Quantifying the self — Why I track 80 metrics about my life every day
Self-tracking is an investment.
Every day since April 2017, I spend a couple of minutes before I go to sleep to log the day's activities.
Until today, I haven't really thought of the time that it takes to do this. Some back of the napkin math brings that time spent (at 5 minutes a day) to 6675 minutes, which is 11.25 hours, or 4.64 whole days of me looking at a screen and doing manual data entry.
That's absolutely insane, you could do so much else with that amount of time! Why would someone choose to spend their precious time in that fashion?
I'll tell you why I do it, and why I don't see myself stopping this evening ritual anytime soon.
How I began quantifying my life
It started out with trying to build a good habit, meditation in particular. I wanted to make sure that I met my goals, and it's like they say - you can't improve what you don't track.
So like any good data nerd, I started a spreadsheet. That spreadsheet contained a cell for every day where I would indicate if I meditated or not.
Pretty simple, right?
Maybe for the first couple of weeks. What started out as an innocent little spreadsheet eventually turned into something that had 80 columns, all kinds of values (numbers, letters, time durations), formula calculations, and yes even conditional formatting. If you looked over my shoulder and saw it you'd probably think I was some sort of genius hedge fund guy making millions in the stock market. Nope, making zero money, and if you subscribe to the idea that time is money, making negative money in fact.
The aspects of my life that I keep track of
Fitness, Diet, Sleep
The basic things to track, and I do it for obvious reasons like seeing my progress towards fitness goals and making sure that I'm not telling lies when my mom asks if I've been eating my veggies.
Health data is a big focus of the quantified self community (the online society of folks that track, share, and analyze their personal data), but even if you've never heard the term "Quantified Self" you're probably automatically tracking some sort of health data if you have a modern cell phone or electronic watch.
Good habits & things I want to learn
Anything I want to improve on actively, I try to keep track of. I find that I get motivated by streaks and especially if it's a new habit, I'm more likely to keep it going when I visually see the momentum I have.
When I'm trying to get better at something new, I track it. It's been interesting to see the habits that stick around, and those that fizzle out. Sadly, my meditation practice that started this all isn't doing so well these days. Ironically though, I've found that the actual process of self-tracking has been a meditation of sorts, and a time for me to check in with myself.
Most people just celebrate good habits and try to brush their bad ones under the rug. I've found that tracking bad habits can be eye-opening, insightful, and opens the door to changing those habits if you wish to.
Like most people my age, "I don't have a drinking problem, but I could probably drink less". Sound familiar?
Humans are really bad at estimating, and most life decisions more than a day old are bundled up into the past and forgotten. It's one thing to know that you could drink less, and a completely other one to know exactly how many drinks you had this week, how that affects your sleep, mood, productivity and all of the other positive ambitions you have for your life.
There's also the reverse effect of the good habit streak. When you see that you've drank the past 2 nights, you're more likely to be a bit more conscious of taking today off from the sauce.
Your memory will lie to you, but your data won't.
Time is the most precious resource, so it makes sense to keep track of it. Not that we need to be productive for every second of every day, but it does help to have a general idea of what you're spending your time on, and how that affects the other parts of your life that you care about.
I'm always working on a couple of different projects at the same time, and think of my time as an investment as there's always something else I could be doing. It helps to be able to zoom out and really see how I'm choosing to spend my time and compare that with what I'm getting out of it. I also find it fascinating to see the impact of what I'm working on and my mood, sleep, diet, and overall life choices.
Another time-related thing I track is who I spend my time with. Nothing too precise, just if I see a particular friend that day or not. This one is more just for curiosity (both myself and my friends), they always get a kick out of seeing the correlations between the days that we hang out and the rest of my tracked metrics.
How I feel
This one's big, as how we feel about ourselves is often times the key driver behind our life choices and day to day actions.
Call me crazy, but I want to be happy. I want to start my day in a good mood, and even more, I want to end my day in a good mood. I want to feel worry-free, confident, kind, decisive, and humble.
Unfortunately, I was born the old fashioned way and not in some sort of human positivity lab. I don't get to feel those things every single day. That's fine, I've accepted the human condition.
However, the daily actions I take do impact my mood (and the reverse is also true), and I'd like to be in touch with that. So I keep track of both, and every once in a while look at the relationships. I want to be able to answer questions like "What can I do to feel less anxious today?" or "Will eating this ice cream actually make me happy?"
These tracked metrics I keep close to myself, and the insights I get from them are my gold bars in the bank for a future rainy day.
Datapoints tracked over time
So why bother doing all of this?
The million dollar question, and the answer has evolved over time. To sum it up though:
- Goals - Keeping myself accountable and reinforcing good habits
- Awareness - Not hiding from my bad habits, but acknowledging them in order to make decisions with data when it makes sense
- Mindfulness - This daily check-in lets me reflect on the day and set goals for tomorrow
- Insights - What starts as a one-way street of putting data in, turns into a two-way highway that gives me information about my life that goes beyond the obvious and has the potential to even surprise me
- I can't stop... - A joke but also not really. Is there a name for this type of addiction?
Is it worth it?
I can only speak for myself, but I'd say absolutely. Those 5 minutes every night are not only not a "waste" because I reap the benefits of the data at some future point in time, but the forced moment of self-reflection is one that can be quite valuable.
The human lifespan is an adventure that can't simply be reduced to numbers, but I've found that using quantified self data about the day to day can enrich your life experience, answer interesting questions, and provide confidence in the actions that are taken every day.
What I will say though is that it doesn't need to be this extreme. For those interested in quantifying certain aspects of their life, it's easy to start small & focused to help yourself with your goals. I'll warn you though, it can be addictive.
The Quantified Self movement
This concept of self-tracking is not one that I made up. There is a set of awesome online communities of people who quantify aspects of their life in different ways, and share their methods, reasons, conclusions, and insights with others.
However robust those communities are though, I think that QS is only getting started. Every year more and more wearables, devices, applications, and services that track personal data are coming out for a variety of use cases (health, wellness, financial, and medical are just the initial ones). This data needs to be handled in an ethical manner and with the upmost respect for what it stands for, in order for humans to fully trust & adopt this technology. But if that can happen, our day to day data can be used for some incredible applications to really enhance the human experience.
What I learned about myself
Thanks for getting this far, but I think it's time for a break. In my next post I'll share the top insights that I've learned about myself from tracking all of this data every day.