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Why the Quantified Will Inherit the Earth

I"m the co-founder of Koalify, a personal analytics startup.  Check out www.koalify.com to start improving your life with personal analytics today.

Someone I respect told me “it’s easier to sell painkillers than vitamins.”

He’s right, but it’s also an oversimplification.  Today’s skipped vitamins are tomorrow’s painkillers – just ask retail execs who didn’t take big data seriously during the rise of Walmart.  There isn’t a major company in the world today that doesn’t put serious investment behind understanding their business/customers through data.

I’m going to sell you vitamins in the form of personal analytics.  But rest assured, whether you start today or 10 years from now, personal analytics will become a part of your life.  Here’s why:

You Make What You Measure (1)

Want to optimize something?  Start measuring it.

I first read this in an essay by Paul Graham (2), and it stuck with me ever since.  Changes in life happen gradually – nobody gains 20 pounds in a week or learns to snowboard in a day.  Measurement draws attention to your progress, making it an exceptional motivation tool.  You’ll skip that dessert because you know you’ll see the impact when you step on the scale.  You’ll wake up early to practice because you know you’ll break your streak if you don’t.  Clarity between cause and effect begets progress and self measurement begets clarity.

“War is 90% Information” – Napoleon Bonaparte

I suspect you have goals.  If not, that’s cool, but you can skip down to the next section.

Since you’re still with us, that means there’s something you’d like to achieve.  Great, me too!  No matter what you’re trying to do, your biggest barrier is information.  I want to build a product that people love and use every day.  If I knew what features would resonate most with my users, and which were superfluous, that task would be done in a week.  The hardest part of being a doctor isn’t treating ailments, it’s identifying them.  If you know which option to choose, the rest is trivial.  Information is always the bottleneck.

You’re Dumber Than You Think

Most people think they know themselves pretty well – I know I did.  Most people are wrong.

People are notoriously bad at evaluating themselves.  87% of Stanford MBAs rank themselves in the top half of their class (3).  The worse you are at something, the more likely you are to overestimate your ability in that field (4).  Here’s a list of cognitive biases that affect how we perceive the world – it’s too long to count (5).  Data cuts through all of this.

If you really want to know if you’re sleeping well, buy a Fitbit and find out.  If you care whether you’re healthy or not, check out Withings.  If productivity matters, sign up for RescueTime.  I’m not saying you have to care about these things, that’s a personal decision.  What I am saying is that if you do care about them, measure them.  Otherwise you’re wasting your time.

It doesn’t matter what you care about, or what you’re trying to achieve.  If you don’t measure it, you’re leaving your life up to chance.  In 10 years we won’t wait until we’re sick to go to the doctor, we’ll know it’s coming long before it happens.  We won’t wait until we’re broke to start saving money.  We won’t waste our time working on things that don’t matter.

But, why wait 10 years?  Just take your vitamins today.

Questions? Comments?  Shoot me an email to [email protected] or leave a comment below.

Notes:

  1. http://www.paulgraham.com/13sentences.html
  2. If you haven’t had a chance, I highly recommend reading Paul Graham’s essays.  He’s my favorite writer by a seriously huge margin.  Start here: http://www.paulgraham.com/wealth.html.
  3. Cross, P. (1977). “Not can but will college teachers be improved?”.New Directions for Higher Education 17: 1–15.
  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect
  5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases

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