How The Quantified Life Can Help You Achieve Your New Year’s Resolutions

New Year’s wellness resolutions are like prom night: a lot of hype, even more promises, and a disappointing follow-through. A paltry 19 percent of wannabe health nuts follow through with their annual resolutions, according to University of Scranton Professor John Norcross.

The quickest way to dissolve your hardened commitments into a bowl of disappointed Jell-O is to set a course without clear goals and constant improvement. This is where technology and a dash of the scientific method can help.

Instead of relying on fragmented web advice and our own fragile intuition, “quantified self” is all about treating self-improvement with the rigor of an academic laboratory: make singular adjustments, chart progress, and cumulate learnings.

Quantified self can get sort of extreme; I’ve done things with my body that should neither see sunlight nor be talked about in public. Fortunately, cheaper gadgets, diagnosis startups, and web tools have opened up the “quantified self” movement to everyday consumers who just want to save time and feel a little sexier in front of the mirror.

So, here’s how to super-charge your New Year’s resolutions with science.

Set The Right Metrics


First thing first: you need the right numbers. For instance, “weight loss” is a silly path to sexy, sexy abs, since you’ll probably want to pack on heavy muscle while shedding those love handles. What you actually want is lean body mass.

Instead of a standard scale, splurge on one that measures fat percentage, such as the Withings Smart Body Analyzer. I’ve found that the Withings scale isn’t very accurate for measuring my total body fat percentages, but it’s generally good at measuring changes, which is really what counts in a resolution. Or, if money’s tight and you can dedicate more time, just pick up some skinfold calipers (a handheld clip).

In other words, you want a measure that is as close to your goal as possible. Instead of “going to the gym more,” try “increasing my max squat.” Instead of “walking more,” try “total number of hours active per day” (the Nike Fuelband SE has a nice metric for this one, since sitting all day can counteract scheduled exercise).

This makes nutritional goals difficult, because there’s no good way to measure whether your body is, in fact, absorbing them. Best to stick to performance-minded goals and see if eating healthier helps you meet them.

Set The Baseline And Control Variables


Slow your roll, eager beaver. You don’t need to overcrowd the gym on January 2nd. Instead, baseline your normal activity and abilities for a week. What is your one-mile run? What’s your squat max? How many hours a day are you active? How much are you sleeping? What are you eating?

Personally, I log everything on a Google spreadsheet, but all of the fitness trackers have their own daily logging methods.

Now, make one (one!) significant improvement and see what happens over the next three weeks. Cut out grains (yes, all grains). Set a consistent bedtime. For muscle gain, try bulking up with 0.8 gram of (healthy) protein per pound of body fat per day.

I find that setting experimental results helps me commit, because I know that a single misstep can screw up weeks of effort. If your experiment works, great! If not, there’s something wrong and you need to re-evaluate. But since you only changed one thing, you know what works and what doesn’t.

Avoid broad changes, like “eating healthy.” Instead, try exchanging one of your meals for a salad, but with the same number of calories (olive oil or avocado is a great way to pack in healthy fats).

Health is a marathon, not a sprint.

Look For Patterns And Anomalies


Self-experimentation is more Christopher Columbus and less Pirates of the Caribbean: often the best results are accidental. For instance, I learned that early-morning light was screwing up my last REM sleep cycle after looking over my Zeo sleep headband output (Zeo went belly-up, unfortunately). So, I picked up some blackout blinds.

I also discovered that I could replace coffee with 30 seconds of exercise after I decided to do a quick Crossfit workout one morning after a terrible night’s sleep.

Every body is unique; mulling over your data will help you discover things you never knew helped.

Before the quantified self, I used to be a roller coaster dieter, haphazardly patching together bits of advice. It rarely ever worked. Now, I know what works for my body and what doesn’t. The control has brought sanity to the typical chaos of self-improvement. With a bit of science and some technology, this might be the year that your New Year’s resolutions work.

[Images: Bryce Durbin]