Tracking what you do is a bit narcissistic when you do it, but in narcissism there is also some honesty. There is a level of courage in sharing information about yourself. You are taking a risk and letting folks know what you are up to and what you are doing. I love it when people are honest and courageous and it can help you start to do things and change the way that you do things.
There are a few different reasons why. The short answer is that we don't really need to do any of this, but if we do it provides a bit of perspective on who we are and what we do over time. You may be able to find the connection between how much you walk and how much you weigh. Then that knowledge can give you a little push to start walking a little bit more. Then that can lead to keeping track of how much you sleep and how it affects your mood. For a certain type of personality it can mean the start of a whole lot of data collection.
There are a few different reasons why. The short answer is that we don't really need to do any of this, but if we do it provides a bit of perspective on who we are and what we do over time. You may be able to find the connection between how much you walk and how much you weigh. Then that knowledge can give you a little push to start walking a little bit more. Then that can lead to keeping track of how much you sleep and how it affects your mood. For a certain type of personality it can mean the start of a whole lot of data collection. Every year at Podcamp there are a group of people who meet, connect and share things that they are interested in and know about. It's wonderful to go and see the folks there. It's scary to stand up in front of a group of talented people you admire and share something, but for me it's also energizing. The scared introvert is encouraged by the hidden extrovert who emerges when a room full of people looks at them.
In that spirit I stood in front of people in a tiny room and explained why I keep track of certain things in my life. It's broadly part of the Quantified Self movement which grows out of a desire to track things in order to see patterns and make change in your life. It goes back to marking heights on door frames to see how we grow or in keeping diaries or journals. But now we have a wide array of electronic devices and services that make it almost effortless to keep track of lots of this information. I love it.
I think that the first place where I started to do this was with Last FM which would use a plugin in iTunes to keep track of the music that you actually listened to. What you tell people you listen to and what you actually listen to are different things. When we share what we watch and listen to we are constructing an ideal self. You want people to respect and admire you and maybe they won't if they know that you are partial to cheesy pop songs. But in keeping track of what we actually listen to instead of what we think people listen to can help in discovering new things that we wouldn't think that we like. The sophisticated algorithms that Last FM uses to suggest new music has opened up whole new musical worlds for me. It works with Amazon and Netflix too on all sorts of levels.
Tracking things can be good, but you need a context for it and having goals is one of the best ways to use tracking as a way to provide a way to measure your progress toward those goals. The wonderful community 43 Things made a big difference to me. It's the place where I shared 5 things that I was grateful for every day, it's where I practiced yoga every day for a month, and it's where I connected with some of my favourite online people. One of the neat people I've followed online since then is Buster Benson who continues to make interesting things that spur me on.
Buster's 750 Words site is a place that I visit every day to write things down. It can be anything (and the first draft of this is being written on that very site) with the main point being to just to write. At this point there are over half a million words that I've written over hundreds of days. It's neat to see that and it also provides a space and time to sit and reflect. Not a lot of time, but just enough to keep the wheels turning and the fingers typing on the keyboard.
When I started biking in a more serious way and I had an iPhone it became obvious that I'd need to use this wonderful device to keep track of how far I was biking and where. I started out using an app called Cychosis which is great. The app is a bit too much for me though and when I found Xtrail from Sophiestication I switched to it and that's what I use now. The goal that I established for each year (mainly during the summer) is to bike 1000 km and I've been able to achieve it a few times. Maybe I'll raise it to 1500 km next year as it's good to have a challenge.
The data itself is just the starting point. The real power and changes come from you when you interpret it. What does it all mean to you? It's not like you are trying to sell things to yourself, but on one level, that's exactly what it is. You can use the data to make a positive change in your life.
The goals don't have to be very specific, but specific goals help. The larger goals are broader and harder to quantify. Things like being happier or healthier. Inside those big goals there can be small markers that indicate how far along we are. It's not a binary thing with happy/unhappy being the choice. It's easier to know where we are going when we can look at a map every now and then. Sometimes there is a broad outline of a map and we fill it in. Other times we create the map by walking or biking or having a daily routine. Over time we see the contours, shapes, and patterns. That is when we see the size of the territory we are in and chart our course. Where have we been? Where do we want to go?
Keeping track of your progress is a powerful thing. I'm inspired by Amelia Greenhall and how she figured out that the best way to be healthy and maintain your weight isn't by going on diets, but just by making some small changes and tracking things and giving yourself little rewards. I love that and it's something that I try to do now. It's a sensible and relatively easy way to change who you are by adding or subtracting things into your life.
It does involve technology, but the technology can be as simple as paper and pen. The key is to track things. You can measure height by drawing lines on a door frame. Or you can step on a wifi-enabled scale that syncs your weight every day. The tools can be fascinating, but they are not what is important. It's the act of consciously keeping track of what you are doing and how you feel about it that is important. The data that you track is significant because of the choices you make in what you want to remember.
I use a service from Nathan Yau called Your Flowing Data. It receives direct messages from Twitter in a simple format and then collects the data. I keep track of films I watch, coffee, beer, wine and alcohol that drink. It's also a way that I keep track of how far I bike. Within those things that I track there are various levels of detail that I keep track of. For the beer I keep track of the amount by glass and then the type of beer based on who made it. That matters to me. For wine I don't care as much so I just keep track of whether it is red or white. With films I keep track of a bit more information using Your Flowing Data. I will record the name of the film along with the medium it is from (theatre, dvd, netflix) and where I've watched it (the specific theatre, the film festival, ipad, tv, or laptop). Then I can see how much I use each of those things.
That's how I know last year I watched 287 films, drank 542 cups of coffee, and that my favourite beer was Sea Level Brewing Blue Heron Extra Special Bitter (34% of the beer I drank). It's been a few years since I started using Your Flowing Data and now I don't even think about it. That's where I record stuff.
Tracking films probably doesn't make a huge change in my life, but two other specific sets of data have made a bigger difference. Seeing how much I walk every day or bike combined with my weight helped me push me a bit to be more active and to get out more. It's one thing to say that you want to be more active, but it is another thing to actually do it. I had a few pedometers that broke, so that wasn't really working for me and the apps that I found weren't that great. But the first thing that I kept with for a long time the cycling app on my iPhone. That allowed me to think of the goal of biking 1000 kms over a summer. Then I started weighing myself and the connection between being active and losing weight became clear. It gave me insight into how the combination of eating healthier food resulted in me feeling better and maintaining my weight. Eating chips would show up a few days later even if I was fairly active. So I made an adjustment and cut down on that and then I would keep a consistent weight.
When I got a FitBit a year ago it became even easier. I didn't have to keep track of all of the steps every day. It showed how the location of a classroom where I was teaching would change the number of steps I took in a day significantly. I didn't realize how much I walked every day. The walking around work could be significant. Some days it was more steps than taking a walk around my town. Sometimes we don't see things unless we look and by tracking more things we can see things that we didn't even know where there. So now I keep track of a lot more things and while I don't know how I will use it all, I do have the data and that is kind of neat.