the quantified self, forming habits for behavior change, and my deep and profound love of sleep

For years I had no trouble writing every day, doing my yoga practice, and eating well, but this last year all three have gone into the toilet.  So much so that I now look back on those times when I religiously got up at 5 to write, or had a six-day a week yoga practice, as some kind of mythical Time Before and have no idea how I ever achieved it.  Indeed, I only know those times actually happened because here is a (surprisingly popular) post I wrote in 2009 about how to how to get up and write at five in the fucking morning, and here is my (also surprisingly popular) 2012 post on my yoga practice after three years of near daily Primary series (including through times of injury!)(with before and after photos!).

In contrast, for the last year, writing has dropped to 3 or 4 times a week in the afternoons, and practicing yoga has dropped as low as 2 times a week, and then post-hamstring injury this fall, to spotty once a week trials.

Facing this debacle, I have been trying to figure out WHY, and more importantly, how to get my bulletproof habits back.  Or if that is even possible.  This post is about me clawing my limping way back through tracking.  Maybe.  I think.

In exploring WHY, my first thought was to blame my manga habit.  Because, basically, the time my morning habits (writing, yoga) went to hell coincides with the time when I started staying up really late to read—which led to sleeping in later in the mornings, which ate up my usual writing/yoga time, both of which never seemed to adequately get rescheduled.  It also seemed to nix my morning kale/orange juice in favor of something caffeinated to help me wake up after my sleep depletion.  It’s all manga’s fault!

But, of course, I’m not giving up manga.  Duh.  Instead, I focused on how to get up early, something I used to do as a matter of course.  That had to be the solution!  PROBLEM: turns out I LOVE sleeping in, something I discovered when I was able to give up the murderous 5AM wake time because the kids had gotten older (it’s complicated).  I love it, the lying there all dreamily thinking, drifting, cuddling, warm and relaxed…I don’t want to give that up!

Okay, so it turns out that trying to get up early makes the hardest moment of my day—that of trying to get up when I want to keep sleeping—the very first moment of my day, when I am weakest and most prone to blowing off my larger goals.  Trying to get up early also pits me against myself.  And since I suck at it, it makes me feel like a failure first thing in the morning.  As a result, my effort towards doing it regularly crash and burn, or, more typically, failed to even get off the ground.  Depression and guilt, how I loath thee.  (How did I ever do it back i  2009?  Amazing.)

I know, I know, why not write and do yoga some other time?  Seems so simple.  But, as most thing, not so much.  Afternoons are no good (kid activities) and evenings are husband/family time—if any goal is more important to me that writing and yoga, it is kids and family.  So what about late night?  I’m too wiped.  Plus the kids and husband are all capable of staying up WAAAY later than me.

So, it’s got to be mornings.  What to do???

It got so bad that I started questioning my identity.  As in, I thought I was an “unschooling, novelist, vegan, yogi,” but really I’m an “unschooling, middle-aged woman, getting chubbier all the time, who likes to read.”  At least I got to keep the unschooling part.

There was actually something quite relaxing about downshifting my self-picture.  Lower standards for the win!  No more struggle to attain difficult goals!  Let’s watch tv and eat chips!

But no, that wasn’t going to work.  I really do love writing and my yoga practice, etc.  Lowering the bar is a good vacation but not so great on my long-term self-esteem.

I know!  I just needed a spiffier alarm clock!  Some vibrating thing that wouldn’t wake my co-sleepers, one that would read my sleep-cycle and wake me at an optimal moment of light sleep rather than groggy deep sleep (they have alarm clocks that can do this!).  Maybe something with an app.  Yeah, that was the ticket.  I just needed to purchase something.

Which dropped me right into the explosion of fitness trackers, Fitbit, Jawbone Up, Amiigo, Lark, because many of them have this fancy vibrating sleep-tracking function—God, I had no idea there were so many now!—

Which led me smack into the Quantified Self movement, where curious people track various things about themselves and then learn stuff from the analysis of their data.  That link goes to the Quantified Self page, a sort of virtual headquarters for an international movement…but the main thing is all these cool videos of people talking about their experiments with tracking various things, health, fitness, reading, where one has walked, eating, mood, etc. Very interesting!

I had no idea there were other nutty people who love to track weird data like I do!  This is me, jumping up and down and saying Hi! I’m a nutter, too!

For example.  Before there were apps and trackers and ipods, there was paper and pen, and I used actual graph paper and a thermometer to track my morning basal body temperature for eight years, data I used successfully both as birth control and then for getting pregnant when I chose to.  During that time I experimented with correlating various things with my hormonal cycles, such as mood and libido, and for just a single, silly, example, I found I reliably had a day of worrying about money three days before my period started each month.  I could set a clock by it.  I’d think I was having money troubles, but no, I was just having PMS.

This still cracks me up.  So much of what we think is our personality, our Self, is just chemicals.

A second example.  When Sophie was first born she cried all the time. Colic is something evil people invented to torture mommies and babies.  It was awful.  Hearing from my doctor that it could be related to what I was eating (and passing to her through breastmilk), I cut out everything from my diet (I think I could eat rice and turkey?) and started adding things back in one by one, tracking what I ate as well as keeping detailed charts that plotted Sophie’s mood in color-coded, 30 minute increments of “sleeping” “crying” or “screaming.”  You can get an idea of how bad it was because it didn’t even occur to me until later that I needed a color for “awake and happy,” because she never was.  (I chose blue.)

Over the weeks that I did this, gradually the charts went from lots of red (screaming) with some pink (crying) broken by merciful sections of green (sleep), to some pink, swaths of green, and blooming blue sections that made me want to weep with relief.  I also found I could reliable create red by eating various things (caffeine—no chocolate!!! horror!!!—was a big one), and so was able to stop the red altogether and seriously diminish the pink.

Maybe baby Sophie just grew out of it.  Maybe my charting just gave me something to do to feel some sense of control in a terrible situation.  Or maybe there was something to it all.  I don’t know.

But the point is…I love tracking!  And there is this whole pile of people who are into it, too, how cool is that?

I find there are all these interesting devices these days, too, step counters and heart rate monitors, sure (I’ve played with both, fun!), but also sleep trackers, mood trackers, money trackers, reading trackers, glucose trackers, posture trackers, blood pressure trackers, exercise strackers, GPS locational trackers, etc etc.

It’s so interesting.  I know, I’m such a geek.

But, hey, aren’t we paying just a little too much attention to ourselves?

On the other hand, there is something so freeing about looking at this stuff as DATA rather than, say, a statement of morality, as in, if I’m a good person I’ll make good decisions, so if I’m making bad decisions I must be a bad person…

No.  Maybe these decisions are an effect of triggers, patterns, and habits that I can’t see without taking a closer look.  Maybe it is a lot easier to change habits by changing the environment than by trying to change myself through sheer willpower.  Looking at one’s data as a kind of self-scientist, investigating for clues, is judgement free, and can lead to behavior change through increased awareness and a sense of choice that has nothing to do with will power or being naughty or nice.

So, what about the habits I once had of writing and yoga?

I already do a bit of tracking here on the blog with my page-count widget, as well as my “daily practice” mini-blog over there in the sidebar.  Those are both there for me, more than you readers (sorry), but I’ve been fairly lackadaisical about upkeep.  I would like to track in a more granular way—sorry, I just really wanted to use that word, Quants love the world “granular”—so, I’m looking for some method that is super easy and fun to get the habit tracking part of all this in place.

I have found one ipod app called Lift that seems fun, and fits with a lot of what the habit researchers have figured out about habit forming.  Basically, you want to (1) choose only a few habits at a time to change/implement.  (2) You want to make them specific and actionable.  (3) You want to build up streaks, because these can be highly motivating—the more days in a row that you do your new habit, the more likely you won’t want to break you streak.  (4) You also want to keep tracking simple, like a y/n binary, I did it/I didn’t do it check mark.  Plus, (5) regularly review your results and adjust course as needed…or celebrate!  Celebration is super important.  In addition, (6) chaining habits is powerful—slot a new habit right after an already established habit.   There is more about all of this in the videos below…

But listen: I have had one insight and one GIANT breakthrough.

The insight: the hardest thing (I thought), the bottleneck, about my goals was getting up early—but instead of focusing on the getting up early, I’ve started focusing on going to sleep earlier.  This makes the hardest thing of the day the last thing I have to do, instead of the first thing.  Better.  Because I’ve got more resources to draw on when I’m in my “review my day” mode rather than “I’m half asleep and could give a fuck about goals” mode.

But the really juicy bit, the BREAKTHROUGH:  in my quest to find a good alarm clock—because I kept thinking I needed one until I just started going to bed earlier, DUH, FACEPALM, this is embarrassingly obvious!!!—I’d been trying different apps on my ipod.  But an ipod-based alarmclock put the ipod in my hand first thing in the morning…which often led to reading first thing in the morning.  Which often nixed any other plans or goals.

Basically, if you give an addict their drug of choice first thing in the morning, the rest of the day is pretty much shot.

So, no ipod alarm clock.  Instead, if my first goal is to get up to write, and the getting-up part was the hard part…

…why not put my computer in my hand first thing…and write in bed?

I’m a freaking GENIUS!

So, for a four days now, I’ve put the computer by the bed the night before, gone to bed early enough to wake up early enough that the rest of the fam are still asleep or half-asleep….and I grab my computer and get my 1000 words in before I even get up.


Then I track it and celebrate because I am awesome for thinking of this.  And since I’m up, yoga follows breakfast-for-kids, as it used to.  It all depends on getting to bed earlier (not toooo hard) and environmental support (computer by bed).  Will it stick?  I’ve got a four day streak, we’ll see….

Here is a super cool TED talk by BJ Fogg about behavior change through forming tiny habits, a great start to the whole habit thing.

Here is Quantified Self participant, Andrew Tarvin talking about tracking habits over time to create behavior change.  He’s also funny, the founder of Humor at Work, a good, inspiring talk.

Andrew Tarvin – The Perfect Day from Steven Dean on Vimeo.

And for something different, here is data scientist, Rachel Kalmar, who has been wearing 20 different trackers for the last six months and has very interesting thoughts about getting, using, and keeping our data.

I really want a bunch of these trackers, I have to admit.  So expensive though!  Maybe I can pick just one for Christmas….what should I track?  Hmmm….

One thought on “the quantified self, forming habits for behavior change, and my deep and profound love of sleep

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