Sunday, February 22, 2009

What You Wonder

It was Brooklyn in January, and Luke and I were talking about fragmented journals and immersive environments, all the ways that memories can be information. Quickly, we decided, it would be great—some way to keep track of fleeting things. (Hours slept, indecisions.) Ideas drifted. A web app, maybe.

Later that night, I found a solution so simple it seemed not real. All I wanted was a set of questions and a place to collect answers, to picture them across time. And that: was something I could do.

The answer had to do with forms. The short answer: create a Google Form, find a way to get to it, remember to fill it in every now and then. The long answer includes pictures.

1. Create a new Google Form.

A quick trip to should get you to your main documents page, as long as you're already logged into Google somehow. From there, selecting the New button should give you the option to create a new form.

2. You are confronted with a blank form.

These forms are typically used for surveying groups of people, once. I've been using them to survey only myself on multiple occasions across time. Because of this, some aspects of the form-building process will be slightly weird.

a) "Untitled form": here, a name for your tracking form. I've used "Nightly Questions", but anything will do. (Whatever name you choose will also be the name of the resulting spreadsheet on your Google Docs homepage.)

b) "Info that will help people fill this out": since you are the only one filling out this form, you will probably not need help. However! If you foresee your future self needing encouragement, this may be a good place to write about what you're tracking and why.

c) "Name": This is the only required question for all Google Forms. It is a set field simply because in the tracking-multiple-people's-responses scenario, it is so obviously important and useful a question. Since the presence of this field on the form only indicates that it will be present on your finished form, there's nothing you need to do with it right now. You might think about mentioning the day of the week, or the music you're listening to. Or using it for something different and notable, every time.

3. A time to consider what you wonder.

Approaching your empty form, you'll notice that it's very empty. So, what do you wonder? When I started, I was wondering about the places I was going, friends I was seeing, things I was feeling, sleep I was getting, the way love worked. And a few other things. I decided to make almost all of my questions simple text; I didn't want to constrain the answers too much, because I quickly realized that the urge to mention reasons was strong, persistent. Thinking about sleep, I would always write more than a number. I would put a nap in parentheses, or a few words on why I could never get to sleep in the first place. It always went like that.

(Incidentally, I just discovered that my friends built a sleep tracker, in twenty-four hours without sleep.)

4. After the first question, the next one comes more quickly.

Let's say the first question—Friends seen today?—is already there, looking plausible and welcoming. Adding a second one presents another decision, but you've already started making them. (How you're going to use this, what you want to learn from it.) Rating things on a scale seems like it might be nice. (How was today's breakfast?) I always end up going with an absurdly tiny text-entry box, foregoing even the "Paragraph text" option. But someday, I might change my ways.

I started with "Friends seen today?" because, as it turned out, that question made me the happiest. I learned that I end up seeing a number of people I care about a great deal, almost every day. (Or talking with or writing to ones that are far away.) Taking a moment at the end of the day to remember all those other moments brought me reliable joy.

5. Having decided on questions, you do what comes next.

Once you've written prompts for everything you wonder (sometimes leaving the question mark off feels less urgent, more contemplative), the form is done, for now. I started with five questions, and then found there were more things I wanted to know about every day, and then the form started to get unwieldy. A small number seems like a good place to start.

To answer the questions, you'll need a way back to the form—someplace where it will be clean every time. Normally, if you were sending the form to other people, you'd just click "share"; that would be the end of it. But it's just going to be you, answering the same questions over and over.

There's a slim black bar at the bottom of the Create Form page, offering you the chance to "view the published form here." Clicking that link will take you to the way the form finally looks.

6. The way the form finally looks.

Every time you refresh the link you just followed, you'll get a clean form. I put a bookmark to the link in my browser bar, and labeled it "q."

For a time, I really did follow it nightly.

7. Where everything goes.

Into a spreadsheet, automatically; tidily stored among all your other documents. Looking at life in a grid is disorienting, but might show you new things. It showed me some.

* * *
Everything here has been in the past tense. I filled out forms for a while, and then abruptly stopped. The thing that stopped me was, also, almost too simple. I'd put a question into the form that was too specific, and I started avoided it altogether.

I still believe in memories as information, though, and in the strength self-knowledge can bring. Even if only revealed in the act of avoidance, or realized tucking fleeting things away.


Lisa said...

speaking of memories, i remember when you first mentioned this idea :)

PatPat said...

I'm gonna be able to find out the average time I wake up in the morning this senior spring! Simultaneously scared and excited.

PatPat said...

Oh and a question - how'd you get your bookmarks toolbar to have those nifty icons for the folders?

Diana Kimball said...

Icons: characters!

Taylor Davidson said...

Information is king; and the only way to truly understand and change behaviour is to track the data behind our lives. I've started and stopped many times at tracking bits about my life: perhaps I've stopped because it's a bit scary, a bit too heavy-handed, less fun, just a bit much.