Sci + Society,

#013: Sebastian Marshall and the Quantified Self

May 02, 2013

In this week’s episode, Jesse digs into the idea of the “Quantified Self” and self-driven experimentation with Sebastian Marshall.  As an avid entrepreneur, world traveler and dedicated productivity optimizer, Sebastian has knowledge and heavy personal experience on experiment design, self-tracking and making it all work within the realities of everyday life.

Sebastian has methodically tested an impressive number of variables to determine their effects on his personal productivity and quality of life.  From dairy products to smart drugs to the lighting in his sleep environment, he’s tested (and continues to re-test) contributing elements to his life and business, and the information in this episode may just make you want to crack open an Excel file and do the same.  Let the obsessive-compulsive types in the audience beware!

Is the “Hawthorne Effect” More Powerful Than Your Hypothesis?

In the 1920’s and 30’s, a small factory outside of Chicago decided to run some tests on the lighting in the factory and it’s effect on the workers’ productivity.  They found that after increasing the brightness of light within the factory, productivity went up.  Only a little while later, they decided to confirm their findings by testing workers’ productivity when the lighting was lowered.  Lo and behold, the productivity went up again!

After some puzzlement, the researchers realized that the workers’ awareness that their productivity was being measured was the culprit, and the lighting itself was irrelevant compared to this much more powerful variable – the awareness of testing.

Jesse and Sebastian discuss the Hawthorne Effect’s impact on the Quantified Self concept, since you (as the researcher and the test subject) can’t avoid this built-in bias.  One example Sebastian brings up is when preparing to experiment with the effects of a smart drug on your productivity, you might, before your test, decide to get organized and clean your desk before beginning your experiment.  But simply organizing yourself “in preparation for the test,” though well-intentioned, could completely skew the results of the so-called experiment.

So What’s the Solution?

Tracking metrics over a (much) longer period of time can help to minimalize these effects since the newness and excitement of testing wears off over time.  Another method Sebastian uses is segmenting his time into different levels of productivity and tracking the amount of time he spends in each category of productivity.  Over the long term this helps to even out bias and provide a more representation of the variable’s effect instead of the Hawthorne Effect’s impact.  It also gives him something numerically quantifiable to enter into his tracking system for apples-to-apples comparisons.

The Value of Supreme Focus for Productivity

There’s no doubt that one of the biggest variables effecting productivity is the level of focus you have on the specific tasks at hand.  Sebastian has tested and instituted a few methods of optimizing focus by removing things that caused him to become unfocused.  One specific (if rather cash-intensive) example he refers to is switching between two different computers.  One is for strictly work tasks, and the other is for leisure and fun.  Everything from Hacker News and social media to checking sports scores is completely restricted to his leisure computer.  This forces focus when on his “work computer” and avoids the ever-popular “I’ll just check email/Facebook/Twitter real quick” distractions.

Another method he employs is dedicating a certain period of time wholly to a specific task at hand.  This is done by setting a timer, and absolutely barring himself from doing anything but that one, single task for 30-60 minutes even if it’s pure torture.  Listen to this week’s episode to get more Quantified Self tactics and productivity-hack advice.

This Week in Neuroscience: Women Should Drink Rotten Milk?

Researchers from UCLA’s Geffen School of Medicine ran a study that showed women who drank milk fermented with probiotics displayed higher brain activity in certain regions than those who drank regular milk or no milk at all.  Following the period of dietary change, the women were given emotional recognition-response tests and also given brain-scanning MRIs while at rest.  The MRI scans revealed significantly different brain activation, correlating with an improvement in the test exercise responses, for those women in the group drinking probiotic-infused milk.  The results may re-confirm the importance of the probiotic fauna in your gut, which are increasingly believed to have a significant impact on neurotransmitter levels and, by extension, brain function.

Read the full article here.

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