As with any new phenomenon that’s gradually emerging into the mainstream, the concept of self-tracking, or self-quantification, is not widely understood. The term can mean different things to different people and different communities. The quantified self (QS) movement would consider the regular measurement of any personal detail, regardless of how obscure, as a form of self-tracking. But my aunt recording her weight, exercise and diet sees this as simply part of achieving her goal of shedding a few pounds.
Crystallizing out a definition for ‘self-tracking’ as it pertains to the new QS movement is important because it allows people to recognize that they’re in fact part of this growing community. So, I thought it’d be worth having a stab at defining what exactly self-tracking is:
“Self-tracking is the process of recording any aspect of your physical activity, cognition, wellbeing, lifestyle and environment as quantifiable data on a regular, ongoing basis, with the intention of identifying actionable changes that lead to self-improvement.”
Let’s break this definition down:
I think the categories of “activity, cognition, wellbeing, lifestyle and environment” are sufficiently broad to include virtually any personal aspect that someone would want to quantify and track about themselves, although I’m sure there’re individual metrics that fall between the gaps.
A fundamental aspect about personal measurements is that they’re quantifiable in some way. This is obvious for a metric like body weight, which is always expressed as a value with associated units (76kg), but less obvious for a cognitive metric like memory. Ultimately, whatever the metric, the measurement must be translatable into a numerical value. So, expressing memory on a particular day as “poor” can, for example, be numerically rated as 2 out of 5, on a scale where a value of 1 is ‘bad’ and 5 is ‘excellent’.
It might seem obvious, but there must be some degree of regularity in taking measurements. Noting your sleep duration a couple times, weeks apart, cannot be considered as self-tracking. But there needs to be some flexibility with frequency – a metric like sleep is best recorded daily, but applying the same regularity to your LDL cholesterol is probably overkill.
The final component of the definition might prove controversial: the aim of self-tracking, the reason for collecting these regular measurements, is to instigate some form of personal change. I think this aspect is necessary because, without it, rudimentary or incidental forms of data collecting, like a child’s height as it grows or your record of FourSquare check-ins, all become forms of self-tracking. But if these are not leveraged for self-improvement, they’re not strictly ‘self-tracking’.
With this definition it’s obvious QS is a much larger phenomenon than is recognized. Take a look at your own behavior. Are you tracking your weekly jog on Runkeeper? Is there a Jawbone UP or Nike Fuelband strapped to your wrist, or a fitbit in your pocket? Perhaps you’re using RescueTime to measure your productivity, or mappiness to track your mood? You might not know it, but you’re probably a Quantified Self-er. So, on behalf of the movement…welcome! Things are about to get pretty exciting.