Every evening before I go to bed, I do a few things as part of my evening routine. These things include logging receipts from the day in my financial software (as a way to keep track of my expenses and to stay within a budget), logging data to keep track of new habits I am working on, logging exercise data for that day in a spreadsheet (cardio, stretching, or strength training), keeping track of things I’ve accomplished during the day, and spending five minutes journaling, where I write about the best part of my day and how I could have made it better. Collectively, these might seem like a lot of things to do or keep track of, but when you have a process in place, it’s quite simple and efficient to go through these quickly in a matter of minutes without actively thinking about it. In other words, it becomes a routine.
Apart from the daily evening routine, I also keep track of things like music I’ve listened to, films I’ve watched, and books I’ve read (in a spreadsheet). Some of these things happen infrequently. In the case of movies watched, I log them only when I’ve seen a film; same with books I’ve read.
With music, whenever I listen to a track, be it on my notebook, phone, or tablet, it auto-publishes on last.fm without me having to do anything at all, so when friends and acquaintances ask what I’ve been listening to, I can simply share that link with them. Apart from sharing my listening history, I can always go back and see what I listened to at any given time in the past. It also tells you the music you’ve listened to most in the last 30 days (or however you set it as the default). Based on your listening history, it visualizes your data in a way that gives you insights you wouldn’t have known otherwise.
So why do I do this? Why do I keep track of things? Well, I do it not for the sake of tracking (which is input anyway), but ultimately to learn about myself and to use that data to enrich my life in some way; it’s always a process, and never a (fixed) outcome.
One of the motivations for keeping track of data is to help you celebrate where you were and how far you’ve come. You might have failed to reach your goal, but it doesn’t matter as long as you’re making some progress. The important thing is you’re moving forward all the time and not moving back, no matter how small a step you take. When you make progress every week, you generate momentum. This is not unlike having momentum when playing Street Fighter. When you keep hitting your opponent in a series, you gain momentum. Ditto in tennis, boxing, or any other sport. It’s easier to win when you have momentum on your side, but more on this in a future draft.
This can only happen when you collect data (passively or actively), make sense of that data to gather insights, make decisions based on those insights, and finally take action based on those decisions, all with the hope that it will take you some place better (all while keeping in mind that there is nothing without growth). We can even create annual reports based on the data and the insights we gather.
In fact, companies like Apple, Google, IBM, Accenture, and others collect data all the time about their users. They call it big data. How they collect data is an entirely different conversation. Big data is defined as:
Extremely large data sets that may be analyzed computationally to reveal patterns, trends, and associations, especially relating to human behavior and interactions.
There is a Danish audio design company called AIAIAI dedicated to developing high-quality audio products. They have a Discovery tool, which uses your Spotify music listening history to help you find the perfect set of headphones for daily use with the promise of delivering clear, amplified sound through their modern and minimalistic approach.
There is also a company called Automatic that helps you keep track of gas mileage, usage, performance, and engine health of your car.
It’s not just companies who collect data all the time. We even collect data (passively) when using our phones, computers, and whatnot without knowing about it. For instance, your phone might tell you the apps you’re using the most, based on battery usage, or your music software on the computer keeps track of your listening history including when a track was last played, the number of times it was played, the number of times you skipped it, etc. What we do with that data is up to us. The fact is, we collect data all the time and are not even aware of it.
Of course, we have barely scratched the surface of collecting and using data to our benefit on these smart devices. The whole process will likely be automated in the future, making it easier and simpler.
I used to use an app called Optimism. It was a tool to record your health over time based on things that you defined were important for your well-being. Of course, using this tool was not meant to be a substitute for getting a doctor’s advice in terms of medical attention, but it would suffice to keep track of your mental health.
This reminds me of a web app called Daytum that I used in a previous life where I would track all kinds of data pertinent to my life. At the time, I would track miles walked/run, meals eaten, places I visited, people I had been with, restaurants visited, and types of foods consumed, just to share a few. I even wanted to create an application for myself that would track this data. I’ve kept this project on hiatus, but it nonetheless remains a dream that I’ll get to someday. At the time, I called this project, Quantified, based on the Quantified Self (QS) movement, which describes itself as self knowledge through use of numbers. The alternative term for this is lifelogging. QS has meetups in different cities around the world, where people share how they collect personal data to enrich their life in some way. The whole idea is to convert everyday mundane and quotidian data into something meaningful that improves our life.
Even though I don’t use Daytum any longer, I still track data in my life. Here are some of the ways I collect data that is meaningful to me:
- music on last.fm (passive)
- movies on letterboxd (active)
- health/fitness data on a spreadsheet (active)
- log waistline every couple of weeks (active, more below)
- log weight once a month (active)
- website analytics (passive)
- monthly credit score on a spreadsheet (active)
- books read in a spreadsheet (active)
- monthly services subscribed (active)
- use a gratitude journal to keep myself focused on the positive aspects of my life and find ways to make it better
- track apps used and websites visited on my notebook (passive)
The only difference between the two kinds of data collection is passive and automatic, while active requires you manually log the data yourself. In some of these examples, I get a monthly, quarterly, or yearly snapshot in the form of reports based on the data collected.
Based on the data collected, you can create annual reports. Imagine how great would it be to have yearly reports of your life based on the data that was meaningful to you? Wouldn’t it be great to look back on your life through the lens of these yearly personal reports? In fact, Nicholas Felton would track data that was meaningful to him and use data visualization to create annual reports for each year of his life.
Letterboxd also helps you create an annual report based on the films you’ve seen. In addition, it also collects data from everyone else and shows you what’s popular, what’s not, and everything in between.
One of my goals this year is to reduce my waistline. Every couple of weeks I am reminded by my phone in the early morning to log my waistline in a spreadsheet. Then, I can see my progress over time as to where I was and how far I’ve come. Ditto with logging weight. This process partially keeps me accountable for the results.
By the way, you don’t have to be a “tech person” to be able to collect data. For instance, I know how much water I am drinking every day based on the number of bottles I keep filled. Based on the water that remains at the end of the day, I know how much I’ve consumed. Even that is data collection at a rudimentary level.
Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the use of a calendar as the “ultimate activity tracker”. Like most of you, I use a calendar to keep track of things that have to be done on a specific day and/or time. I schedule these events in advance. Then, when I am done with my day, I’ll go back into my calendar to fill the rest of the day’s activities. That way I know where I’ve spent my time that day. Of course, this is only possible when you’re doing one thing at a time for at least 30 minutes or more; this will make it easy for you to fill the blocks in your calendar. When I am done with that week, I’ll review my past week as part of planning the next week, and review the calendar data from the last two weeks as well as four weeks into the future, which might trigger any future reminders.
Of course, one would think that a person who tracks this kind of data will have to be quite obsessive-compulsive about it, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Although it can be fairly easy to become obsessive-compulsive about collecting data, I think there is a fine line between collecting data that is meaningful to you and becoming too obsessive about it. The boundary being that you shouldn’t make it purely about the data itself, and instead focus more on the results you get from it.
Now that I have shared how I collect data in my life, I turn to you. First, you have to figure out the kind of data that would be meaningful to you. Then, you have to find the tools that will help you collect that data. After that, you can identify patterns/trends from your data collection to come up with insights, based on which you can make decisions to take appropriate action. This is cyclical process, not a one-time activity. It’s a process of continuous improvement, and there is no limit to improving oneself.
For instance, if you want to track your daily fitness stats, you might consider using your phone or watch to track your daily fitness activity, calories burned, etc. Then, review the data after a week to learn more about your health and to decide what to do next.
If there isn’t a tool out there that suits you, you might have to make one up yourself or design it with someone else’s help. You may also find tools like Reporter or WeJourn useful in tracking data that is relevant for you.
For the last couple of drafts, I’ve been quoting Socrates, and it couldn’t be more fitting for this draft:
An unexamined life is not worth living.
Ultimately, it’s not about collecting (or logging) the data itself, but what you do with it. You can have the best health, do great work, and be in great relationships, but all of those things don’t amount to much without constant growth. That can only happen when we collect data that is meaningful to us and ultimately take action based on the insights we learn from the process.