Recently I spoke at the Quantified Self Toronto group (you can find the article on other talk here).
It was in late November of last year that I decided I wanted to lose a few pounds. I read most of The Hacker’s Diet, then began tracking my weight using the excellent Libra Android application. Though my drastic reductions of my caloric intake are no more (and so my weight is now fairly steady) I continue to track my weight day-to-day and build the dataset. Perhaps later I can do an analysis of the patterns in fluctuations in my weight separate from the goal of weight loss.
What follows is a rough transcription of the talk I gave, illustrated by the accompanying slides.
Hello Everyone, I’m Myles Harrison and today I’d like to present my first experiment in quantified self and self-tracking. And the name of that experiment is “How Much Do I Weigh?”
So I want to say two things. First of all, at this point you are probably saying to yourself, “How much do I weigh? Well, geez, that’s kind of a stupid question… why don’t you just step on a scale and find out?” And that’s one of the things I discovered as a result of doing this, is that sometimes it’s not necessarily that simple. But I’ll get to that later in the presentation.
The second thing I want to say is that I am not fat.
However, there are not many people whom I know where if you ask them, “Hey, would you like to lose 5 or 10 pounds?” the answer would be no. The same is true for myself. So late last November I decided that I wanted to lose some weight and perhaps get into slightly better shape. Being the sort of person I am, I didn’t go to the gym, I didn’t go a personal trainer, and I didn’t meet with my doctor to discuss my diet. I just Googled stuff. And that’s what lead me to this
and your body is the entire system, and all this system has, the only things we’re going to think about are inputs and outputs. I don’t care if you’re eating McDonald’s, or Subway, or spaghetti 3 times a day. We’re just talking about the amount of input – how much? Therefore, from this incredibly simplified model of the human body, the way to lose weight is just to ensure that the inputs are less than the outputs.
Walker realized that this ‘advice’ is so simple and obvious that it is nearly useless in itself. He compared it to the wise financial guru, on being asked how to make money on the stock market by an apprentice, giving the advice: “It’s simple, buy low and sell high.” Still, this is the framework we have as a starting point, so we proceed from here.
So now this raises the question, “Okay well how do we do that?” Well, this is a Quantified Self meet up, so as you’ve probably guessed, we do it by measuring.
We can measure our inputs by counting calories and keeping track of how much we eat. Measuring output is a little more difficult. It is possible to approximate the number of calories burned when exercising, but actually measuring how much energy you are using on a day-to-day basis, just walking around, sitting, going to work, sleeping, etc. is more complicated, and likely not practically possible. So instead, we measure weight as a proxy for output, since this is what we are really concerned with in the first place anyhow. i.e. Are we losing weight or not?
Okay, so we know now what we’ve got to do. How are we going to keep track of all this? Walker, being a technical guy, suggests entering all the information into a piece of computer software, oh, say, I don’t know, like a certain spreadsheet application. This way we can make all kinds of graphs and find the weighted moving average, and do all kinds of other analysis. But I didn’t do that. Now don’t get me wrong, I love data and I love analyzing it, and so I would love doing all those different types of things. However, why would I use a piece of software that I hate (and am forced to on a regular basis) any more than I already have to? Especially when this is the 21st century and I have a perfectly good smartphone and somebody already wrote the software to do it for me!
So, I’m good! Starting in late November of last year I followed the Hacker’s Diet directions and weighed myself every day (or nearly every day, as often as I could) at approximately the same time of day. And along the way, I discovered some things.
One day I was at work and I got a text from my roommate, and it said “Myles, did you draw a square on the bathroom floor in black permanent marker?” To which I responded, “Why yes I did.” To which the response was “Okay, good.” And the reason I that I drew a square on the tiles of the bathroom floor in black permanent marker was because of observational error. More specifically, measurement error.
If you know anything about your typical drugstore bathroom scale you probably know that they are not really that accurate. If you put the same scale on an uneven surface (say, like tiles on a bathroom floor) you can make the same measurement back-to-back and get wildly different values. That is to say the scales have a lot of random error in their measurement. And that’s why I drew that square on the bathroom floor. That was my attempt to control measurement error, by placing the scale in as close to the same position I could every morning when I weighed myself. Otherwise you get into this sort of bizarre situation where you start thinking, “Okay, so is the scale measuring me or am I measuring the scale?” And if we are attempting to collect some meaningful data and do a quantified self experiment, that is not the sort of situation we want to be in.
So I continued to collect data from last November up until today. And this is what it looks like.
As you can see like most dieters, I was very ambitious at the start and lost approximately 5 pounds between late November and and the tail end of December. That data gap, followed by a large upswing corresponds to the Christmas holidays, when I went off my diet. After that I continued to lose weight, albeit somewhat more gradually up until about mid-March, and since then I have ever-so-slowly been gaining it back, mostly due to the fact that I have not been watching my input as much as I was before.
So, what can we take away from this graph? Well, from my simple ‘1-D’ analysis, we can see a couple of things. The first thing, which should be a surprise to no one, is that it is a lot easier to gain weight than it is to lose it. I think most everyone here (and all past dieters) already knew that.
Secondly, my diet aside, it is remarkable to see how much variability there is in the daily measurements. True, some of this may be due to the aforementioned measurement error, however in my readings online I also found that a person’s weight can vary by as much as 1 to 3 pounds on a day-to-day basis, due to various biological factors and processes.
Walker comments on this variability in the Hacker’s Diet. It is one of his reasons as to why looking at the moving average and weighing oneself every day is important, if you want to be able to really track whether or not a diet is working. And that’s why doing things like Quantified Self are important, and also what I was alluding to earlier when I said that the question of “How much do I weigh?” is not so simple. It’s not simply a matter of stepping on the scale and looking at a number to see how much you weigh. Because that number you see varies on a daily basis and isn’t a truly accurate measurement of how much you ‘really’ weigh.
This ties into the third point that I wanted to draw from the data. That point is that the human body is not like a light switch, it’s more like a thermostat. I remember reading about a study which psychologists did to measure people’s understanding of delayed feedback. They gave people a room with a thermostat, but there was a delay in the thermostat, and it was set to something very very high, on the order of several hours. The participants were tasked with getting to room to stay at a set temperature, however none of them could. Because people (or most people, anyhow) do not intuitively understand things like delayed feedback. The participants in the study kept fiddling with the thermostat and setting it higher and lower because they thought it wasn’t working, and so the temperature in the room always ended up fluctuating wildly. The participants in the study were responding to what they saw the temperature to be when they should have been responding to what the temperature was going to be.
And I think this is a good analogy for the problem with dieting and why it can be so hard. This is why it can be easy to become frustrated and difficult to tell if a diet is working or not. Because if you just step on the scale every day and look at that one number, you don’t see the overall picture, and it can be hard to tell whether you’re losing weight or not. And if you just see that one number you’d never realize that though I can eat a pizza today and I will weight the same tomorrow, it’s not until 3 days later that I have gained 2 pounds. It’s a problem of delayed feedback. And that’s one of the really interesting conclusions I came to ask a result of performing this experiment.
So where does this leave us for the future?
Well, I think I did a pretty good job of measuring my weight almost every day and was able to make some interesting conclusions from my simple ‘1-D’ analysis. However, though I did very well tracking all the output, and did not track any of my inputs whatsoever. In the future if I kept track of this as well (for instance by counting calories) I would have more data and be able to draw some more meaningful conclusions about how my diet is impacting my weight.
Secondly, I did not do one other thing at all. I didn’t exercise. This is something Walker gets to later in his book too (like most diet/health books) however I did not implement any kind of exercise routine or measurement thereof.
In the future I think if I implement these two things, as well as continuing with my consistent measurement of my weight, then perhaps I could ‘get all the way there’
That was my presentation, thank you for listening. If you have any questions I will be happy to answer them.
References / Resources
Libra Weight Manager for Android
The Hacker’s Diet
Quantified Self Toronto