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Upgrade to the Latest brainOS: Manufactured Awareness 2.0

in Life Log · 4 minutes read

I recently gave a talk at the Quantified Self Global Conference about my life logging experiment. It sparked several interesting discussions. One of the insights that stood out is the sense of manufactured awareness I briefly highlighted in a previous post. So I’ve decided to elaborate on this point adding to it from these discussions as well as from the additional months experimenting.

Manufactured Awareness is…

First, let me expand on my definition of manufactured awareness. It manifests itself in two separate ways, externally and internally.

Manufactured Awareness
Externally, I now have a calendar that is an indisputable reflection of my life; a black and white picture of what I have done at any given moment, and more importantly what I haven’t done. It’s an extension of my brain that gives me instant access to cold hard data about my behaviour. Now I know. I can’t pretend. I can’t fool myself into thinking I’m being productive (or any other attribute I may be concerned about). I have found this to be tremendously helpful in “keeping me in check”. It also helps me answer the question I was curious/worried about 6 months ago: “what the hell did I do today? or yesterday? or this whole week?”.

… A Great New Brain App…

The second, more interesting change, is the internal one. I like to think of it as a new cognitive process – a simple analogy: think of downloading a brand new app on your smartphone that adds new functionality not previously available (like Instagram’s fancy photo filters). This neat new “feature” of mine comes from the act of logging my time and the anticipation of logging. I am now acutely aware of what I’m doing, when I’m doing it. This adds a lot of weight to every decision I make:

“Is this really what I should be doing right now?”
“Is there a better way I could be spending this time?”

It’s as if I am now two selves: the doing-self or Worker, performing activities, and the criticizing-self or Manager, overseeing my work to make sure I’m inline with my goals, values, etc.

Manufactured Awareness

Over time, this led to a gradual change in my behaviour. I’m able to quickly pick-up on my “knee-jerk” reactions to satisfy technological urges e.g., a reflex to switch to a Facebook tab and browse mindlessly, or the impulse to fill my time with “busy work” – activities of little or no value that create the illusion of making progress while keeping me busy. They also provide the satisfaction of thinking I’m being productive (e.g., that good feeling when crossing a task off my to-do list). Think of the times you’ve spent reorganizing your desk or computer folders just because you didn’t feel like starting that difficult task. More often than before, I am able to catch these impulses before they arise and redirect my attention where appropriate. Something I used to mostly realize after the fact.

… That Drains My Battery…

This comes at a price. The extra cycles my brain spends on playing the role of the manager on top of that of the worker are taxing. I’m reminded of Roy Baumeister’s work (author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength) on the concept of ego depletion (or willpower fatigue) – which I believe is at play here. He compares willpower to a muscle that gets exhausted from repeated use. The more you use it (to resist temptations, persist at difficult tasks, etc.) the less you’re left with for future activities. And decision making is one of the activities that contributes to this ego depletion.

It’s no wonder then that this recent change has been draining for a while. Being constantly worried about my current state and having to make repeated decisions to resist temptations isn’t trivial. As I write this post, I got even more curious about this phenomenon: If I did in fact have a limited daily source of willpower, then I should expect to fail at restraining myself more often later in the day as I depleted that source. So I dug into my data. And a clear pattern does emerge. I almost never procrastinate before noon (I wake up around 8am on average). 90% of my procrastination happens after lunch time (2pm), and a whopping 50% after 6pm.

Procrastination Distribution: Average Hourly Procrastination by Time of Day
Manufactured Awareness

This graph shows that my procrastination steadily increases until dinner time (7-8pm) and then decreases for the rest of day – reasonable given that I generally work much less on evenings. The two interesting anomalies are 2pm, likely because of the post lunch slump, and 8pm, the time at which I take a lengthy break from work to have dinner.

… But Can Now Run In The Background.

However, over time, I have seen an improvement in my ability to manage these distractions. I’ve started to incorporate, almost subconsciously, a set of rules or guidelines that automate the manager’s role. Rules like “no procrastination if less than 1 hour has passed since the start of the current work session”. Then every time the urge to stray surfaces, and as the manufactured awareness kicks in, I almost subconsciously defer any decision making to the now ingrained rules. I’ll ask myself “has it been an hour yet?” and the appropriate behaviour automatically follows.

There’s more to this than meets the eye, but I’ll leave that for another post.

“What if I Don’t Have OCD Like You?”

Manufactured AwarenessPeople are skeptical when I tell them all of this tracking is quick and seamless. Some even think I’m crazy when I recommend it (at least their facial expressions suggest so). So, I won’t outright recommend logging every minute of your life, but I’m convinced a sprinkle of added awareness as we march through our days is tremendously helpful.

A simple way of testing this out is with the help of a very primitive but effective tool: the notebook. It takes a couple seconds to write down tasks as they are completed (important, trivial, as well as useless ones), but the insights come at the end of the hour, day, or week when you take a step back and see the patterns start emerging. I’m almost convinced you’ll be surprised by what you see. But don’t take my word for it…


Check out the Life Log page for the latest updates and posts on this experiment.

Shout out to my friend Halim Madi for providing input on this post.

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Published on:   October 23, 2013