Tech ushers in new era for New Year resolutions

Personal data: Argus, one of a wave of apps that allow you to monitor every aspect of your life.

Every New Year’s Day we promise ourselves to become fitter, healthier and more productive. Invariably we fail. But could a new wave of ‘lifelogging’ apps spark a resolution revolution?

Stop smoking, save money, cut down on the chocolate, get fit: on January 1st, millions of people will resolutely promise to reinvent themselves as fitter, healthier, more disciplined and virtuous people. A few weeks into the year these well-intentioned vows are usually in tatters.

Spiritual leaders and self-help gurus have for centuries been hunting for a cure for this frailty. But our will power remains pathetically weak. Now, however, a new technological movement may finally allow us to become the people we aspire to be.

The key ingredient is data – and lots of it. A booming industry in apps and gadgets allows users to track and measure everything from heart rate to shopping habits. Apps on your smartphone can monitor your sleep habits, record how many steps you take each day or even give you a running score on a narcissism index. Should you choose, you can meticulously measure every one of your daily habits.

‘Lifeloggers’ believe that this onslaught of data can help us to recognise behaviour patterns and change them for the better. By analysing the information, you can pinpoint the effect of diet on your sleep or exercise, or identify at which times you concentrate best. You can set precise, achievable goals and reward yourself for achieving them, then put your data online and compare your discoveries with others.

Recording routines in the name of self-improvement is not in itself new. The American polymath Benjamin Franklin, for instance, obsessively rated himself according to a system of 13 virtues and strove to live the most moral and effective life he could. But now, advances in technology allow us to objectively measure our behaviour on a hitherto unimaginable scale.

What is more, psychologists have discovered a surprising range of techniques to trick ourselves into behaving differently. If you sip from tall, thin glasses, for instance, you will drink less; and carrying paper money will encourage you to spend more.

The better we understand the way we work, the more we can manipulate ourselves into working better.

Self service

Science and statistics have dramatically heightened our understanding of everything from nuclear physics to economics. Now, say devotees of the ‘quantified self’, we can bring the same methods to bear on ourselves. The data revolution has the power to transform not only the world but humanity itself.

Reductionist claptrap, say sceptics: the self is far too complex and mysterious to be translated into a set of data points. This obsession with self-measurement is just horizon-narrowing introspection; and while you are congratulating yourself on lower stress levels and improved diet you may well miss out on what really matters about life.

You Decide

  1. Are New Year’s resolutions a useful tradition?
  2. ‘Data can tell us more about ourselves than introspection ever will.’ Do you agree?

Activities

  1. Make a list of your top three resolutions for the New Year and briefly describe how you will make yourself keep to them.
  2. For the next week, keep a diary measuring as much of your behaviour as you can. Are there any surprises? Does it alter how you think about yourself?

Some People Say...

“Fitter, happier, more productive: a pig in a cage, on antibiotics.’Radiohead”

What do you think?

Q & A

So what’s the advice for keeping my resolutions this year?
First of all, don’t be too ambitious: if you set unachievable targets it’s easy to become demoralised and give up altogether. Set specific goals over short time periods and stick to them rigorously; eventually these small improvements in behaviour will become habitual.
Anything else?
Don’t make life miserable for yourself! Schedule in rewards when you succeed in changing your habits for the better and make resolutions you look forward to as well as ones you find hard. Finally, make sure you get plenty of sleep and a healthy, substantial diet: tiredness and hunger have been proven to seriously harm your will power.

Word Watch

Narcissism
Self-obsession. The name comes from a Greek myth about a supernaturally beautiful man who fell in love with his own reflection in a river. Unable to tear himself away, he stared into the water until he wasted away and died.
Benjamin Franklin
One of the founding fathers of the United States. Franklin is perhaps most famous as the man who discovered electricity, but physics was just one of his talents: he was, among other things, an author, a statesman, a politician, a comedian, a musician, an inventor and a self-help enthusiast. He wrote his system for self-improvement down in The Art of Virtue.
13 virtues
They were as follows: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, humility.
Reductionist
Reductionism is the belief that any object or phenomenon can be reduced to the sum of its constituent parts: for instance, the workings of the mind can be understood by analysing synaptic connections and brain chemistry. Critics claim that this inhibits a more holistic understanding.

Subjects

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.