How to Track Everything in Your Life Without Going Crazy
These days, you can track just about anything with the right device: how you move, sleep, drive, and even how you eat, giving us the opportunity to quantify...anything. But how much data do we really need, and at what point does this information cause more harm than benefit? I decided to track everything in my life and here's what I discovered.
The Dilemma of the Quantified Self
Awhile back, in the usual
At first I loved it, but I quickly became overwhelmed. When you reduce everything to numbers, they start to control your choices. Sometimes this helps, as it can stop you from swallowing an entire chocolate cream pie on a whim. Other times it can make life more frustrating because you feel like you can't do basic, everyday tasks-like walking enough. I spoke with therapist Roger S. Gil to find out when he thought tracking helped and when it went too far:
Quantifying behavior can be beneficial as long as it's part of a larger intervention. It's helpful when trying to identify a baseline for a particular behavior you want to change because it gives you a starting point. The thing is that you have to maintain the tracking in order to be able to monitor progress. For some people monitoring progress can elicit more anxiety since it makes the inevitable "plateau" periods that we all have seem that much more noticeable.
My experience fell into similar territory. I realized that while I enjoyed tracking myself, I could easily overdo it instead of using the devices in a healthy, effective way. Here's what I've learned over the last year, and how I think you can successfully employ these awesome
All the Things You Can Track
You can track a lot of different things nowadays, but you probably don't need to. Before you go out and buy a gadget, think of a problem you want to fix. Larger issues work better than small annoyances. If you don't have something concrete, tracking probably isn't the solution. All that data will do absolutely nothing for you if you can't apply it to making your life better. To that end, let's look at what you can track and if you should even bother.
For a lot of people, sleep is a very real problem. Few of us get enough of it, and even fewer get quality sleep. If you want to better rest, a tracker might help you find the root of your problem.
You can track your sleep in one of two ways: either use a cheap smartphone app
Tracking your sleep, however, has limited use. Once you figure out why you suck at getting proper rest, two things can happen. Either you fix the problem and render the tracker irrelevant, or you don't fix the problem and end up with an awfully expensive bracelet and a trip to a sleep specialist.
Do you need a sleep tracker? As a standalone device, probably not. They absolutely can help, but you shouldn't buy one all by itself. Some trackers pack in multiple metrics (see below) and include sleep as one of them. Alternatively, smartphone apps can give you a decent picture of what happens while you're unconscious and they'll only cost you a few bucks. Either of those options will probably suffice over an expensive sleep tracker.
for awhile now, so it shouldn't surprise you that many tracking devices center around fitness and
Why does this matter? Most people manage only 3,000 to 5,000 steps per day, which isn't much. Many recommendations point to 10,000 steps as a solid movement goal, but
that figure was popularized in Japan and wasn't necessarily based on solid research
. Nevertheless, we need to move to stay healthy
Despite that specific benefit, many wearable trackers come at a reasonably high cost. You often get a smartphone app along with them that add more to the experience, but you'll still pay at least $50 (and generally around $100). On the other hand, you can pick up a decent pedometer for $15-20 and just record the number yourself. Furthermore, fitness trackers can feel a lot like a solution in search of a problem. Do you actually need to move around more? Are you sure you don't get enough exercise? Before you go out and buy anything, ensure it'll help. Sometimes creating a few more good habits to keep you on your feet more will suffice.
That said, fitness trackers can prove valuable if you need a motivator on your wrist or lapel. Newer trackers offer a variety of different functions, too, so if you want to track your activity you ought to focus on one that handle more than just reporting steps to your phone. Figure out what fitness problems you want to solve in your life, and then seek out a tracker that can help you solve them. (We'll have some suggestions later in the post, so stay tuned.)
Technology can't effectively track your diet, so you have to do it yourself. (The closest option currently on the market is
this $99 fork
.) If you want to track your food intake, the most consistent and reliable
Tracking calories can only take you so far. While burning 3,500 calories you didn't eat can equal a pound of fat loss, that figure varies largely from person to person
Tracking food intake can feel like tedious chore to some while it can provide comfort to others. If you don't know how you'll react to diet tracking, just try it with a software- or notebook-based spreadsheet. If you can write down everything you eat and the total calorie cost for a week without wanting to rip your hair out, tracking can help you achieve your fat loss goals.
If you don't like the process, try a meal rating system instead. Let's say a your lunch consists of a sandwich, some vegetables, and an apple, and all of that comes out to about 450 calories. You could rate that meal a single point. If you have a meal that consists of approximately 600 calories, you could rate it two. Moving up in increments of your choice (in this case 150), you can assign appropriate point values and endeavor to eat only five points worth of food. Once you identify enough meals, you won't have to track calories specifically but can instead work on a point system. Some existing diets already do this with prepared meals, but you can handle it yourself just as easily (if not more so).
Ultimately you won't get a full picture of your diet by tracking calories. Certain other aspects-like the nutrients in the foods you consume, how full they make you feel in proportion to the number of calories they contain, and how much you enjoy eating them-matter as well, and none can be quantified. It helps to find a plan you like and can stick to
Most tracking devices relate to our bodies, but not all of them. You can also track your driving to find out if you utilize your car's fuel efficiently. In the long run this might help you save some money, but probably not. It will, however, encourage better driving habits that can keep you safer and keep your car in better condition.
While you could find a wealth of competition when tracking every other category mentioned in this post, we only know of one option for driving: the Automatic Link
After watching the data in my car for several weeks, I didn't really notice much of a difference in fuel
That said, the biggest benefit of the Automatic Link-in my opinion-has nothing to do with tracking at all. When you leave your car, it automatically marks your location so you can find it even if you forget to make a note of where you parked. If you'd rather keep your $100, a few tricks can make your brain do the same thing
What You Should Get If You Want to Track Your Life
Tracking gadgets and apps abound these days, so picking one can be tough. On a very basic level, a Trackthisforme
If you want the convenience of personal trackers on your
($99): Despite the frustrating wristband, the
Fitbitseries tracks a lot of different things in one device. The Force manages to record steps taken, distance traveled, vigorous activity, sets of stairs climbed, calories burned, and quality and quantity of sleep. It also has a clock, stopwatch, and will notify you of calls (pending a future firmware update). It also has a silent, vibrating alarm for waking you up gently. The Flex costs a bit less and mainly tracks steps/distance and sleep. I also found it was notably less accurate than the Force. That said, both devices track a lot of things in such a tiny package and only need charging about once a week. Additionally, the included smartphone and desktop apps can help you track diet and exercise as well. Alternative: Jawbone Up .
($119): For those who want to monitor other aspects of their health, Tinke can track your
heartrate, blood oxygen levels, respiratory rate, and heart rate variability. It connects to an iPhoneapp-unfortunately there's no Androidversion at the moment-by directly plugging the device into the bottom of the smartphone. From there you can just use its sensor to log your current health metrics and get an overall score as a general indicator.
(Free, Android and
iOS), Sleep Cycle ($2, iOS), and Sleep As Android ($3, Android): If you prefer to use your smartphone for sleep tracking, you can with these apps. They track your movement and try to provide a clear picture of your sleep quality and quantity. They also can wake you up gradually with silent alarms. If you don't want to buy a gadget and only want to focus on sleep tracking, this is an effective, cheap method.
- Automatic Link ($99): As previously mentioned and described in the driving section, the Automatic Link will track your driving ability and locate your car for you.
These options, by no means, cover every tracker on the market. I picked these options because they cover a lot of different metrics and come at reasonable costs for the services they provide. While their versatility should help you track what you need to track, always keep this in mind: collect only the data that will help you solve a problem. If these trackers can help you, great. If not, seek some out that will. Overall, you don't want to buy a bunch of stuff that won't improve your life or make it easier. If you plan to track everything, only do it for as long as you have something to gain.