From the quantified self to the qualified self

28 July 2014 — 2 mins read

I used a Jawbone Up for about four months. I wanted to give it a try and to understand how its tracking stats could help me somehow.

To be honest, I wasn’t fond about activity tracking: I’m an active person (“moderately active”, I used to be much more active in the past), I played basketball since I was a kid, I know how fast I can sprint, how high I can jump, how much stamina I can have when I’m well trained. I’m quite self-conscious about my level of fitness. To put it bluntly, I really don’t need an app telling me that I’m not working out enough.

When you play a team sport, your physical activity can’t be broken down in quantifiable bits, especially a team sport as complex as basketball. If you are a runner, it’s easier to track common stats and to “gamify” and turning everything into a challenge. It’s clear why the most famous fitness apps out there are built for runners and not for basketball players.

Sleep tracking was much more interesting for me. When I bought the Up I was under a lot of stress, it was summer, hot, I felt that I had a really random sleep pattern. I always thought that I was a light sleeper, able to recovery with just four hours of good sleep. But I never had data to confirm my theories.

The smart alarm feature also interested me. Avoiding the sense of being woken up by the alarm clock when you’re are in the middle of a deep sleep phase is crucial for starting the day with a better mood. This very single feature worked really, really well from day one.

I started this post by saying that I used the Up for about four months. Then I sold it. What when wrong?

Apart from being useless on the side of activity tracking, sleeps stats weren’t helping me. After four months I had tons of data, made some adjustments about my habits, but the truth is that all these numbers I had about how many hours I slept and how my sleep was divided into deep and light phases, weren’t telling me the story of how and why I sleep the way I sleep.

In the end, all these data could not be turned into useful information. I could increase the total number of hours slept, or increase the deep sleep phase. I sold the Up, I gave up: it left me with the certainty that I will never be able to sleep more than 6-to-7-ish hours a night, that I will never have more than 40% of deep sleep, that I won’t be able to go to bed earlier than midnight and catch sleep quickly. And that I can actually sleep four hours and feel truly rested.

Project like Sense are steering toward a much more intelligent tracking of the sleep experience: it’s not a step forward to the qualified self, in that these sensors still mindlessly track a lot of stats, but the connection of multiple sensors and hence the possibility of having more data points can allow you to make more educated guesses – I wouldn’t go as far as calling them “inferences” – about you sleep patterns.

A combination of better metrics (such as your room’s humidity and light levels — or your partner’s sleep pattern) coupled with diary-like tracking could and will lead to a better understanding of our sleep.

And maybe, one day, I will discover why I can’t remember my dreams.

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