In February 2010, Morris Villarroel started a 10-year experiment.
The scientist, based at the Polytechnic University of Madrid, had just turned 40 and, like many people after a milestone birthday, began to take stock of his life. Wouldn’t it be useful to have a more complete and concrete record of his life, he thought? Not only would it help him to remember more of his past; it might also help him figure out how to live the rest of his life more effectively, to make the most of his time.
And so he started to keep detailed log books of his every movement. Each day’s entry begins the night before, when he will make a plan for the day ahead. On the day itself, he makes notes every 15 minutes to half an hour detailing where he is and what he’s doing – whether that is a simple metro journey, a class at his university or an interview with a journalist, like me.
“I’ll write down now that I'm speaking to you. And then, more or less how much time that took and some of the questions you're asking,” he says at the start of our conversation. He’ll then review those notes later on “if I have a moment where I'm waiting in a line up in a supermarket or if I have to wait for a doctor's appointment or a meeting or a phone call”.
Once the notebook is filled up, he’ll carefully index its contents in Microsoft Excel and move on to the next one.
Socrates argued that the “unexamined life is not worth living” – and few have examined their lives as much as Villarroel. He is part of a growing community of “self-trackers” who meticulously collect data on their lives in the pursuit of greater self-knowledge.
He’s now nine years and nine months – and 307 notebooks – into his 10-year experiment. What has he learned? And would it be wise for us all to take a leaf out of his log books?
Understand the past, improve the future
When he first set out on this project, one of Villarroel’s primary goals was time management: to better understand how he was spending time and the effects of those activities on his health and happiness.
He used to drive to work, for example, but once he started keeping his log books, he noticed that he would get upset by small incidents – like someone cutting in front of him – causing stress that would linger throughout the day. “Now I take the metro and walk to work – and that also ends up being better from my back.” Such small improvements may not seem revolutionary, but together they have improved his overall life satisfaction. “The good things slowly take over the more negative things.”
The log books have similarly helped him to learn better from experiences at work – such as giving classes or conference talks. “You can see all the little details and how to improve them,” he says. Without his records, those ideas would have been forgotten. “It's kind of like throwing away that information.” And with the data entered into the spreadsheet, he can keep track of how long he’s spending on different projects and adjust his priorities accordingly. In tutorials with students, meanwhile, his detailed notes mean that he is better able to remember their previous conversations and tailor the discussions to suit their personal needs.
More generally, Villarroel says that the log books have helped to improve his emotional regulation, so he’s now less reactive in stressful situations. “I think: ‘Well, this has happened in the past and I've seen it all these different times, so now I can control myself a bit better,’” he says. In a way, he says, the process of self-reflection helps you take a third-person perspective on events – as if you are a outside observer – so you see a situation more dispassionately.
As he’d hoped, he also appreciates having a more complete record of his life, compared to his vaguer recollections of the past. “I can go through and really look at the details of every day and almost every hour of every day over those 10 years,” he says. “Whereas if I look from 30 to 40, I know lots of things happened, but I can't go [into] the granular details about what was happening.”
The sheer density of that record creates the impression of time dilation, he says – as if he has lived a longer life. “I have the impression that these 10 years from 40 to 50 have gone slower,” he says.
‘Savour the good things’
Villarroel’s observations are shared by many other ‘self-trackers’, who use various strategies to record and analyse their life experiences. Many of them describe this as the ‘Quantified Self’ – with the aim of using data to know themselves better.
Consider 36-year-old James Norris, for instance, the founder of the social enterprise Upgradable who is now based in Bali, Indonesia. He began recording life events at the age of 16, with his first kiss: he wanted to make sure he could remember the event for posterity. Since then, he has made a point of noting down any “first” in his life – any time he’s been to a new place, or eaten a new food (most recently, a charcoal burger), or tried any new experience (like skydiving). He’s now counted 1,850 in total. He also regularly tracks things like his productivity, his predictions for the future and his errors. The records are stored in an easily searchable computer database. “Every time I want to go back and remember something, I can just go and look for a certain year or keyword, and then I can remember and feel it.”
Like Villarroel, he thinks this helps to guide him on the best ways to spend his time. Being able to recall so many first-time experiences is also good for his confidence, he says – and makes him braver when he has to venture outside his comfort zone. It can also provide a mood boost when he’s feeling down. “If you remember the good things, you can savour it more and that’s good for your wellbeing,” he says. And this creates the impression of having lived longer and more intensely. “It’s an easy, cheap way of just getting more value out of life.”
Although few scientists have studied this kind of dedicated self-tracking, there is good evidence that daily journaling can bring benefits. A study by Francesca Gino at Harvard Business School, for instance, looked at a group of call centre employees undergoing technical training. She found that spending just 10 minutes a day writing a journal on the day’s activities boosted their performance by more than 20%. Outside work, there is also ample evidence that writing and reflecting in a journal can boost your life satisfaction and happiness. Villarroel and Norris’s experiences would certainly fit those patterns.
So while many of us may struggle to keep such detailed records of our lives, most psychologists would agree that even a few minutes spent on self-reflection can pay large dividends – even if that simply means recognising some of the more mundane, everyday pleasures that make live a little more enjoyable. (Read more about the value of keeping a journal in BBC Future’s article here.)
‘Search engine for the self’
If keeping a written journal doesn’t appeal, there are alternative ways of self-tracking. You can now buy portable “lifelogging” cameras that take photos every 30 seconds or so throughout the day, for instance. These devices are sometimes given to people with dementia, but people have also adopted them to keep track of their own lives.
Many of these users claim that the photos act as a memory aid, with certain pictures prompting vivid “Proustian moments” – named after the French novelist Marcel Proust’s detailed recollections evoked by the taste of a madeleine. “A lot of details start flooding back,” says Ali Mair, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire, “that all come together and give this very rich memory, and it just seems to come out of nowhere.” It seems that somehow the images, caught on the fly, act as a special psychological trigger that will bring about the details of events, in full.
Mair emphasises that this is mostly anecdotal evidence, though, and while some research would seem to support these stories, we need much more scientific evidence before they could be recommended as a memory boost.
The hope is that one day, image processing software will be advanced enough to automatically catalogue these pictures and draw out the most salient features – allowing you to keep track of things like what you’re eating, who you’re meeting or what you’re doing. This could be combined with other data – your FitBit, for instance – to build a complete picture of your life and what you were doing at any moment.
Cathal Gurrin, a computer scientist at Dublin City University who specialises in lifelogging, describes this as a kind of “search engine for the self”. “It’s a deep dive into a person’s life experience,” he says. By automatically searching through those photos, you’d be able to recall particular incidents that may not naturally come to mind, such as when you last saw a person or how you came to own a certain possession – without you having to manually note down everything.
He thinks that this kind of technology will be especially important if “smart” glasses, which would all carry a portable camera, can finally manage to break into the consumer market. (While Google’s attempts ended in disappointment, Apple reportedly have some plans in the works.)
Living life more intensely
For the time being, Villarroel is content to stick with his notebooks. He says he once owned a lifelogging camera and used it for a few years, but he simply found it too arduous to keep track of all the photos. “Sometimes that would be fun but sometimes it'd be more tedious,” he says. Pen and paper, combined with his Excel spreadsheet indexing his logs’ contents, are still his preferred means of recording his experiences.
He estimates that he now spends at least an hour a day in total taking notes, though some of that is offset by the gains in efficiency that have come from his improved time management. He admits there are some downsides to this: he can feel frustrated when he looks back at periods that have been particularly unproductive, for instance. “But I really don’t tend to be judgemental looking backwards,” he adds.
Nor does he find that it leads him to dwell too much on painful events. “I’ve found that if something bad happened which I blame myself for, looking at the notebook helps put it into context,” he adds. “So overall it tends to make me feel like I did [the best] I could.” Nor have his family complained too much, though he jokes that’s partly because it helps him to remember good ideas for birthday gifts.
The author Zadie Smith has previously said that she writes to avoid “sleep walking through life”. It strikes me that Villarroel’s journals are serving this purpose by making him more vividly aware of his experiences.
His original 10-year-experiment was due to end this February, but he’s decided to continue after that point. “It's a habit that I’ve adopted into the whole my life,” he says. “I know it sounds a bit corny, but it’s a way to live life a bit more intensely.”