There’s an app for almost everything people want to track these days: mood, glucose level, posture, eating habits, sleep cycles. Users like Mark Moschel, who call themselves “self-quantifiers,” enlist multiple apps to control their own behavior for a longer and better life. “What’s important to you?” Moschel asks, “Go track it!”
Potential exists for self-tracking technology to spot trends and help diagnose medical conditions. HopeLab, based in Redwood, Calif., advocates using app-generated data to push behavioral change in the area of health. Researchers say people might use less gasoline, conserve water, or drive slower by measuring themselves with real-time app feedback.
Tim Davis of Beaver, Pa., became his own experiment: He weighed 318 pounds two years ago. His life changed when he decided to track his physical activities and calorie intake. First he bought Fitbit, a gadget for measuring physical activity. The Lose It! app on his phone tracked his food input. To motivate himself further, he got a Wi-Fi-enabled scale that tweeted his daily weight. Others apps monitored his blood pressure, pulse, moods, and medications. A combination of 15 different apps and gadgets helped him shed 64 pounds in about a year. “It's the second-by-second, minute-by-minute changes that really did it,” said 39-year-old Davis.
Setting goals and breaking them into measurable parts is nothing new. But with interactive self-tracking apps, people can compete against their own stats and even broadcast every microscopic milestone. They can also grow dependent on the technology: Davis regained much of his weight once he stopped feeding on a constant stream of data.
Self-tracking apps may induce greater self-focus, but there are apps for obsessions too: The Live OCD Free app touts itself as a solution for 80 percent of obsessive-compulsive people to “reduce OCD symptoms by 34 percent in 8 weeks time.” Janet Singer, whose son Dan struggled with OCD, questioned on PsychCentral.comwhether using app technology this way is a bit like trying to do “therapy in a can.”
Apps purport to be your digital life-coach, delivering just-in-time feedback for behavioral changes: Lark.com markets an iPhone app and accompanying wristbands to track data “even while you snooze.” It measures your movement, sleep, and diet to recommend ways to increase energy or reach targets quicker than you would on your own initiative. Yet you still have to decide for yourself between a side salad or fries.
Moschel, who co-organizes the Chicago Quantified Self meet-up, gives his rationale for the self-tracking craze: “As data from people around the world are aggregated, explored, and decoded into bits of knowledge, imagine the discoveries that become possible, the mysteries of the human experience that can be solved.” Such mysteries may include how many times your cat enters the cat-flap or whether you are happier over time.
Self-tracking apps set the stage for beneficial personal changes and channeling your amateur scientist. John Quincy Adams also could have reveled in a few apps, but with a different focus: “Whoever increases his knowledge, multiplies the uses to which he is enabled to turn the gift of his Creator.”