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How Personal Analytics Can Help Debunk Popular Myths

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The flight attendant pulled a chocolate bar from her trolley and gently placed it next to the white coffee I just ordered. While taking the coffee, I politely rejected the sweets and with it the 250 calories it contained. Chocolate wasn't part of my diet anymore.

Within the last 8 weeks, I lost 16 pounds and learned how to control my weight based on personal data that I had collected over several weeks. After recording my daily weight, calorie intake and calorie burn, it required some experimentation to find a simple weight-loss formula that worked for me. No alcohol, no sweets, no deep fried food. A violation of any of these three rules would require an additional workout to maintain weight loss momentum.

Changing habits and getting used to the new rhythm wasn't that hard once I had my personal data and a sense of certainty that comes with evidence. There were also unexpected benefits; for instance, enjoying the sweet taste of fruit after getting off sugar. I also don't miss alcohol except for the occasional glass of red wine I allow myself with a good dinner. It's not about being perfect every day, but knowing the numbers and being mindful.

I work in enterprise analytics and know that data is a powerful tool to achieve business goals, cut waste and shed old habits in an organization. The use of data is rapidly accelerating in business as companies are connecting new data streams in real-time and applying predictive modeling techniques to anticipate customer behavior and improve business models. All that is important progress, but why should the incredible power of data be restricted to large organizations? I wondered what would happen if I took advanced analytics and applied them to my personal life, optimized for my own well-being.

Two and a half years back, I started analyzing personal information, basically maintaining a diary of numbers until I had sufficient data to run a statistical calculation on my personal well-being. Which activities correlate with a good day? Which decisions best advance long term goals? What works, what doesn't?

Once I ran the numbers, the results surprised me beyond my expectations and have since changed my perspective on life. I found out that doing less is usually the key to doing better: less TV, less emails, less commuting, less shopping, less news. I discovered that there are a lot of distractions out there, so many that we don't even notice them anymore. It appears that over time I somehow adopted a lot of unnecessary habits that damage both, well being today and long term prospects. Now, armed with personal information I am in a much better position to confidently say "no" to those things that simply don't work for me.

In the process I learned that:

* Data has transformative power for individuals and can produce quantum leaps in personal growth
* We are surrounded by distractions and need better tools to identify them
* Solutions are personal. What is popular may not be working.
* Knowing what data can do for me, I find it unattractive to surrender my data to
organizations that use it primarily for their goals.

One health-related website that shares data and insights in a meaningful way is CureTogether.com. The site records personal experiences of individuals dealing with particular health conditions, for example migraine, arthritis, acid reflux or depression. Users self-report and share information on how well certain treatments perform and CureTogether.com compiles them into an aggregated insight on treatment efficiencies. Interestingly, effective solutions are simple and usually require lifestyle change or avoiding a bad habit. Even more intriguing are the results for popular treatments that actually did not work.

Strikingly, that list mostly includes commercial products that cost money while producing a negative effect. Think about it, many of us buy stuff that directly damages us while the real solution is free. The phenomenon of "popular things that don't work" is probably applicable to many parts of our lives, not only medical treatments. Which other common, possibly expensive habits are currently damaging our well being or compromising personal progress?

What does mythology have to do with all of that? A myth is a set of stories or beliefs, usually regarded as true in a respective society with the function of establishing models for behavior. Myths were typically endorsed by the ancient rulers or priests. I wonder to which extent popular mythology is influencing our lives and holding us back right now? Where do today's myth come from?

Last week, on a morning TV show the anchor mentioned a new research study about the benefits of chocolate consumption. The study claimed that weight-conscious people consume more dark chocolate and concluded that "eating chocolate helps people stay thin." If I didn't have my own data, I may have considered that advice. Not anymore.