Measuring a Life, Understanding Progress, Checking Goals
Tracking and personal data can and should be part of how you pursue goals, develop better self-understanding and optimize self-improvement.
As a new year arrives, many of us often set new goals and resolutions. During time-triggering events like a birthday or a new month or year, we declare what we want to change and attempt to build a new habit or reach a long-desired goal. A lot of those will fail. By some estimates over 90% of new years resolutions fail.
We think a lot about what we want to achieve. But how often do we think about theprocess underlying how we achieve or even how to measure our progress towards those goals?
While a lot of jargon terms get thrown around, at its essence self-tracking, quantified self, personal informatics, or whatever you call it can be defined as the activity of measuring or documenting something about your self. In turn, I find it’s best to frame this tracking towards either better self-understanding or optimized self-improvement. So, when it comes to goals, tracking data can serve as a feedback mechanism for understanding a specific area like health or productivity or as a gauge to measure your progress towards an objective goal.
In this post, I want to share what I’ll be tracking in the year ahead, but I also want to argue why I think tracking is a useful and meaningful activity today.
In the first part, I’ll share a few reasons why many people track and why personal data collection is such a valuable pursuit today. To cut to the chase, the main reason I find tracking beneficial is that it is an enabler for better self-understanding and empowered self-improvement. But the only way tracking can be an enabler is if we go beyond just tracking and data collection and start to engage with our data. That’s why I believe data engagement is so important. You don’t need to be data scientist to put your data to use.
In the second and longest part, I’ll layout what I’ll be tracking in 2019, including the specific area and technologies I use. I’ll also share three ways I engage with my tracking data through a weekly review, personal data dashboard and goal check-in’s.
In conclusion, I’ll briefly share four areas I think everyone should track and how tracking and personal data can align with your goals.
Let’s get started looking at what you could be tracking in the year ahead!
Why Track: The Value of a Tracked Life
A few years ago, I first wrote a post about what I planned to track for an entire year. My initial point then was that it was easier than ever to track a life, and I shared an big list of what I’d track for the year ahead. The ease of tracking remains just as true today. With just a smartphone, a few apps, and ideally a wearable, you can generate and collect a lot of data about yourself.
What has changed is how I position tracking with my goals. I no longer track just to track, but instead track to enable a data-driven life of self-understanding and empowered self-improvement.
What I’ve come to realize is that self-tracking is best thought of as a support structure for goals. We use data to get some objective measurements on our life and pursuits. We then use that data to understand what is happening and visualize our status and progress. Tracking isn’t the point; tracking is the enabler of some other pursuit or goal, like understanding our health or bettering how we think or write.
The main reason I find tracking a beneficial human activity and pursuit is that tracking data can be a powerful enabler for better self-understanding and empowered self-improvement. Data helps us answer questions and pursue data-driven efforts towards our goals. But the only way data and tracking can be an enabler is if we engage and use that data. We need to go beyond just tracking and data collection and start to use our data for feedback, self-reflection and data visualization.
In short, tracking can be empowering and beneficial, but really only if we engage with our tracking data. This has lead me to realize that self-tracking should divided into two parts: data collection and data engagement.
- Data Collection: Standard processes to get data on various aspects of my life, including health, time, finances, productivity, goals, etc.
- Data Engagement: Learning from data, checking progress, getting feedback, and considering your approach.
Let’s look at what I’ll be tracking and how I plan to engage with my data in 2019.
What I Will Be Tracking in 2019
When it comes to what to track, the best thing to thing to do is think about a goal or two you want to achieve and then find ways to track it. If you want to run more, track your runs. If you have several habits you want to build or remove, track your habits. If you want to better manage your time (or decrease computer or screentime), track those.
You’ll have better success sticking with tracking if it aligns with a goal you already have. In turn, by tracking your goals and using your tracking data, you’ll be able to become more engaged with whatever you are trying understand or achieve.
There is no real point to tracking stuff if you don’t intend to use it, and the vast majority of what I track serves towards my own goals. As I mentioned in a previous section, I now divide my tracking efforts into two parts: 1. my actual tracking or data collection and 2. my data engagement. Let’s look at what I track first.
My Data Collection
Over the last several years, I’ve slowly built up a lot of ways in which I track my life. I do not advice someone who is just getting started with self-tracking to try and implement all of these methods.
In spite of this warning about limiting how much tracking, most of the data that I do track now are tracked passively. So it really doesn’t take that much time to do.
- Wearable: Collecting Sleep, Steps, Heart Rate. Having a wearable is an easy way to collect various health and movement data. I primarily use an Apple Watch, but I’ve been testing a MiBand3 recently too. I find sleep to be the most useful data here, since how much sleep we get has a big impact on our health, learning and creativity. At the same time, knowing how much I move and my Heart Rate are proving quite useful too.
- Fitness / Workouts: Collecting running, strength training, and mobility (and to a lesser extent, swimming and biking). A few years ago I was overweight and inactive. Since then I’ve run multiple full and half marathons, feel better as well more energetic and creative. I track runs with Strava on my Apple Watch, log mobility workouts via a quick manual method, and manage my strength training using an app like Fitbod.
- Health: Collecting Supplements, HRV, Sickness Status, Blood Test Biomarkers, Blood Pressure, Weight, Fat / Body Composition. Now that I’ve regained relatively good health and fitness, I don’t stress too much about tracking my health. Though I’m only really taking Vitamin D and a few others, I do use a pill reminder (Round Health) to track my supplments. I use and love HRV4Training to log my heart status, sickness, feeling, etc. I use regular blood tests and blood pressure checks to ensure my overall health status. Additionally I log my Weight and have recently done a body composition scan, since it helps me evaluate my strength and muscular changes.
- Time: Collecting time spent on computer and mobile phone as well as project time and calendar. I’ve long been a fan of time tracking. There is no better way to understand where you time goes than tracking it. I use RescueTime to know how much time I spend on my computer, and I track my project time, including client work, studies and writing, with Toggl. I actively decreased my screentime last year and plan to continue keeping on eye on that with Apple’s Screentime. While it might not be thought of as formal tracking, I find managing your calendar provides many of the same benefits as well as a quick way to visualize the blocks of time in a week.
- Productivity: Collecting Tasks Completed, Habits, and Goals. I primarily “track” my tasks and habits for better accountablity and focus on doing what matters to me. It’s less about tracking and more about doing what matters. I use Todoist to track my tasks (and the occassional repeating habit) and Habitica to track my habits. I’m increasingly convinced about the potential for goal tracking, and I’ve setup a AirTable Goal Tracker to handle goal setting, goal tracking and goal management. All combined these provide great support and reinforcement towards reaching my objectives.
- Finances / Money: Collecting digital transactions and monthly financial status. I’ve largely automated my financial systems now. I use Mint to categorize my digital transactions, and once a month I do a financial check-in where log how much money I have in my various accounts.
- Writings: Collecting typing word count, words written to notes and drafts and published blog posts. A full explanation of how I track my writing goes beyond this post, but to summarize, I track: I write in plain text files now, so I get statistics on the daily changes to my Notes and Drafts, the Word Count of my typing in certain apps, and how my Published Blogs I create. I use a combination of WordCounter for Mac and a git notes and writing tracker I’ve created. This adds up to tracking the Habitual Action (writing typing and time), the Process (drafts and notes), and the Outcome (final manuscripts). I plan to create some code for more formal data analysis and tracking of my writings in the coming year.
- Knowledge: Collecting Smart Notes, Books and Articles Read, Podcasts and Studies. Smart notes is part of my new personal knowledge management system. Along with a goal of taking better reading notes, I aim to track how many notes I end up creating. Additionally I’ll continue my tradition of tracking how many books I read using Goodreads and my Kindle Highlights as well as track the articles I read with Instapaper or Pocket. For podcast tracking, I continue to use PodcastTracker.com, which I created several years ago. If I get enough time and user interest, I plan to try and find time for a complete rewrite of PodcastTracker in the coming year. I also use Anki for flashcard studies, and there is some data to be had there, but haven’t much investigated how to collect and analyze.
- Media Consumption and Other Random tracking: Collecting Device Photos Taken, Music Listening, TV/Movies, YouTube (time and liked videos). There are a several other areas I track that don’t necessarily serve a specific purpose (at least not yet), but since they are easy and provide more context on my life and I enjoy them, I do them.
- PhotoStats.io: For example, I created a photo tracking app called PhotoStats.io in late 2017 and development continues. PhotoStats app continues to serve as a way to understand how many photos you take and of what.
- Last.fm: I passively use this services to track the songs I listen to on Spotify.
- Trakt.tv: I try to manually log every show and movie I watch into this TV and and movie service.
- YouTube: While I’ve tried to completed track my YouTube watching in the past, it took too much effort. So I’ve elected on a simpler method to track my YouTube usage. I use an IFTTT integration to collect favorited videos, and once a week I log my YouTube Watch Time to know how much time I spent on the service.
Across the year I’m tracking about 20–25 area or metrics. A few of them are mostly focused on ensuring background stats on my health, time and productivity, while others have a strong correlation to what I’m trying to achieve in terms of writings, learning, and tech products. These focused areas I use in a feedback loop to build up habits and reach my intended outcome.
My Data Engagement: Weekly Reviews + Personal Data Dashboard
While a lot of focus tends to be put on what we track, including wearables, blood tests, apps, etc, I find that this singular focus on personal data collection misses a major component, namely data engagement. Basically if you don’t periodically engage with your tracking data or allow your data to provide feedback, then it isn’t very useful. So, if I had to offer one tip to anyone starting to track their lives: Engage with your data!
You don’t need to be data scientist to put your data to use. You just need an active curiosity and some familiar with a few simple tools. Often times looking at the data in a spreadsheet application is enough to get started. Additional tools like Python’s Data Science Tool Kit, Google Data Studio or Tableau can help you go one step further.
Personally, I follow a couple of habits to ensure I use what I track to better understand myself and make improvements towards my goals. Here are three examples of my data engagement:
1. Do A Weekly (or Monthly) Review
I’m strong believer in the power of the weekly review. Whether it’s weekly or monthly, the basic idea is once a week to do a bit of organizational cleanup and reflect. Think about the past week and plan for the week to come. For me, it’s period of time where you go “meta” and consider what worked and didn’t work in your processes. Iterating on this process will over time help you better understand your work and life systems and implement changes for improving your life and work.
Personally, I started doing weekly reviews several years ago, and it remains one of my most useful productive or goal-driven habits. Once a week, I set aside about 30 minutes to look at my past week, check-in on key areas and plan and set goals for the week ahead. While the format has gone through a few different iterations, I stick to doing it every Sunday, keeping it under 30 minutes and making sure at least 10 minutes of that time is dedicated to personal reflection writing.
Originally inspired by Getting Things Done, I now use a data-driven approach to my weekly reviews. First, I aggregate and log several data points using Google Form and store it into a Google Sheet. I also collect some screenshots of a few tracking areas. Second, I then do some minor cleanup and run some simple comparison formulas in the spreadsheet. Third, I generate a template with the filled in data points. Fourth and finally, I use that template to write up my own thoughts and reflect on the week past and week to come.
If I could only recommend a single weekly change for someone to try, it would be weekly reviews. It’s simpel to get started, but it can have a profound impact.
2. Create a Personal Data Dashboard
Whether it’s at a company or just for your personal needs, one of the best ways to engage with your data is by creating a data dashboard.
Here is an example of my “productivity” dashboard:
There are a lot of tools you can use to create a personal data dashboard. How it looks isn’t that important, since the main objective is to help you compare your data over time and visualize various trends. A spreadsheet app like Google Sheets or excel can also be used to visualize your tracking data, while Tableau or Google Data Studio are slightly more professional options, which can provide a way to sync with stored data.
Increasingly I’m a fan of using IFTTT or Zapier to automate my data collection into Google Sheets. I then use some simple formula functions to process that data into additional time dimensions like date, month, week and year and into useful metrics. Finally, I link that data into Google Data Studio to create interactive data visualization.
I spent a few hours building my current dashboard and have adding a few tweaks here and there as my objectives and focus changes. Admittedly, there is a slight learning curve with Google Data Studio, but it shouldn’t take more than an afternoon or two to get up and running.
If you are interested in learning how to create your personal data dashboard, I’m currently preparing a course on Google Data Studio for Personal Data Analysis and Quantified Self that will be released in early 2019. Signup for my newsletter to get early access and other goodies.
3. Goal Check-ins for Studies, Key Projects, and Experiments
Goal Tracker, built with AirTable
Goals are a complex subject. It’s a lot more fun to think about the target and content of goals rather than ponder the systems that can positively support (or negatively undermine) us in reaching them. I’ve recently started to be more conscious in setting and tracking my goals, especially since doing more research into the science of goals.
Ultimately the key to using tracking with your goals is use data and your data analysis when evaluating your goals.I keep a big list of my goals in a spreadsheet application called AirTable. I then categorize, prioritizing and schedule those goals.
For example, I follow Buffet’s recommendation of goal prioritization and have set 5 big long-term goals. My additional sub-goals or incentives are short-term goals aimed at fulfilling those big goals, like financial freedom or running a marathon under 4 hours. In view of how hard it is to work on multiple goals at the same time, I schedule these sub-goals by the month or quarter. I find this is a pretty good balance and it helps me view goals as a process, rather than a target. Specifically, I’m able to do goal setting, goal tracking and goal management all in one place.
This has proven relatively sustainable, and I use my existing tracking data along with a bit of reflection to see how I’m doing and figure out what to fix or optimize. Goals are a process and tracking helps me optimize that process.
Conclusion: What should you be tracking in 2019
Tracking and personal data remains a complicated and contentious topic, and I expect it to remain so for the coming years. One of the big reasons it remains such a hot topic is that the majority of the benefit of all of this data goes to a few technology companies. By collecting data on their users, companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook and others are able to know with a high degree accuracy who their users are and how to manipulate them. This isn’t a fair balance of how data is used, since as creators and owners of that data, we should be able to benefit too.
One of my personal missions is to help people to better understand, collect and use their personal data. In this post, I shared why I think tracking data is beneficial and how it can be an enabler for better self-understanding and improving how we improve. I also shared a pretty hefty list of what I’ll be tracking in the year ahead. I don’t expect or recommend most people to track all of these areas. For one reason, it will take some time to get setup, but mostly because what you track should align with what you want to work on.
What should you be tracking in 2019?
I think there are four key areas everyone should track: health, money, time, and projects (e.g. tasks, habits, and goals).
1. Your Money or Finances
Unless you are fortunate to be born rich, I believe most people would benefit from some degree of financial literacy, planning and setting goals. Money is one of the easiest and simplest to track. Most banks and money transactions are digital, meaning it’s easy to get your data. Wealth tracking is also an area where you can easily automate many of the processes from transaction categorization to investment deductions. Tools like Mint, Personal Capital, Spendee or You Need a Budget are all great ways to get started. In terms what and how to track, I recommend tracking three aspects: your transactions, your financial check-in’s (periodic account balances) and your financial goals.
2. Your Time (or productivity)
Time is also relatively easy to track. You can use either a passive method or manual logging to record your time usage. There are advantages to both manual and passive time tracking as well as a hybrid method, which I personally use, where you passive track device usage and manually track project time. To get started with time tracking, checkout RescueTime which lets you track your computer time and categorize which sites or apps are productive vs. distracting. After logging your computer usage for awhile, check your overall numbers, decide if your allotment is what you want and implement changes to decrease or increase time in certain areas.
If you are more concerned about mobile phone usage, Android and Apple both provide apps to log your screentime and know how much time you spend on your devices. Both let you set notifications and limits too.
Arguably the hardest yet most powerful time tracking method is manual tracking. Personally, I use Toggl to log my hours but most timer tools will work. Start by tracking a single key area like writing or studies and consider expanding from there. If you want to ensure you are putting in the time on a goal, then log it.
3. Your Productive activity = Projects, Tasks, Habits, and Goals
Anything that takes more than one step is a project. Under the umbrella term of “Productive Activity,” I include projects, goals, habits, and tasks. It is my way of providing a catch all phrase about tracking and better managing any multistep initiative or activity. There are countless books and articles on productivity and how best to manage it. My main point here is to show that with tracking you can create a “scorecard” that allows you to track the regular steps you complete and overall achievements too. For example, you can use a task tracker like Todoist to know how often you complete tasks from a certain project or you can use a habit tracker like Habitica to know how often you complete a new habit and your current streak. Once you start logging the tasks you complete, you can start to gamify it by ensuring you get so many done in a day and how many high vs. low priority tasks.
4. Your Health
Of these four items, health is one of the harder ones to nail down on how best to measure and quantify. One key distinction that might useful when tracking health is whether you are measuring your health status (like blood tests, heart rate, etc.) or tracking certain health commitments (like running, drinking, water, taking vitamins, etc). You should aim to track a mix of both your health status and your healthy habit commitments.
When it comes to health status, I recommend periodically getting your blood biomarkers tested and, if you are over 35 and you’ve never checked it regularly, your blood pressure. Both will provide a good baseline. If you are overweight, you should get a scale and track that. Personally I’m fan of HRV which is a way of measuring your chronic stress and automatic nervous system. I use to see if I’m overtrained, overstressed, over-traveled, etc and make periodic adjustments to get more rest.
The thing to remember is that “healthy” and even “sick” are not simple binaries. In fact there are a multitude of parameters (like blood biomarkers) that score on ranges and scales from sick to normal to optimal and even those ranges are somewhat subjective too. That said, while you might decide on your own health numbers, when it comes to health and wellness there are a few well-established health measurements I recommend and use. The key point is to track them consistently and use health data as a feedback loop to understand if lifestyle changes are improving your health or not.
When it comes to tracking your health commitments, there are nearly countless ways you can do that. If you just need to get moving more, a wearable or pedometer step counter will work. Use it for a few days to get a baseline, then see a goal to improve. If running, swimming or another activity is your thing, track it with Strava or another app. Ultimately it doesn’t matter what you use but just try to find an easy way to get a sense of how often you move and what you are doing. Personally I find the easiest way to do this is with a Wearable. I use an Apple Watch, but I’m also a fan of Fitbit, MiBand, Garmin, and Oura Ring too.
Finally, if you are interested in collecting your tracking data and doing some data analysis to engage with that data, check out my open source project QS Ledger on github.com. It’s a collection of Python Jupyter notebooks that walks you through collecting your data and data processing to full data analysis and creating your own data visualizations.
All Rights Reserved for Mark Koester