The ROI of Quantified Self

After being an early enthusiast of Quantified Self, I now consider myself to be a critic. My last post on the topic was Some Quantified Self Honesty. That was two months ago. In that post and the posts linked to from that article, I cover my issues with quantified self.

In this post, I’ve decided to simplify the argument by treating QS as if it were an investment.

We engage in Quantified Self to discover truths about ourselves that will enrich our lives. We want to be smarter, faster, stronger, happier and more healthy. In each of these categories, we have an ideal, be it real or fantasy. We also have our own reality. QS is promoted as a tool to help us mine enough data to bridge that gap between our current self and our ideal self.

Let us forget for the moment that viewing ourselves as incomplete and in need of a version update might not be healthy or realistic. Instead let us take a data approach and view ourselves as below market investments.

ROI is an economic term meaning Return on Investment. Our investment in QS is mostly going to be time. You could buy software or wearable sensors, but the bulk of the investment will be the hours you spend collecting and analyzing data. When I thought about QS in these terms, a few ideas popped out.

  1. The more “undervalued” one is, the more likely general behavior changes will improve their condition. These behavior changes have a very high ROI, because there is no need for QS. An example would be everything we know about good sleep hygiene. A good book on sleep will have a higher ROI than any QS experiment.
  2. As one gets closer to true value or optimized, the more experiments and greater time commitment will come from eking out a few percentage points of gains. And that is assuming you pick the right experiments, see the gains and that those gains are sustainable and repeatable. All those assumptions are fantasy IMO, because unlike machines, humans are always changing.

Continuing to use sleep as an example. Let us say a person “quantifies” their sleep quality as a 4/10. Although every person is different, I would expect that a group of individuals could improve to 8/10 by consistently following the basic ideas found in a good sleep hygiene book. Time commitment is low. ROI is very high. No QS required.

Now going from 8/10 to 10/10 is going to be the challenge. Whereas reading the book took a few hours, running enough QS experiments to make this leap could take years, if it happens at all. ROI is low and uncertain. Diminishing returns. When ROI gets too low or returns nothing, then one should seek out alternate investments with higher ROI. In layman’s terms, one should stop messing around with QS and instead spend their time on something that adds more value to their life.

MAS Sleeping

I spent 2.5 years of my life tracking my sleep quality. It was already good when I started. During my QS period, I tested the effect of many things with a goal to sleep perfect every night. The successes I had were minor and not repeatable. The numerous hours I spent thinking about and trying to improve my sleep by a few percentage points are gone.

Quantified Self has alluring narrative, especially to those of us with a love for data. But in the end, QS was a poor investment.

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MAS

Critical MAS is the blog for Michael Allen Smith of Seattle, Washington. My interests include traditional food, fitness, economics, and web development.

One thought on “The ROI of Quantified Self”

  1. Of course, your point is the Pareto Principle in other words. Go for the low hanging fruit. The first 20% of the effort yields 80% of the results.

    I’ve done plenty of experimenting these last 5 years. The things that continue to work fitness- and health-wise for me are, HIT training thru BBS principles, and intermittent fasting, Eat-Stop-Eat style. Maybe also, cutting down on ‘vegetable’ oils.

    At this point, I just want to integrate these things into my life; make them settled habits so I do them without thinking. The low hanging fruit have all been gathered.

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