Mark Koester

Personal Blog. A Data-Driven Life. Minding the Interstitial Spaces since 2007.

Can Meditation Improve Your Attention? Self-Experiment Into Mindfulness and Cognitive Testing

The reported benefits of meditation are quite impressive: better physical health and happiness, less stress and anxiety, and even improved mental health and cognitive functions.

Unfortunately, I’m skeptical guy. I like data and research to back up such claims. Frankly, the advantages of meditation almost seem too good to be true. Is this a pseudoscience? Can meditation really improve our bodies and our minds? Which types are effective and how?

I recently bought the Muse Brain Sensing Headband in an attempt to ponder some of these questions about the mind and meditation. Muse is a wearable that tracks your brainwaves using EEG and provides real-time neurofeedback while you meditate. It’s relatively popular in the quantified self and biohacker space. Built using dry electrodes and seven sensors, it’s essentially a stripped down, four-channel EEG monitor (compared to standard ten-channel). The aim of the device is to quantify your mental states and subtly train you to meditate better through auditory cues (chirping birds and nature sounds).

In order to explore this claim about the cognitive benefits of meditation, I decided to do a self-experiment, also known as a n=1 or n-of-1 trial. For a few weeks, I took daily cognitive tests both before and after I either meditated with Muse for 10 minutes or did some other activity for roughly the same amount of time. Using neuropsychological tests used to measure cognitive impairment, the test results should be able to tell me if meditating provides any cognitive benefit in areas like attention, information processing, and reaction time.

An n-of-1 trial is an experiment done on a single person using a series of interventions over a period of time. Basically it’s a modification of the classic crossover design wherein the invervention and placebo are tested in alternating patterns. The interventions themselves are often blinded (meaning you don’t know which medication you are taking at one time), and they are either completely randomized or given in a balanced cross-over schedule (like ABBABAAB). Outcome measurements are taken throughout to record the effects. These could be biomarkers, tests, surveys or something else. After a few rounds, statistical analysis is used on the outcome measurements to see if there was an effect and to determine which intervention was best. Additionally, you typically note any adverse effects.

In my own case related to meditation effect, the outcome I wanted to measure was an improvement in my cognition. The intervention or experimental variable I was testing was meditation, compared to other activities, which would be the placebo. It was impossible to blind the intervention, since you obviously know if you are meditating or not, so you might call it an open label experiment.

The tests I used were taken from standard neuropsychological assessments, frequently used to diagnosis cognitive impairment and in clinical trials on different drugs and supplements. I took the tests in the same place and around the same time daily, shortly after breakfast and roughly one hour after waking up. After several weeks, I then did some statistical and data analysis to check and visualize the effects and to see if they were significant.

So, what were the results?

Meditation improved my attention and other cognitive functions! Unfortunately so did any other activity I did. In fact, the main takeaway from the final results showed that meditation was not the most significant variable on cognitive improvements. Instead, the experiment revealed that simply re-taking the tests led to both an intraday improvement (meaning an improvement in the before and after) and a cumulative, linear improvement (meaning my first 5 to 10 scores were lower than my last 5-10 scores). In short, what I found was my cognitive testing was improved mostly through a combination of practice and training effects. I got better not because I meditated, but because I tested again and again.

In the rest of this post, I want to look at this experiment and the results in a bit more detail and explain what happened and why. Hopefully by the end of the post you’ll understand what are cognitive tests, a bit more about meditation, and how to do your own self-experiment on the meditation effect!

Scoring Your Weekly Goals

I leverage science, goals and goal-setting in a number a ways. But recently, I started something new. I started “scoring” them. This has proven a good way to periodically check my efforts over time and my organization in reaching the things that matter.

When it comes to goals, one way I use them is to prioritize what’s important.I use goals as multi-step pursuits. I’m also a believer in the science of goal-setting to improve my chances of reaching epic objectives. I use goal planning as a method to balance out a number of competing interests and objectives over time. For longer-term stuff, I even built a DIY goal tracker to help set, schedule, and align tasks and projects (aka sub-goals) towards reaching my yearly and lifetime “missions.”

Unfortunately one of the challenges with goals is how to quantify them. Over the past several months, I started to keep score on goals on my weekly goals. When combined with constructive goal setting, I’ve found it to be a good way to ensure I’m goal-aligned in my doings.

Data-Driven Health Trackers: An Actionable List

A data-driven health tracker is a tool you can use to track and monitor different aspects of either your health status or your health habits. This can empower you on your journey towards data-driven health and personal development.

I recently wrote about the importance of understanding the difference between heath and fitness apps and wearables that monitor your health status VS. those that support and track your healthy habits and goals. The key question there was: Are you tracking a health indictor or healthy habit?

In this followup, I want to share my list and breakdown of data-driven health trackers and where they fit on the divide between tracking health status and tracking healthy habits. Where relevant, I’ve included a link to a write-up with more background, tools and how to track.

In turn, I’m working on a write-up of data-driven health numbers to go with these trackers soon.

Hope you find it helpful.

NOTE: If you are looking for an overview of the self-tracking space, checkout my Quantified Self Mind Map.

What Am I Meditating for? In Pursuit of a Definition of Meditation

Meditation is one of the most touted habits we are all supposed to do these days. Meditation and mindfulness are lauded for a range of associated benefits from physical and mental health to cognitive improvements and beyond. It’s believed to be beneficial for both healthy and sick people alike. In short, meditation can supposedly make you mentally calmer, physically healthier, and cognitively better.

But can it really? If so, how? And which types?

Personally, I’ve been interested in meditation for awhile. A few years ago, I meditated nearly daily using some of the popular guided meditation and mindfulness apps available. Eventually, my interest and practice wained. I “felt” I had gained a few benefits, but I was a bit disappointed both by the time commitment and by the failure of my meditation practice to bring about more profound changes.

Perhaps I had the wrong expectations, perhaps I wasn’t meditating right, but increasingly I think my struggles around meditation reflect deeper questions about how to define what is meditation and all of the different types of meditations that exist. This difficulty to classify meditation is a sentiment echoed in the research on meditation too.

Infused in local culture and religion and bantered about in popular culture, meditation remains a pretty poorly defined term. In spite of the long tradition and a lot of current research, “there is no consensus on a definition of meditation in the scientific literature” (Ospina et al, 2008). Basically, no standard definition of meditation exists.

There are similar issue with the word “mindfulness” that has long left whatever it meant historically and philosophically and now seems to apply to just about everything including staying in the moment as you wash the dishes or eat a meal.

In all this confusion, I want to know: What is meditation? What are the types? And how do they affect us and our brains?

For our purposes and as I’ll explain in detail below, I define meditation as:

A multi-step process whose two principal components are 1. the methods or cognitive strategies used and 2. the enhanced mental states it brings about.

Defining meditation is a challenge. Basically, I’ve come to realize the importance of distinguishing between different techniques and methods of meditating and their intended goals. There might be benefits that go beyond meditating itself (a claim we will look at elsewhere), but at its origins meditation was intended as a mental practice that brought about a new kind of thinking or a new state of consciousness. Buddha and many others were meditating to reach an understanding of themselves and of the universe.

So, before we can examine the benefits, let’s try to define meditation first.

In the rest of this post, I’m going to walk-through how I came up with this definition and look at the two key parts: methods and enhanced mental states. After settling on a naive definition, we are also going to briefly survey several popular types of mediation and then look at some key features that are common to most meditative experiences. I’ll do my best to include various alternative definitions I found along the way.

Hopefully by the end of the post, we’ll be equipped with not only an operational definition of meditation but we should be able to answer the question why and for what purpose we are meditating for. Furthermore, I think this kind of definition is a good starting point for other technological, biological, or pharmaceutical methods in pursuit of cognitive enhancement or other phenomenological experiences.

Data-Driven Health: Are You Tracking a Health Indicator or Healthy Habit?

There is a lot of excitement around how technology can be applied to improve our health. It seems like every day there is some new technology, wearable, pill, test, service or app aiming to track, monitoring, improve or cure us of each and every bodily aligment. There is even a growing number of companies and tools aiming at human optimization, neuroenhancement, and peak performance, sometimes called “biohacking.”

For basically all of health tech, the goal is to improve our health, and, whether its a wearable, test or something else, each is claim to be tracking some our health.

But what are these technologies tracking? And how do they fit into the pursuit of data-driven health and wellness?

Quantified Self and Self-Tracking Mind Map: Conceptualizing Tracking and Other Data-Driven Tech

With so many quantified self tools and ways to track a life, it can be a bit confusing. A mind map can help.

A mind map is a graphical, visualization technique that is intended to help with structuring, organizing and understanding information as well as facilitate creative thinking. It’s is also one of the best ways to synthesize and understand information in general.

Here’s my mind map of the quantified self and self-tracking space. The intention is to help you conceptualize the overall tracking technologies space as well as hopefully enable you to better track different aspects of your own life and, in turn, engage with your personal data accordingly.

In the rest of this post, I want to explain the motivation behind the project and briefly walk through why I’ve categorized things accordingly.

One of the principal points I want to make is the division I make between tracking or data collection AND data engagement or being data-driven. While we might obsess about how to track an area, we often fail to take the time to engage with the data we are collecting. For me, one of the key motivations for self-tracking is not data collection but using data to provide a feedback loop towards what I’m trying to understand or a goal I’m trying to reach. This is really only possible if you engage with whatever you are tracking.

Goal Tracker for AirTable: A Flexible Tool for Goal Pursuit Tracking and Management

Having a goal is easy and exciting. But goals only get accomplished when you pursue them, not because you simply make them. So, if you want to improve your goal attainment, arguably one of the most important goal action steps you can do is to convert your goal intentions into goal pursuits.

What is a goal pursuit and how to track it?

I define a goal pursuit like this: Goal Pursuit = Goal + Time Period + Specifics

Obviously, there is more to this formula and to pursuing goals, but this gets us to a few of the essentials when it comes to both the science of goals and how to think about organizing and managing your goals over time. It also gets to a framework that allows for tracking your goal pursuits too.

Let’s break this down a bit:

  • A goal or goal intention is the thing want. It might be quite specific (“Run a marathon under 4 hours”), or it might be quite abstract (“Become a recognized expert in XYZ domain”). But generally a goal is an object of desire that lacks the defined steps on how you will get there. It’s the fantasy target.
  • By contrast, a goal pursuit represents a state change. It’s no longer just an idea or object of desire; it is a thing you are working on.
  • The time period just means we’ve stated an expansive of time when we will pursue that goal. Even better is if you state a habitual time and place.
  • The specifics of your goals means you’ve stated exactly what you plan to do to move towards that goal and ideally made it something you can measure. Being more specific when you set a goal is one of the key activities to improving the success and performance of your goals

Practically-speaking a goal pursuit takes form once you take your abstract goal and get specific about how you’ll get there. Scientists call this the “goal decision” or “goal striving.” Intuitively there is something different between wanting something abstractly and actually doing it. This is the difference between a goal fantasy and goal pursuit.

The science of goals pushes us both to think about goals and goal pursuits as multiple step endevours and to apply science-backed strategies at key junction in our striving. According to the Goal Setting Theory, the best technique in a goal pursuit is get specific and set an exact, targetted, measurable and difficult initiative to work on. According to the well-research technique of implementation intentions or if-then plans, one effective goal practice is to set the how, the when, and the where so you figure out a cue or trigger, like a place or time and then mentally link it to the goal behavior you want to induce.

How might we go about organizing, managing, and even tracking our goals and goal pursuits?

As a long-time self-tracker and proponent of the data-driven life, goals have proven a rather elusive area to track. While it’s relatively easy to track many aspects of our lives from books read and tasks completed to miles run and time on devices, tracking goals proves difficult for two reasons:

First, we often think of goals as just a list of things we want, so it feels like there isn’t much to track. Just make a list and check them off when you complete them.

Second, when we do attempt to track our goals, we often limit our thinking about tracking goals to something measureable. We come up with some related output of our goals, like miles run, time, habits, etc. A tool like BeeMinder is a good example of a tool that tracks an underlying output metric and helps us view our goal progress accordingly. While this can be a good technique for some goals, it actually isn’t tracking goals as a process or cycle of action steps. What we want is a goal tracker that tracks much more than a single metric.

Goals are more than just a list of wishes we hope to get and more than a single definable metric. Goals exist the nexus of our goal intentions and specific goal pursuits over time. Goals often go through a cycle of setting, pursuing and reviewing. There are steps forward and steps back and a lot of figuring stuff out. What we want to track and manage is this long-term cycle of goal pursuits over time. And, as far as I know, there isn’t a complete tool available today that lets us manage and track our goals as multi-stage pursuits.

So in order to solve this problem and apply techniques from the science of goals, I’m excited to share a tool I’ve built to help you better track and manage goals.

Using Airtable, which is a mix of a spreadsheet application and a database, I’ve created a goal tracker that allows me to keep an on-going list of my goals and dreams and to convert those into periodic goal pursuits that I further track, manage, and optimize. Additionally, the flexiblity of AirTable allows you to apply some of the most actionable and effective techniques from the science of goals. This means we are not only tracking what’s happening but we are applying powerful strategies to get better at reaching our goals.

In short, Goal Tracker for AirTable is a free tool that helps you organize, manage and track both your goals list and your goal pursuits.

Goal Tracker provides a simple way to record all of your current, past and future goals. You then use these goals to formulate goal pursuits. You can think of goal pursuits as a short-term goal, initiative or project. Goal pursuits link those goals to a time period and allow you to get specific about what you’ll do. For example, if your goal is “run a marathon,” then your goal pursuit might be “May 2018 (Run Marathon): Complete 10 training runs, run 100km, and complete a half marathon.”

Using the tool, you now have a list of goal pursuits so you can better organize and visualize over time. Goals are a struggle and will fail, but having a tool to organize and track allows you better stay on top of the process. You are not only pursuing a goal but also optimizng the meta-skill of managing goals. By consistently linking goals with a specific initiative in a certain time frame, you have effectively applied several key techniques from the science of goals too.

Get Goal Tracker for AirTable Now

Goal Tracker is a free tool you can download for AirTable. I have no affiliation with AirTable. I just think it’s a cool tool that works well for flexible information management and for prototyping goal and project management tools like these. Feel free to customize, add or tweak and, of course, send me your thoughts, feedback and areas to improve! Additionally, if you prefer another tool, I think you can accomplish the same style of goal tracking using just simple files or another spreadsheet app.

In the rest of post, we are going look at the core features and usage of Goal Tracker for Airtable. We will first briefly look at AirTable, what it is and how it works. After that, our main objective is to get you up and running with using the tool to track and manage our goals. Along the way, I’ve included a few examples of customizations and deeper concepts related to how AirTable works and how it relates to both the science of goals and productivity principles for good goal management. Finally, I’ll conclude by sharing my own motivation for building this tool and tips for the overly ambitious goal pursuer been using it.

Note: The psychology of goals lies at the heart of why I’ve been building and using this tool. I’ve purposefully left out too many academic references here to focus on the tool and usage itself. If you are interesting in exploring the underlying science, check out my on-going blog series on the Science of Goals.

Science of Goals: Goals as a Multi-Stage Pursuit

When it comes to goals, we commonly conflate several different actions and phenomonon under this singular term of “goal.” But this one term hides an important range of dimensions and actions we undertake when we think about and endevour to reach our goals. One of the most crucial differences is between a goal as an intention and a goal as a pursuit.

German-American psychologist Kurt Lewin was one of the earliest to make the distinction between what he called goal setting and goal striving (Lewin, 1926). His point being that we have a period where we deliberate, ponder and possibly select our goals; and a period where we actually strive towards realizing those goals.

In our own lives we all typically have a huge list of things we want to accomplish in both the short-term and long-term. For example, write a novel, learn French, take a trip to Australia, buy a house, read Homo Sapiens, etc. The items that we expect to take a considerable amount of time or effort we often call “dreams” or “long-term goals,” while the shorter term stuff that take a few days or weeks we might refer to as projects, initiatives or short-term goals. Usage of the term “goal” here proves slippery. Is it a term for our hopes, dreams and aspirations or is it a word to convey something we are actually pursuing? What’s going on when we talk about goals?

In the last couple decades, a considerable amount of research by psychologists has gone into understanding goals, what they are and the different actions we must take to attain them. There are also increasingly a number of powerful strategies that can leverage to improve our goals too.

While much of the early focus in the research on goals was placed on goal setting and the “content” of our goals (a topic we explored in goal setting for improving task performance), acheiving our goals goes beyond just setting a goal. Acheiving a goal isn’t easy. A significant part of the challenge comes from what psychology calls “self-regulation,” by which I mean individuals must manage an ambiguous process, make decisions and take actions regarding allocation of resources and effort across time and varying situations.

You don’t just set a goal, and the magic of reaching that goal happens. Things need to be figured out. Much like Joseph Cambell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, we embark on a journey with obstacles and challeges at different points in order to reach our objective. In short, goals exist as a multistage pursuit.

Psychologists now recognize this much more complex and nuanced nature of our goal pursuit, in particular this aspect of self-regulation and different stages. According to the Model of Action Stages, which we will explore in depth below, psychologists have identified four action phases involved when we strive towards a goal, namely: deliberation, planning, action and evalution.

Researchers have shown that there also exists a critical transition between the predecision phase of goal deliberation (e.g. what goals should I pursue and why?) and our post-decision when have commited to a goal (e.g. how can I achieve this goal and what do I need to do?). Metaphorically, they call this “crossing the Rubicon” in reference to Julius Cesaer’s overthrowing of Rome, and it refers to a recognizable shift in our mindset or psychological orientation. Pre-decision or pre-goal commitment, we deliberate and consider. Post-decision, we plan and take actions.

We see this in our own lives. We often have a big list of dreams and fantasies, but a much shorter list of active pursuits. In-between our goals typically have specific phases and cycles they go through, including planning, execution and evalution.

Goal are a multiple stage pursuit. I believe the science of goals can help us improve how we understand and how we reach our goals. Using the Rubicon Model of Action Stages, we get a “big picture” idea of typical goal pursuits and can start to recognize where we are at. By knowing the stage we are at with a certain goal, we can realize the key tasks and challenges we face. We then can apply the right mindset to deal them. Finally, by learning and deploying the right approaches and optimal strategies, we can get better both at abtaining our goals and at perceiving when to let certain goals fail.

Let’s get started looking at the science goals and the stages involved in a goal pursuit!

NOTE 1: This post is part of a series on the science of goals. Also check out Goal Setting as a Key Influence on Performance.

Tracking Your Writings and Note-Taking

How to Track, Analyze and Understand A Life in Writing

“For years I have looked for the perfect pencil. I have found very good ones but never the perfect one. And all the time it was not the pencils but me. A pencil that is alright some days is no good another day.”

John Steinbeck, “Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters”

Can we track what we write? If so, how? And what can we use our writing tracking for?

As a self-tracker and an enthusiast of the data-driven life, I track a lot of my life, but as a writer, I find the tracking options rather limited. There are tools to log my writing time and how words I typed, but there is nothing that allows me to keep a complete history and data on all of my notes, drafts and final creations. I wanted a way to track what I write, not just my time or word count.

Fortunately, since I migrated off Evernote, I now write in plain text files. Plaintext files are a file format that is future-proof, flexible and portable. They are also trackable, and I am able to track my life in writing.

Using git, a popular way to manage software development, I have assembled a self-tracking method for keeping a complete history of my files, including each and every change I make, and for logging daily statistics on words added, files changed, and more. In short, with plain text files, git and a few automation scripts, we have a comprehensive and robust method of tracking our writings and notes.

In this post, I want to share how to track your writings. By using plaintext files, git and a few scripts, I’ll show what it takes to record a complete history of your notes into git and also collect some high-level statistics of daily changes. Since it is important to know what data we are getting and the potential insights we can get from the data, I’ve also provided a starting point for some data analysis on that tracking data.

Hopefully, by the end of this post, you’ll have mastered the basics of managing and tracking your writings with plaintext files and git and equiped yourself with a way to comprehensive way to track your writings and notes in the future!

NOTE 1: You can find the code for this post at Writing Tracker.

NOTE 2: For a more in-depth dive into writing and note-taking check out The Plaintext Life: Note Taking, Writing and Life Organization Using Plain Text Files, and for a step-by-step tutorial on migrating off of Evernote to plaintext files, see Post-Evernote.

The Plain Text Life: Note Taking, Writing and Life Organization Using Plain Text Files

“The power of the unaided mind is highly overrated. Without external aids, deep, sustained reasoning is difficult.”

Don Norman, professor and author of The Design of Everyday Things

External aids, especially writing, are the key to sustained learning and a creative life. The goal of your productivity, writing or note-taking systems should be to enable you to think clearly, stay organized, learn, and create. They should augment your ability to reason, to develop connections across knowledge, and produce a targeted output.

There are a lot of tools that can help you in this pursuit. We live in a world of nearly endless options for productivity and writing software. Personally, I’ve tried many. But sometimes the best solution is one of the simplest and oldest. For me, that solution was “downgrading” to plain text files as my primary means for note-taking, writing, knowledge management and life organization.

Rather than a fully featured notes or writing tool, I now have a bunch of plain text files and a lot of them. The files themselves are simple, can be edited on any system, and are future-proof. I write in markdown. I use plain text files not only for my writings, study notes and note-taking but also for my goals, organizational, project notes.

I call this method and approach a plain text life, by which I mean a note-taking, organizational, and writing system based on plain text files.

The files and notes themselves have been intentionally designed to be “organized” as network of information. Practically-speaking this translates into notes stored in a few directories, tagged, and connected together using a links. The end result is a loosely-coupled web of notes. It’s evolving, has emergent properties and is trackable too.

This setup helps me focus on what matters: writing and keeping my projects, ideas and thinking organized and interconnected.

In this post, I want to share my take on the “plain text life” and how using plain text files and combination of tools, best practices, and organizational principles can unlock a powerful and efficient framework for writing, thinking, note-taking, project management, goal tracking, or whatever you are working on.

This post is divided into four sections with four questions:

  • Why plain text files and what are the current limitations?
  • What tools can I use for writing and managing plain text files?
  • How to stay organized?
  • What are my notes for and how to organize towards my creative, learning or organizational goals?

At its core the plain text life is just a just a bunch of text files, but hopefully you too can assemble a powerful framework for staying organized, writing, learning and creating.

Let’s get started exploring a plain text life!

NOTE: For a how-to post on migrating off of Evernote, check out Post-Evernote: How to Migrate Your Notes, Images and Tag into Plain Text Markdown.