QS LA Confidential (Part One)

Two weeks ago while in LA, I met with Eric Blue, co-organizer of LA Quantified Self (QS) Meetup Community.
M: How did you get involved in QS?
Eric: I’ve been interested in self-tracking for several years now and started off by doing my own experiments. A major motivator was monitoring my lower back pain that started about 2 1/2 years ago. Self tracking helped me to become more conscious of my physical activity. Around this time I read a book “Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution Will Change Everything” by Gordon Bell. Gordon had been working for 15 years at Microsoft in research and development and developed his project MyLifeBits (the ultimate self-tracking project). I decided to check out Gordon’s work in depth and discovered the Quantified Self community through one of his blog posts. In May 2011 I went to the 1st QS Conference, which was attended by about 450 people. That’s where I connected with John Amschler, who originally started the LA QS Meetup and also co-founded the San Diego Meetup. Since then I help organize the LA Meetup events (every 4-6 weeks).
M: Tell me more about popular QS gadgets and projects on the West Coast.
Eric: Fitbit is popular now as it saves time on manual data entry. It counts steps, distance, calories burned, quality of sleep, etc. Jawbone recently came out with the Up product (wrist band and iPhone app) that tracks your daily activity and inspires you to live healthier (Read Eric’s post about it). And, Zeo measures brainwave activity in order to detect when you’re asleep and what stage of sleep you’re in (light, deep, REM, etc.).
M: So what kind of self- tracking do you do?
Eric: I started doing different things, like capturing photos and memories from great trips (part of my Personsal Memex project, similar to MyLifeBits). I also would manually track my workouts. I was measuring my caloric intake and physical activity which could then be graphed over time. This helped with analysis of my own activity patterns. I’d also set goals like walking 5 miles a day and even wrote a program that would automatically send me text messages as reminders when I needed to go on walks. I eventually moved away from manual data entry to using different gadgets that automatically capture health-related data (Fitbit, Zeo, Withings, UP, etc.)

M: Why do you think people do self-tracking?
Eric: Mainly to help with motivation and making change happen. If you raise awareness and bring visibility, then people can focus on what’s important. Mint.com is a great example of this model. With the combination of nice graphs and budget reminders, it really helps people pay attention to their spending habits.
M: It helps you track but it doesn’t really tell you yet what goals to set, so they could be very subjective. The app will help achieve goals when you know what you need to work on…
Eric: Some gadgets have software that helps set goals. For example, with Fitbit, you buy the device for $100 then you can sign up for a premium subscription that lets you create goals. It takes into account your age, sex, height (BMI formula). Based on your recent activity it tells you how active you currently are: sedentary, lightly active, active… So it helps set goals… in terms of how many calories you need to burn. Over a 12-week period it will set a reasonable goal to gradually increase your overall activity level by the end of the program.
M: Tell me about some interesting QS projects in the LA area.
Eric: We had a great presentation at the last Meetup event here at LA QS by Bryan Dorsey – WorkFoodOut, who lost over 55 pounds by calorie counting. He eventually turned his calorie counting system into a web application that can be used by other people.
M: It is great that he was so determined and disciplined too. Usually there are so many “nice to haves”, but when do people actually say: “enough is enough, it has to be done now”? When do you decide to finally do what you want to do?
Eric: I think people can reach a tipping point, or a point of no return. Or when there is enough peer pressure or other motivating factors. Say, if you realize that the benefit of doing something is bigger than not doing it, or when the current loss/penalty is way too high… Years ago I participated in a kind of “new year resolution weight loss competition” at work with my buddies. I had to lose 6% of body weight – 13 pounds and it had to be done in 6 weeks; starting after the New Year and completed by Feb 14. Money was involved, and I did it.
Another time, with a similar competition, I did an overly aggressive diet because the penalty was too high: if you didn’t lose weight then you had to pay $100 for every pound that was not lost… To lose 1 pound a week is healthy, but taking onlye 1,000 calories a day is super aggressive (and not recommended at all). But I did it. Peer pressure and a financial penalty really motivate. Since then I’ve learned the secret to setting and reaching realistic goals is moderation.
M: I’m sure peer pressure helps motivation but an accountability partner or mentor would be good too, as long as you are not on your own… But definitely the process is about awareness, benefits/penalties and other motivation.

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