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The Beginner’s Guide to Self-Tracking & Analysis

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‘An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.’ – Ben Franklin

Self-tracking – or personal analytics as some call it – is a relatively new phenomenon brought about by the ubiquity of cheap sensor technology and the internet.  It’s a space that’s just now coming into its own thanks to the tech getting cheaper and lots of interested, data-driven geeks finding each other on the net and exchanging ideas.

The potential impact of self-tracking on personal health and overall well being could someday rival the discovery of penicillin – seriously – and we’re just at the beginning of what’s going to be a huge wave of self-improvement and individualized health care based on self-tracking and analysis.

I’ve recently entered the world of self-tracking… and there’s no going back.  My weight, body fat percentage, running speed and distance, calories burned, sleep patterns, investments, genetic predispositions, daily routines, mood, and even commute times are tracked and analyzed.  Sound a little excessive?  Maybe.  But only because it’s still not 100% automatic.  But it’s really, really close to being “set it and forget it”, and for me, the benefits far outweigh the few minutes I spend each day tracking things.

What is Self-Tracking?

The basic concept behind self-tracking is simple: our ability to determine cause and effect through our memory or experience alone is inherently faulty.  It’s tough enough for most of us to remember a birthday or anniversary.  Ask us to calculate how many calories we burned yesterday and how that affected our sleep last night and our blood pressure will rise – and we won’t even be able to detect that in order to prevent it from happening in the future! 

Our minds play games with us… they trick us into seeing and believing things that aren’t there in order to "protect us".  We can rationalize most anything we do or say (science shows this) which means deciding not to exercise because we’re busy or just don’t feel like it is easy to justify.  Of course, machines aren’t as easily tricked.

You can’t trick yourself when you have hard data.  You can’t convince yourself of something that the data doesn’t show.  Data tells you almost everything you need to know, whether you like it or not… and then implicitly asks, "what do we do about this now?" 

Data isn’t affected by human emotion.  It just is.  It’s difficult to look at data and "talk it down" like you can with your ego.  It’s ruthless.

You may have heard of the Hawthorne Effect.  The basic premise behind it is what makes self-tracking worth doing.  Basically your behavior can be improved or modified just in response to being studied, even if no other changes around you occur.  Does it matter if the person studying your behavior isn’t actually a person at all but a $50 sensor strapped to your shoe?  Not if you plan on leveraging the data.

We’ve all had that feeling of wanting to get credit for something.  If you’re tracking your morning run, and you know it’ll be posted online, do you think you’ll walk that last half-mile?  It’s amazingly powerful what a little pressure from data can do.

We also all have consistent patterns and routines each day.  These patterns (or habits) are a big determining factor in whether we’re happy or not, energetic or not, fit or not, or healthy or not.  But it’s hard for us to accurately determine exactly which of those patterns affect us the most in the most important ways.  Do you sleep better when you exercise in the morning or at night?  Does that better sleep affect your mood or your ability to focus on the computer screen at work?  Does that nagging back pain get better or worse when you take a hot bath or is light morning stretching the key? 

You’ll never know unless you pay closer attention.

So people are turning to self-tracking to help.  It’s a way to take all the data we generate everyday and start to draw correlation or causation between the events.  It’s not entirely dissimilar from how Microsoft, Google, or Amazon build software at the scale they do – lots of attention is paid to how people actually use stuff instead of how they say they do.  Data is king.

How to Get Started

Getting started with self-tracking is as easy as grabbing a pen and paper and making a small behavioral change to start tracking something (yes, the number of lattes you drink each week counts…)  The easiest thing to do of course is to get something that does the tracking for you.  If you can afford any of the tools below (like Nike+ or the Fitbit) you might want to consider picking one up and seeing how it helps… because honestly, most people don’t want to spend the time required to track things by hand.

1. Start with one thing you’d like to improve.  The best way to do this is to ask yourself that ultimate question: if I changed one single thing that would have the biggest impact on my quality of life, what would it be?  The things you consider will be entirely personal and unique to you, but there are also probably some commonalities with others.  For instance, when Gretchen Rubin started her Happiness Project last year, she knew that increasing her energy through exercise would pay dividends all year.  So she started there.  Some other ideas: lowering your blood pressure, losing five pounds, getting more sleep, meditating every day, spending less money on impulse buys, etc.

2. Commit to tracking it for thirty days at first.  Thirty days may not be long enough to drop 50 pounds, but it’s probably long enough to see if self-tracking is for you.  Don’t let yourself off the hook until the thirty days are up… by then, you may find it isn’t too hard to keep up after all. 

3. Spend some time each week looking at your data and drawing conclusions. Come up with your own theories about why things are happening.  There’s little point in self-tracking if you aren’t going to learn from the data!  If you’re someone who does a weekly review, that’s probably a good time to also look at the data you’ve collected and figure out what you’re going to tweak.

4. Test your new hypothesis.  Make a discovery about yourself based on the data at hand?  Think you know how to “fix” it?  Try making a small adjustment to your behavior and see what happens.  Do you focus better in meetings when you have green tea, espresso, or a Diet Coke?  You won’t know until you test it out.

5. Rinse and repeat.  Once you’ve maxed out on one area, take a look at tracking and analyzing another.  Could you improve another aspect of your life just by starting to track it?  Who knows?  Give it a shot.

Tools

As it stands, there isn’t a single, central repository out there for data gathering and analysis across all the various tools.  And there isn’t just one thing you can strap to your wrist to track everything from your cycling distance to your checking account. 

But there are a bunch of great tools available for specific things, or provided you’re OK doing a little bit of aggregation on your own.

Here are some of my favorite tools for self-tracking.  You can’t go wrong with any of these.

  • Nike+.  If you’re a runner and you aren’t using Nike+ or a GPS unit like a Garmin Forerunner, you’re missing out!  It’s incredibly empowering to track your distance, speed/pace, and frequency over time.  Both tools also work with sites like Dailymile to help you challenge and motivate others as well.  I’ll likely do a follow-up post on both Nike+ and Dailymile at some point.
  • Fitbit.  One of the cooler things to come out in a while, the Fitbit is a small sensor you attach to your clothing (or via arm band) to track your fitness and sleep.  Things like sleep patterns, steps taken, and calories burned can be huge motivators and important data points in an overall self-tracking program.  Just knowing how many steps you’ve taken (vs. what your goal is) can motivate you to ditch the elevator and take the stairs instead.  Remember: just knowing you’re tracking it and that you have have a goal actually matters.
  • Withings scale.  A scale that sends your weight, body fat %, and body mass index wirelessly to a private web site.  An iPhone app that gives you a simple chart to see how far you’ve come.  All in all, the Withings scale is probably my favorite gadget this year.  It’s like peeking into the future.  Check out this mega review of it by DC Rainmaker.
  • Joe’s Goals.  One of my favorite sites to track daily habits and something I use all the time to keep myself moving in the right direction.  We all like to get gold stars for getting stuff done – Joe’s Goals is just another way to do so.  I’ve written about Joe’s Goals before, check it out.
  • 12 Goals: Excel Spreadsheet.  A basic spreadsheet containing everything you need to track your vision, goals, and your daily progress throughout the year.  A Refocuser exclusive!
  • Track Your Happiness.org.  See “how your happiness varies depending on what you are doing, who you are with, where you are, what time of day it is, and a variety of other factors.”  Very easy to use!
  • Mint.  The best way to analyze your finances across all your accounts and investments.  If you have more than $1 sitting in a bank account and you aren’t using Mint, you should give it a shot.
  • Foursquare.  More social than analytical, it’s still a great way to track how often you’re visiting the same places and when.  The stats page is a lot of fun; for instance I know that Saturday is my busiest day of the week, that I’ve visited 46 different venues in the past few months, and that I drink a lot of coffee at the local café where I’m the unofficial “mayor” 😉
  • 23andMe.  Plan for your own health and wellness with the latest in genetic science.  Find out which diseases you may have increased risk for and what you can do about it.  You can also learn fun stuff like if you’re likely a fast caffeine metabolizer (I probably am, yay!) or have have bitter taste perception.

That’s just a short list to start, but they’re all things either I’ve personally used (in fact, all but Track Your Happiness I use all the time).  For a more complete list of tools, check out:

The Hardest Part

Believe it or not, the hardest thing when self-tracking isn’t the change you need to make to your daily routines in order to maintain it.  It’s actually learning something you may not want to know and not taking it too seriously.  You want to use the data to your advantage… not become a slave to it. 

Does knowing that your blood pressure is borderline high make your blood pressure worse?  Well, you’ll only know if you start tracking it, right?  And chances are if you do discover this, you’ll be motivated to fix the root cause.

The key with self-tracking is to work under the assumption that knowing is always better than not knowing.  If you don’t agree with this, you might want to think about why.  Is it out of fear?  Or is it because you know you’ll overly stress over what the data implies? 

Before you get started, make a promise to yourself that you will use the data to improve your well being – and that if you ever find yourself overanalyzing or stressing over the details, that you’ll back off.  Or at a minimum, you’ll work to get to the bottom of what’s driving your fear.

This process should be enlightening, but it should also be fun.  Don’t let it own you.

More Resources

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Written by Mike Torres

June 7th, 2010 at 6:21 pm

  • Hi Mike,
    Thanks for posting this! Sounds like you have a good deal of personal experience with self-tracking. If you ever want to start a Quantified Self Show&Tell meetup group in Seattle, let me know, I'm happy to help. 🙂
    Alexandra Carmichael
    Director, Quantified Self

    • Thanks Alexandra! I have definitely thought about doing just that – I know I'd be interested in attending one, which means others might be as well (given the tech community here). We just had a new baby, so after things calm down – if no one else is doing this – I'll definitely look into it. Thanks for stopping by and dropping a line.

  • cjp0605

    Another great post. Thanks. I kind of naturally stumbled on to this concept recently. I have resisted weighing myself daily for my whole life until about 3 months ago. I figured the daily fluctuations in weight didn't really matter, just the long term trends, so I never weighed myself more often than weekly. Of course, I have been overweight my whole life and have gone long stretches without weighing myself at all because I just didn't want to know how bad it was.

    When my Grandfather died I was reflecting on some things I learned from him, and I remembered that he told me when he was younger he struggled with his weigh too, and he weighed himself every day to help keep himself where he wanted to be. And I remembered him making occasional comments like “better only have one scoop, I've gained a few pounds”. I always thought he just learned to have some kind of incredible will power as he got older. But I have recently learned a little bit about how habits are formed, and have been successful making some fundamental changes to my financial habits, so I thought maybe Grandpa's “secret” was really just the simple routine of weighing himself every day and making small adjustments based on the constant feedback. In short, he had just developed a good habit.

    So I tried it and it turns out the daily feedback really is critical. I was (still am) shocked at how big of a difference it makes. I can see the impact of my decisions, good and bad, every day, and that has been a real turning point in my struggle with controlling my weight. I've lost almost 30 pounds since March without counting calories or going hungry.

    You are right the hard part is walking the line between paying attention to the feedback and obsessing over every little fluctuation. I found the balance by telling myself that changes day to day still do not matter – I need the feedback but I do not need to worry if the scale shows I gained a pound overnight – what matters is that my highest weight each week is lower than my highest weight the previous week. That is how I know I am making progress in the right direction and that is how I know I am making good decisions every day.

    I plan to be like my Grandfather and keep this habit for the rest of my life.

    • Wow, that is an amazing example – I love it. I'm now weighing myself almost daily as well with the Withings scale; it takes all the “work” out of it. All I have to do is stand on something for 10 seconds and my phone buzzes a couple seconds later with an updated data point 😉

      Sounds like you're really onto something here. It already has made a big difference for you, which is fantastic!

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