Breaking Bad Habits with Self-Tracking

For the forth time, the Quantified Self Conference took place in Amsterdam. Quantified Self is a way to get „self knowledge through numbers“ as the two founders Kevin Kelly and Gerry Wolf put it, learning about one’s life by measuring various aspects of our bodily funcions, our actions, habits, and environment. With all kinds of tracking devices from simple step counters to complex sleep monitors, that are know generally available in every consumer electronics store, Quantified Self has matured from a nerdy, rather esoteric niche to a mainstream trend. In many countries, healthcare institutions are experimenting with self-tracking, and there is a plethora of self-tracking apps for iOS and Android smartphones.

„Self-tracking is about change. But change is more often not about doing, but about stopping to do something.“ Gerry Wolf introduced this year’s conference with a keynote about breaking routines. A routine, he remarked, is a method to fight entropy. It consumes energy to maintain routines. Routines are efficient, as long as the conditions remain unchanged, but it restrains our acting freely. Self-tracking for most people is about uncovering routines in daily life, making bad habits visible, and then guiding the change by supplying an indicator.

When self-tracking is used to break habits, it opens additional degrees of freedom. Thus self-tracking is not so much about self-discipline, about restricting actions, living according to more rules, but about pushing the boundaries, and reliefing from constrains that are not neccessary, but exist just because we are used to do things that way.

Bad habits can creep into all our everyday activities. And self-tracking is not limited to counting the steps or measuring blood pressure. There are already a few apps that support people by tracking their driving. Acceleration (respectively breaking), turing, and speed can easily be tracked with the sensors that sit on every smartphone. From the readings of these probes, indexes can be derived, that give feedback on the quality and safety of driving. Becoming aware of bad habits can not only help the driver to save energy by learning to drive more ecologically, but reduce stress and lower the risk of accidents. Self-tracking can by this help driviers to act more consciously, and thus give them more freedom on the road.

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