Photo: Tyrone Shum
The often quoted Peter Drucker said “what gets measured gets managed.” If you can’t measure it you are merely guessing, not managing. Of course he was referring to applying metrics to better manage a business, but the same principle applies to individuals as well. How are you to optimize your life when you do not measure how exactly you spend it?
Personal finance is the best example of this — in order to get your spending under control and save money you first need to know where your money is being spent. Track where your money is going, create a budget to control problem areas, and continue tracking to observe the improvements. Mint.com is a terrific website to help individuals focus on tracking their expenses. From their website:
If you’ve tried to build a budget in the past and just couldn’t stick to it, we understand. Until now, trying to see where you’re spending and where you can cut back has been too difficult. But once you understand a few basic principles and start tracking your spending with Mint.com, you’ll be able to set and stick to realistic goals, easily and automatically.
Mint.com has developed impressive technology to easily track and report on your spending – in turn allowing more people to stick to their financial goals. This website is only one example in an abundance of new tools utilizing technology to help you track your life. Beyond personal finance, there are similar services you can use to for almost any facet of your life.
Tools of the Trade
There are a ton of tools out there to help you track your everyday life. Depending upon what you would like to track you can find a service that will be able to help you easily gather the data and display it. You can find a comprehensive list here or here, but let me introduce you to just a couple.
Fitbit is a tiny pod that you carry with you at all times. Without any manual input it tracks your steps take, distance traveled, calories burned, and even some sleep statistics. The best part is that it wirelessly uploads the data to their website where you can log in to view nice looking charts of your activity.
There are also various tools that allow for you to track any custom activity with as little data input as possible. Rather than writing it down on a piece of paper to tally later, you submit it on the internet and it automatically takes care of the data crunching for you. They attempt to make it as easy as possible by being able to input data from twitter or text message rather than requiring that you log into their website to record data. This means just about anyone can quickly record an activity from their cell phone. All you have to do is setup categories such as “Soda” and tweet a specific format that can be interpreted by their service, for example “d daytum Coke”. Then you can visit their website to see a graphical representation of your data.
What Should You Track?
I can’t tell you what you should track as it varies from person to person. Where would you like to improve? What are your problem areas? What would be interesting to know? What would you like to have a permanent record of? Here are some ideas to get you going:
- Consumption — calories, alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, vitamins, soda, caffeine
- Measure — weight, blood pressure, heart rate, cognitive test
- Exercise — time, type
- Subjective (rate on a 1 to 10 scale) -– productivity, mood, diet quality, exercise intensity, weather, energy
- Daily Time — TV, computer, video games, reading, sleeping, at work, with family, with friends
- Travel — driving, flying, walking, running, public transportation
Would you like to know how diet, exercise, and the weather effect your happiness? How about how alcohol and caffeine consumption effect your productivity? Maybe you’d like to have a record of every time you traveled 50 miles from your home? How many hours are you watching TV or playing video games? Customize a tracking plan to fit your life!
Crunching the Data to Optimize Your Results
The primary benefit of the data is that you can use it to draw conclusions about your life. Often times it will provide hard evidence for something you already suspected – sometimes this evidence is all you need to actually take action to improve your life. A secondary benefit is the permanent recording of your life, similar to a diary but better suited for data heads.
If you are so inclined you can create a personal annual report — the same as those published yearly by public corporations, but all about you! Here are a couple of varying complexity created by Nicholas Felton, Dan Meyer, and Jehiah Czebotar.
Even if you are not interested in publishing your data for the world to see, you can still play with it on your own. Once you are able to visualize your trends you can consciously make decisions to improve. Days you drink soda you exceed your caloric goal? Cut that out in a jiffy! Intense workouts improve your sleep quality for two days? Guess you will be working out every other day! Notice trends, improve your life – it’s that simple.
Farther down the rabbit hole:
- Wired — Know Thyself: Tracking Every Facet of Life, from Sleep to Mood to Pain, 24/7/365
- Wall Street Journal — The New Examined Life
- Alexandra Carmichael explaining her tracking — Quantifying Myself
- Matt Jones explains Personal Informatics — Polite, Pertinent, and… Pretty: Designing for the New-wave of Personal Informatics
- Kevin Kelly’s blog archive — http://www.kk.org/quantifiedself/archives.php