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Hi there

If you’re a literature nerd, you probably know Mr. Gradgrind: the relentlessly calculating merchant in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times. Gradgrind is a staunch believer in the measurable nature of our lives, insisting he’s “ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you what it comes to.”

Gradgrind sounds an awful lot like a devout follower of the Quantified Self movement (albeit stuck in the 1850’s). Those who partake in the widely popular social phenomenon track their behaviors using digital devices, thereby quantifying their behaviors. With over 350,000 health apps on the market, you can track almost anything: weight, fitness, sleep, posture, breathing, caffeine and alcohol intake, menstrual cycles, mood, or how many times you’ve changed your baby’s diaper, just to name a few. 

Tracking apps take the learnings of B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning: strengthening behaviors through reward or punishment. Getting a “Good job!” from your Apple Watch is an external reward, which gives us a sweet, sweet hit of dopamine every time.

But like with most technological advancements, there’s a darker side to behavioral change through self-tracking. What effect do all these numbers have on us? Where is tracking helpful, and where is it a hindrance?

In today’s newsletter, we’ll explore the Do’s and Don’t’s of tracking ourselves. 

Until next time,

Sarah and the calculating team @ TDL

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Today’s topics 👀
🟢 The Do’s: Upsides of self-tracking
🚬 Field Notes: Breaking the Chain
🛑 The Don’ts: Pitfalls to avoid

🟢 The Do’s: Upsides of Health Tracking

Self-tracking can help us:

  • Check in with reality. Tracking our behaviors can help us to identify where we have room for improvement. For example, research has found that tracking tools can be useful to help IBS sufferers identify their “trigger foods.”
  • Get motivated. Humans respond better to visual data than to any other type. Hearing our doctor suggest we should walk more isn’t as effective as watching our smartphone’s pedometer hit 10,000 steps. All those pretty charts and graphs can help support our motivation to walk more, meditate each day, or quit smoking.
  • Protect your health. Nowadays, we can buy inhalers with GPS that deduce the worst times and areas for asthma attacks. Tracking heart rate and movement via fitness trackers (with users' consent) helped map the spread of COVID-19 around the world. Being able to track our health, individually and collectively, provides priceless data to help keep us healthy.
  • Feel empowered. By increasing self-knowledge, trackers can take their health into their own hands. A study found that those who managed diabetes with digital tracking reduced their needed number of in-person doctor visits, saving both time and money.  

Smoking cessation is a challenge that self-tracking has been shown to help. Research has found that smokers who receive support from phone-based interventions are 1.7x more likely to successfully quit than those without digital support.

With 100 Canadians dying of smoking-related causes every day, digital interventions have huge potential to prevent unnecessary illness and prolong lives. We partnered with the Canadian Cancer Society to design an SMS-based smoking cessation service, working at the intersection of machine learning and behavioral science. Check out the case study on the TDL website.

A ‘No Smoking’ sign

🛑 The Don'ts: Pitfalls to Avoid

Try to steer clear of:

  • Overconfidence. Contrary to the Quantified Self motto, knowing numbers doesn’t mean we know ourselves fully. We’re not experts, especially when it comes to our health: Only 12% of American adults have proficient health literacy, so check with a medical professional before drastically altering your lifestyle.
  • Oversharing. A study of 20,000 mobile health apps, tracking everything from steps to menstrual cycles, found that 9 in 10 apps used identifiers and cookies to track users. Be careful with what you track, and stay away from sharing sensitive personal information with third-party apps.
  • Overdoing it. As clinical mental health counselor Skylar Hunyadi advises, we should “leave room to be human. Measure success also by the more unquantifiable things in life — love amongst friends and family, passion for a hobby, the peace of doing absolutely nothing.” Tracking has its benefits, but remember not to sideline the qualitative or the spontaneous.
  • Data fetishism. Our intentions can be sidelined if we start to value the satisfaction and fulfillment of numerical data more than our original goals. We might start tracking our food consumption in order to eat healthier, but begin to prioritize our app’s approval over a healthy, balanced lifestyle. Be sure your original goals aren’t marginalized by the alluring concreteness of numerical data.

Imagine you start using a step counter as part of your journey to be healthier. If you fixate on reaching the recommended 10,000 steps each day, you could start to forgo other aspects of a healthy lifestyle, like diversified workouts or eating more whole foods. This is a form of bikeshedding, our tendency to prioritize trivial matters over more important ones. Read more about it on the TDL website.

Opportunities in behaviour science

TDL is hiring! We’re hiring for a number of positions, both remote and based in our Montreal office. Some open roles include: 

  • • Associate Project Leader
  • • Summer Research Fellow

Find out more by visiting our careers portal.

Want to have your voice heard? We'd love to hear from you. Reply to this email to share your thoughts, feedback, and questions with the TDL team.

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