using my favorite app, Sleep Cycle. I also use an app to map my exercise. And then Gayle in Buffalo, New York, writes, I've been using Fitbit for a year, have increased my steps from 5,000 to 13,000 a day and now climb 30 flights of stairs daily as a goal when I use to avoid wherever I could. I'm 69, I found that I can do a lot more than I thought possible to keep fit.

And if you are a self-tracker of any kind out there, we want to hear from you. What have you learned? Our number is 800-989-8255, or you can email us like they did at talk@npr.org. This concept of honesty is really interesting to me. I just read the research that said dieting by Twitter is more effective than regular dieting. You can do everything else the same, but if you're tweeting about your weight loss, you'll lose more.

FINN: Yeah. That makes sense to me. Again, I think it's probably universal and it's probably timeless. But given that we have these tools at our fingertips now, we carry our phones with us wherever we go, we're always logged in, why not use that for good as well as possibly less good? And I think the peer pressure can also be a positive as well as a negative.

HEADLEE: And you're not lying about it.

FINN: Yes, essentially.

HEADLEE: And yet, Holly, and yet isn't it also part of sort of the vanity of the human condition? Aren't we completely self-absorbed enough already?

FINN: I think that it's a really, really good question. If you go back and look at, as I did, Gary Wolf was one of the journalists who coined this term quantified self. He gave a TED talk about it a couple of years back. And it was fascinating that he listed his caffeine intake, his sleep, all the data, his heart rate - that he's self-tracking had provided. And then he felt he had to say, quote, "and my score on the narcissism personality index is a reassuring .31."

(LAUGHTER)

FINN: ...as if to make sure we all understood that this wasn't about that. I think, again, it's probably a self-selecting device. If you tend towards narcissism, it will make you more narcissistic. If not, however, I think insight into self can lead to insight into others. I spoke to Yves Behar who's the designer of the Jawbone Up, which is what I wear and I'm fascinated by. And he made the point that actually if you are, like he is, a person who runs a company and you notice, given your sleep last night, you're a little tired and slower today and perhaps you haven't taken the right number of steps, you look around your office - same is true for everyone else - you might have meetings. You might get everyone out for lunch.

HEADLEE: Oh, interesting.

FINN: And so it could be slightly more broad than just benefiting you.

HEADLEE: Well, let's take a couple of calls. So here's Annemarie(ph) in Weddington, North Carolina. And, Annemarie, you're actually a fitness trainer, so this is - seems to be very useful.

ANNEMARIE: Absolutely. 100 percent.

HEADLEE: How do you use it?

ANNEMARIE: Yeah. Well, I use it mostly to track rides - and I do a lot of rides and runs with beginners as a triathlon training coach. So I try to really encourage them to use it as a motivational tool, you know, see how far you can go and also a lot of these new entries coming, how many calories I've burned anytime that I'm training for something like a marathon or triathlon. But I also tell them use it to also, in some ways, let your self off the hook. I know that it seems counterintuitive, but I work with a lot of cyclists and runners that are incredibly motivated and often push themselves to injury, or push themselves past what they need to. So I say use that heart rate monitor as a way to also let you back off. So if you're feeling bad, you're in mile 18, you know, and you see that your heart rate is a little high, back off. Don't push through that. There's no need for that. You know, you want to live to fight another day. I really use it, also, as a tool to allow people to back off from exercise when they need to.

HEADLEE: OK. Thank you very much. That's Annemarie, calling from North Carolina. And we also have a call from Bryan(ph) in Cincinnati, Ohio. And, Bryan, you're a physician?

BRYAN: Yeah, a psychiatrist actually (unintelligible) psychiatrist and...

HEADLEE: And you use a pedometer.

BRYAN: Yeah, it sounds kind of pedestrian with all these quantifiable devices. But I asked my - my New Year's resolution was - I'm not overweight, I'm thin and I'm very active, but I don't like to sit at work. And I'm trying to encourage my patients not to be sedentary. So I asked my kids, where's that pedometer that I used to have years ago? And they said, Dad, you don't need a pedometer. Just get an app on your iPhone. So I did that, and the last few weeks I've been standing at work and on a portable stair-stepper, which I've jerry-rigged in such a way that I can have a desk that's elevated and I can enter data as I interview patients.

And I take my patients for a walks to try to show them that human beings are, by nature, on-the-go and it's more healthy to be moving around. Even with kids with ADHD, I, you know, encourage them to move and to be active so that - I think it's therapeutic. But then I set example in the office.

HEADLEE: Well, that is Dr. Bryan in Cincinnati, Ohio with a little helpful advice for anybody. And we're speaking with Holly Finn who's a columnist for The Wall Street Journal. What's the danger here? I mean, besides becoming narcissistic, I guess, if you have a tendency - can you just become too focused on this?

FINN: Sure. It's interesting, though, the callers, both of them were talking about slight changes...

HEADLEE: Yeah.

FINN: Which I think is one of the keys here. Everyone who talks about changing your life, talks about doing it in tiny steps - that, first of all, is what I think the quantified self is about, slight modifications. But I think if I could see a danger - and I'm a big fan of this and I tend to think on the positive in general - but I think if there is a danger, it's who owns this data, who'd you give your data to, who do you share it with?

And as we've all learned, in the last few years, we need to be slightly more careful than perhaps we have been. We get so excited about all - the potential of stuff like this that we need to understand - for instance, insurance companies. I'm sure they'd be particularly interested in how many steps we take, the asthma, you know, inhaler, you know, I mentioned or, you know heart rate information, blood glucose levels. All of those things are so personal, I think - I can speak for myself, I certainly wouldn't share this with any - I don't share my data publicly, and I don't share...

HEADLEE: I'm sure many people don't want to share that either. Holly Finn is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal in her weekly Marvels column, she writes about how science and technology are changing our lives. She joined us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Thank you so much for being on TALK OF THE NATION. What's the name again of the device that you use?

FINN: It's wonderful. The Jawbone Up.

HEADLEE: OK. The Jawbone Up. There's tons of them up there, Holly, thank you so much.

FINN: Thank you. Pleasure to be here.

HEADLEE: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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