Building a journal that solves all your problems
Quantified Self and rejecting the unexamined life
Journals are great. Maintaining a journal is one of the most intrinsically rewarding things that you can do. They help us remain mindful and aware of what we do every day, and we can always look back and read them later.
If you’ve never maintained a journalling habit, you’ve never experienced the joy of opening a journal entry you wrote 3 years ago and reading about what you wrote then, and how your life is drastically different now.
Your problems, which seemed insurmountable at the time, seem insignificant now. Or perhaps, they don’t. Perhaps, they really represented an issue you struggled with. But you overcame them, triumphed through the adversity, and you’re proud of how your past self behaved.
Or perhaps, your past self didn’t do the right thing, and with the wisdom you gained from a previous mistake, you now know what to do.
At the end of the day, every human being is a vulnerable, flawed being, not too far away from monkeys. We make mistakes, we learn and we grow, and journalling everyday represents something far deeper than just writing what happened today and how it made you feel. It represents our monkey minds talking to themselves, unifying all the voices in their heads and trying to make sense of it.
If you’ve wasted an entire day, maybe due to procrastination, akrasia and the likes, it can be conflicting to face yourself at the end of the day and write down everything you did. It can’t be a coincidence that many successful people attribute their journalling habit as a major driver of their success.
But there’s one thing a journal can’t do.
A journal can’t tell you exactly what you’re doing wrong, how to solve your problems and get exactly what you want.
But imagine if just a journal managed to do that. A journal, if it could successfully tell you what to do, how to behave, how to get better than where you’re now, how much would you pay for that?
If this journal was a machine, and it could, with 100% certainty, achieve these results for you, that machine would be hailed as a God.
Fortunately for us, technology has made us all Gods. We already have the tools to build such a journal, and it won’t cost us a fortune.
All it will cost- is a little bit of discipline, a few tools, and embracing a little-known but unintentionally widely adopted movement called “The Quantified Self”.
Quantified self refers to the simple phenomenon of tracking yourself and collecting your own data, so that you can make inferences from your data that improve your life. This quantified self movement, which started as a niche obsession for those who were very good at spreadsheets, is now accessible to all through various wearables and apps.
Smart wearables are a 40 Billion dollar market right now. This means that there are far more people out there tracking their own data right now than there was, in any point of human history. This is a trend that is likely to keep growing. For the first time in human history, everyone can track their heart rates, sleep duration and schedule, even sleep quality, stress and heart-rate-variability, and skin temperature and even the amount of oxygen in their blood, all throughout the day, just by wearing a smart watch on their wrists. Less than 24 hours ago, wearing an Apple Watch saved a man’s life.
This technology will evolve, and it’ll only get better from here. Neural implants, or even an SpO2 monitor in our ears, will soon track our cognitive overload as outlined in this recent paper.
How do we fit a bulky SpO2 monitor in our ears?
I don’t know. But I know that smart people will figure it out. Apple might even figure out how to make their airpods do that with light sensors, according to rumors.
But the accessibility of self knowledge over the years has been one of the best things that happened in technology. In 2022, data has more value than oil. Aggregating data and serving us ads is what makes Facebook and Google one of the most valuable companies on the planet. But data should have a more important role to play, rather than just showing us ads which are relevant to us. It should be able to guide us to what we can do to make our lives better.
That is what quantified self is about. We can uniquely observe how our body behaves and reacts to certain situations, patterns of behaviour, medicines, regimens and uniquely tailor our life to suit us best.
You can start with a cheap fitbit, which is surprisingly accurate at tracking sleep and your heart rate, and then upgrade to an apple watch or similar, when you want.
And it’s not just about tracking our heart rate.
There is another thing that is fairly important to track, which is- tracking how you feel every day.
This distinction is important, as tracking how you feel is another one of those things that is unique to only you. There are generalizations that can be made about a few things that make everyone feel the same way, yes, but overall, everything affects each of us a little differently. This is because we’ve all been subjected to different experiences while growing up. We’re all unique, and that means we all see the world differently than the person next to us.
Thus, while tracking everything else like heart rate, sleep, weight, caloric intake, etc. is important, tracking how you feel is crucial.
Tracking this is trivially simple. A simple spreadsheet is enough. Or, there are polished, beautiful looking mood tracker apps out there which do the same and provide insight. The following is an example from reddit user u/Protcal using Daylio, who figured out that exposure to Sunlight ended up having a drastic impact on their daily mood-
I started using Daylio this year, and although I don’t know whether I’ll renew my subscription next year, I’m satisfied so far. It has insights on what affects my mood positively, what affects it negatively, and what combination of things has the greatest impact. I’ve also noticed that the majority of my days fall in the middle mood, the “meh” mood- as they call it, which is definitely not a bad thing to me. To frame it better, I’ve changed the mood of “meh” to “Content”, which sounds far more accurate.
If you’re on Android, there’s also an app called Pixels which does something similar. There’s also an open-source app called Nomie which tracks a lot of other things than mood. They used to use Blockstacks (Stacks, as it’s now known) as a decentralized storage option for years, but recently shut it down. The developer has been fairly active in the r/nomie subreddit recently and is supposed to release Nomie 6 soon, which will have both a local free and cloud hosted paid option. That’s something to look forward to, specially because it’s open source.
It should matter whether an app that you’re giving your data to, is open-source or not, because you never know what or who is benefiting from the data that you’re providing and how that’s being aggregated and collected. It’s not wise to expect the big players on the wearable market to make their code open-source, but I’m sure we’ll soon get quality, decentralized alternatives.
However, there are a few things to keep in mind when you’re starting your quantified self journey-
You should be able to export your data. Tracking your data every day requires a level of commitment and discipline that not everyone can adhere to, no matter how insignificant the things are that you’re starting out to track. Don’t waste time on apps that don’t have an export option or hold your data hostage.
Passive tracking is convenient and useful. Active tracking will provide better insights. But the best thing you can do is always self-experiment and see what works. Make your data useful. Learn how to optimize different behaviors and see how it affects you.
I wanted this to be one of the first essays of Bright Mirror, because I’ll explore a lot of important topics here like longevity, nootropics, exercise regimens, VR lifestyles, etc.
Most of the current research, especially in longevity, hasn’t been proven (as it’ll track the current generation and their deaths, to come to a conclusion). We won’t be around if we wait for that data to be available in a journal in 200 years. That’s why we’ll have to act now, and through self-knowledge, we’ll accurately track how’re being affected.
But tracking your data like this, through wearables and mood trackers, over decades would be the perfect recipe for building the journal I talked about earlier.
But a journal is static. It can’t say anything back to us. Right?
I think, in an age of AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) and obviously in the age of ASI (Artificial Super Intelligence), we’ll be able to feed this data to a system that tells us more accurate things about ourselves than we can ever imagine. I’m not talking about just knowing what to eat tomorrow to feel better or what amount of sunlight helps you sleep better. I’m talking about exactly what to do for the next two weeks to shave off 20 years from your biological age. But that will only be possible when we have the relevant data to feed it.
That is how our digital journals will talk back to us and give us whatever we want in life and beyond.
I’m aware of the fear surrounding sentient AI, I’ll talk about the possibilities, concerns and implications of AGI and ASI in a future essay.
What is a concern for this essay, is the inevitable pushback you’ll get from people if you publicly broadcast your data.
Just like everything that’s revolutionary, you’ll find a lot of people who don’t agree with you or this entire movement of quantified self. There are many who may term these as reductionist, and not comprehensive enough to make lifestyle changes. They’d be wrong, as most of these self-knowledge metrics are accurate enough to provide useful insights now, and you can aggregate your own data and figure out what lifestyle or behavioral choices had the most positive or negative impacts and adjust accordingly.
Another push-back you might get, especially if you share your data on social platforms and you have a wide-enough audience, is that you might be labelled as a “data fetishist.” Yes, that term exists, and I suggest you not only ignore those who try to label you this, but also ignore anyone who labels anyone as any “-ist,” for the sake of winning a moral argument.
By the time the general populace adopts these techniques, we’ll all be better off and hopefully, we will be able to bring our friends and loved ones in for the ride.
Besides, if self-tracking was forbidden, why do we have weighing scales? Why do we get an annual checkup?
I say, ignore those, and track yourself. Analyze everything you can, every day, and live a quantified life. Reasearch and find out what wearables to get, what apps to trust and if maintaining a spreadsheet is more convenient, and go all in. Ignore the noise, and be proud of being an early adopter.
In 399 BC, a man named Socrates was on trial and he was sentenced to death after making the following remark:
“The unexamined life is not worth living.”
He chose death over the alternative.
2421 years later, we have a similar choice.
Relevant interesting links:
I tracked my life for 4 years, here's what I discovered about myself
A course by a computer scientist from Brown University about personal informatics