The only real valuable thing is intuition. – Albert Einstein
A year ago I got rid of my scale, a simple act that turned out to be the catalyst for a year’s worth of quiet introspection and experimentation in removing quantification from my life. A year later I’m quantifiably more ignorant about myself than I have been in more than a decade, but I’m far more in tune with my intuition, which has cultivated a deeper understanding of my well-being. I have come to the conclusion that the quantified self is a misguided movement and that it isn’t one worth pursuing. For me, it represents a simulacrum of introspection. It’s as if I’d decided that I wanted to go on an adventure through the Grand Canyon, but instead of traveling there and truly experiencing it, I obsessed over creating the perfect map of the Grand Canyon and stared at it endlessly while going through the paces, never looking up to experience the true beauty of being there in the moment.
For context, this post is part of a larger series of introspective posts related to reducing the mindless dopamine fixes we get through variable reward systems. In earlier posts I explored the process of dumbing down my smart phone as well as my reasoning for quitting all social media. In this post, I hope to demonstrate how “unquantifying” has helped me live a healthier and more contentment-focused life that is in alignment with my first principles.
Almost exactly one year ago, I threw out my scale. Looking back, I’m realizing this was a very important step. Something felt right about this decision, but I hadn’t yet developed a mental model as to why it was right for me. The catalyst for this decision was when my wife, daughter, and I sold our house in Austin, Texas and moved to Costa Rica. This was part of a larger plan that had kicked off the year before while on an introspective birthday trip to Marfa, Texas (that story will be reserved for a future post). When it came to moving to Costa Rica, we only brought what we could pack on the flight down here. Everything else was sold, given away, or put into storage. The scale didn’t make the cut.
Once in Costa Rica, I decided to try something radically different: ignorance. Instead of tracking my weight, I decided that I would simply pay attention to my body. This prompted deeper thoughts on the subject and I added two more behavioral modifications to my life:
- No more tracking food intake (counting calories/macros/special diet tricks).
- No more use of an alarm clock to wake up in the morning.
As someone who has struggled with being overweight since childhood, I’ve gone through cycles of successful dieting and then yo-yoing back again several times. The idea of removing the scale and the dietary monitoring was bit of a radical step for me, but one that has ultimately been healthy. Instead of worrying about what I eat quantitatively, I simply focus on eating real foods, getting proper sleep, and staying physically active. I’ve side-stepped yo-yo dieting and my body fat has gradually decreased over the last twelve months (while still having plenty of fun along the way) – something that is still a work in progress and has been fascinating to experience.
The removal of the alarm clock was also a big change for me. In Austin, I would get up early and go workout, or get up early and work before work (I spent most of my last two years in Austin as the CTO at a Series A funded startup, and the quiet hours of the morning before my wife and daughter woke up were the only real quiet hours I had all day). I’d somehow convinced myself that, though the average person needs seven to eight hours of sleep per night, I only needed five. Mix that flawed notion with an affinity to wind down almost every evening with my good friend Johnnie Walker Black and we’re really talking chronically getting around four hours and some change of sleep per night. Yikes.
Now I get around eight hours of sleep per night because I prioritize sleep. The sun sets very early here, currently around 18:00, so I’m typically in bed by 21:30 and asleep by 22:00 to 22:30, and I wake up between 6:00 and 7:00 the next morning.
In the past year, I read Hacking of the American Mind by Dr. Robert Lustig. The book makes a strong case for how the physiological basis of pleasure-seeking happiness crowds out one’s ability to feel true happiness (contentment), and why a strange mix of corporate manipulation of our minds and bad government policy have created the perfect storm for a failure of willpower. This is a bit entertaining to me because this is not a new concept to anyone who studies ancient religions – this is a topic that has been explored by humanity for a long time. What I find fascinating about Lustig’s work is that it bridges the gap between what some have found as intuitive truths and what is provable by neuroscience.
This book lead to me dumbing down my smart phone and in doing so, eliminating the last portion of my quantified self: fitness trackers. In the book, Lustig spends time reviewing the effectiveness of fitness trackers through scientific studies that don’t seem to indicate that they really help.
I’m a runner, and run trackers have simply been a part of my life for the past eight years or so. I’ve subscribed to services, and I’ve meticulously logged runs and set personal goals for my pacing and distance. I’ve used them to train for three half marathons and a full marathon as well as personal speed goals. I removed all health and fitness tracker apps and OS integrations. I have no idea what my heart rate is over the course of the day. I have no idea how many steps I’ve taken. Now, all of that is behind me and I’m better for it. I don’t track my runs over time. I don’t know my pace. I simply run and I’m having more fun running now than I have in years.
To summarize, I no longer track my:
- food intake
There is a secondary benefit that I’ve addressed in the post nonparticipation, in that I also no longer share those intimate details of myself to startups and third parties who are pressured to monetize that data. By going unquantified I’m in complete alignment with nonparticipation in the toxic adTech driven panopticon of surveillance capitalism.
As normal as tracking all that stuff used to feel to me, after stopping I realized what a mental toll quantification was taking on me. Some quantification ties right into the variable reward pattern, some quantification (or lack thereof) leads to failed expectations and goal setting that really misses the point of setting goals to be healthy. I realized I should spend more time listening to myself for what I am and what I need instead of telling myself how I should be. Each day I go through little meditations for my feedback loop. There really isn’t any formality whatsoever. As part of that, I ask myself questions like:
- Are the foods that I ate today in alignment with what I know I should eat?
- What have I done to push myself physically today?
- Did I put as much effort into X (interval sprints, runs, push-ups, double-unders, etc.) as I know I should have?
- Did I feel like I gave myself enough time to slow down, read, and introspect before bed?
This might seem super obvious to some. I know it seems obvious to me now, but it was not obvious to me one year ago. I was over-connected, over-stimulated, and fixated on hitting arbitrary numbers that represented some sort of success in my mind. Despite all the effort, I wasn’t really making myself happier. Now I understand that part of turning down the volume on dopamine means making room for quiet contentment. It also means choosing mindful ignorance and finding the joy in not knowing.
It’s even spilled over into non-personal stuff. For this site and killcord.io:
- I don’t keep access logs for S3 and Cloudfront (you can check out my terraform config here).
- I have no idea who or how many folks visit my sites (I’m completely fine with that).
I’m not claiming to have figured this all out (I’m only one year in). I’m also not claiming that I’ve discovered some great truth. What I can tell you is that I’ve learned that trusting my intuition and introspecting honestly have been far more valuable for my health and happiness than any amount of data ever collected could try to accomplish.
Minimalism is a powerful design choice. It doesn’t just apply to visual aesthetics. What and how we quantify is also a design choice. When it comes to quantification, I prefer the path of the minimalist.