Quantified self through little fill-in boxes

Except for a period of about eighteen months in my early twenties, I’ve generally been a bit sceptical of the whole quantified self movement. In theory, sure: it can be useful to know some hard facts about how you make your way through your day, week, or year. But in practice I suspect that most people, if faced with every measurable facet of their lives, would change exactly nothing.

And yet we persist in quantifying our lives. Perhaps it’s part of our obsession with optimisation and squeezing the value out of every minute of the day. Perhaps it’s because numbers, like lists, give us a way to escape our thoughts about death.

Take one: pocket life coach

Around August last year, I read through (most of) Marshall Goldsmith’s book Triggers. Although published in 2015, it feels like one of that bevvy of professional-corporate self-help/“life coach” books that seem to have grown like a fungus out of the mid-90s era of corporate chic and have survived the turn of the decades chiefly through self-sufficient colonies in airport book stores. However, every book has value in it somewhere, and I thought I saw some in Goldsmith’s discussion of daily questions:

For years I’ve followed a nightly follow-up routine that I call Daily Questions, in which I have someone call me wherever I am in the world and listen while I answer a specific set of questions that I have written for myself. Every day. For the longest time there were thirteen questions, many focused on my physical well-being, because if you don’t have your health…well, you know the rest. The first question was always “How happy was I today?” (because that’s important to me), followed by questions like:

  • How meaningful was my day?

  • How much do I weigh?

  • Did I say or do something nice for Lyda?

All-in-all, Goldsmith’s list comprised (at the time he wrote the book) twenty-two questions1, which seems quite a few to answer each evening. Regardless of the number, I thought that this process – of questions formed around your goals, coupled with daily check-ins to close the feedback loop – seemed like an interesting activity. So for the month of September I drafted up a little monthly checklist of questions, which I would paste into my notebook and consult at the end of the day, because it turns out not everyone is a jet-setting corporate speaker who can have someone call them every evening to ask twenty-two questions.

You may not be able to see from that image above, but this list lasted a grand total of eight days before I abandoned it. In fact, even five days in I was finding that I didn’t like answering these questions, and was missing check-ins that I had to fill in one or two days later. As a result, I abandoned this matrix over just one full week of filling in. The remainder was a big blank set of squares in my notebook.

Take two: a bit of kitsch

Earlier this year we took a bit of a road trip up to Gisborne for a wedding. While there, we visited the excellent Muir’s Bookshop. If you’re going to drive for five or six hours to visit a bookstore, Muir’s is a good choice.

Among the many books I browsed while there2 was a copy of Mia Nolting’s Instant Journal. And immediately, this seemed familiar:

It’s another daily questions list, but this one seemed different somehow. “Maybe it’s the somewhat twee faux-hand-lettering,” I thought to myself, “or the fill-in-your-own-pie-charts, but I could get behind this.” But since I didn’t need any more journals in my life, I took a picture for interest’s sake, put it down, and continued browsing. That would have been the end of this story, if I hadn’t spotted it in my photo stream sometime later, and wondered about constructing something similar for my own needs.

So I did that:

The contrast in the feelings these differens sheets evoke – between that first sheet I made based on Goldsmith’s work, and the one based on Nolting’s journal – is amazing. One I dreaded filling out, feeling dread each time I needed to confront the page. The other is a genuinely positive experience.

So what?

When I abandoned Goldsmith’s list, I thought it was the idea of box-checking itself that turned me off. Nolting’s list shows this isn’t the problem, the problem is what’s on the list.

Goldsmith’s list tracks achievements – habits and things we want to do. These are things we should be addressing at the start of the day, ensuring we allocate time in our day towards them, rather than thinking of them at the end of the day as an afterthought. There’s nothing like finishing up your day, tired out from the work you’ve been doing, and then coming face-to-face with a list of the things you didn’t get to do to make you feel even worse, to exaggerate any feelings of overwhelm.

In contrast, Nolting’s list is about experiences – it’s literally asking you, “how was your day?”. This is the sort of question we can ask ourselves at 5pm and not feel too bad if the answer is “pretty overwhelming”. In fact, having five minutes to take stock each evening might let us know if we’re experiencing a bit too much of this in our life.

At the risk of possibly reading too much into a little set of checkboxes: Goldsmith’s list is about the grindstone of constant productivity and improvement, while Nolting’s list is about reflection and acceptance. Only one of these is something you want to deal with at 5pm on a Thursday night.

Now what?

Obligatory XKCD comic

Now I have a PDF template I can print off every couple of weeks to create a weekly list of check-boxes. But that’s not how this works. Instead, I’m interested to see what value I can get out of my reflection list. What questions provide me with indicators that I’m getting overwhelmed, or sucked into a long-term anxiety spiral? What will help me deal with important things over urgent things, say, or gently push me towards good habits?

After a month or so of these little fill-in boxes, I think I’ll be in a good place to reflect on what they tell me. In the meantime, filling in little circles at the end of the day will give me a strange tactile pleasure reminiscent of multi-choice exams at school.

Post-script

Most of this was written about a week ago, as I was halfway through my first batch of print-out write-in daily trackers based on Nolting’s journal. Since then, I’ve actually done my first two weeks’ worth, and have reformatted the trackers to be smaller and better-organised, as well as revamping the questions.3

My daily questions are now divided into three categories:

  1. How was your day? These questions track your experiences across the day. If you assume that your environment affects your attitude and actions (the whole point of Goldsmith’s book), this section should hopefully alert you to triggers that tip you into unproductiveness or bad habits.
  2. How do you feel? These questions track your emotional balance – how you react to the events of the day. A lot of Nolting’s questions fall under these two categories, tracking how the day went and how it made you feel.
  3. What did you do? This section is much more like Goldsmith’s. It’s a chance to track regular habits or ways of reacting that you want to encourage. I’m still not a huge fan of tracking these things as end-of-day habits, but I think by making them one third of the check-in, you’re able to keep them useful while also ensuring the end-of-day check-in isn’t just a shopping list of things you didn’t get around to doing.

The analogue nature of this list has already lent itself to quick hacks, like the half-filled box and the continuum fill-in at the end of the week.

I anticipate that as I iterate on the checklist further, I’ll continue changing it to fit my habits.


  1. It’s probably worth nothing that part of this chapter also discussed how he’s since changed these questions so they focus on active effort, rather than results. 

  2. Including a copy of Thomas Moore’s Utopia with a preface by China Miéville that literally gave me an anxiety attack, but that’s another story. 

  3. This also makes my implementation somewhat different from Nolting’s, so now I feel much better about posting it to the internet rather than just copying what she did.