When any business makes a major change, its managers turn to numbers. They track data to discover what works and what doesn’t. This same strategy can improve your personal life, as the quantified self movement shows. Quantified selfers analyze and track data about everything from their diets to their sleep habits to optimize their lives. But all the information out there can overwhelm novices. Our beginner’s guide will help you track and improve your life – safely and healthily.
1. Start small.
It’s tempting to dive into tracking every aspect of your life, but that’s a surefire way to overwhelm yourself. Instead, select one aspect of your life to improve by tracking. Eating healthy is a common goal, but what does that mean to you? Select a smaller achievement – e.g. I want to stop eating processed foods, and work towards it for a month or two.
2. Pick the right tool.
There term quantified self was coined in 2010, but the act of tracking yourself has been around for longer. If you’ve ever balanced a checkbook, congratulations! You’re already part of the quantified self movement. Of course, quantified self has become a lot more high-tech in recent years. So it’s important to find the right tool for you, whether that’s a smartphone app or a basic pen-and-paper log.
3. Learn where you are.
One of the biggest mistakes quantified self newbies make is changing their habits from Day 1. But you can’t generate an accurate picture of what you accomplish unless you know exactly where you started from. The simple act of tracking a habit will make you more aware of it and thus urge you to improve. But resist this impulse for at least a few days. It’s important to establish a baseline from which you can measure your future progress.
4. Consider this a science experiment.
The best way to learn how different actions affect you is to conduct controlled experiments. Don’t worry, this isn’t as scary as it sounds. It just means that you should only change one aspect of your life at a time. Trying to be more productive? Don’t get up earlier, institute a no-meetings policy and start eating brain-supplementing foods. Pick one and try it for a month to learn how it affects your productivity. Sure, your journey to high-productivity will be slower – but you’ll also know exactly which actions help most.
5. Aggregate your data.
Unfortunately, tracking is prone to experimental errors. You might think that eating breakfast helps you lose weight, and not realize that you actually eat less when you’re less stressed. But once you start tracking multiple aspects of your life, there’s a pretty simple way to pick up on any trends – just start aggregating your data. TicTrac is a great free web service that will send you charts based on information from various data streams.
6. Tracking isn’t magic.
Tracking is a great push to alter a habit – at first. But unless you’re a true data lover, the excitement of your new toy will eventually wear off. Find motivation other than tracking, or risk getting bored quickly. One great way to do so is to enlist your friends. Say you’re trying to get up earlier each morning. Text a friend who’s already an early riser once you wake up – your commitment to your friend will keep you in line. Want to eat healthier? Convince your roommate to do it with you.
7. Don’t take it too far.
On one hand, tracking is great because it’s purely data. You can’t lie to it, and it won’t coddle you. On the other hand, tracking can be cruel for this exact reason. If your self-esteem becomes tied to your tracking, and you feel worthless because you didn’t run today, it might be time to take a break. Don’t let tracking consume your life.
8. Don’t forget to act.
Tracking is worthless if you don’t change your habits as a result. Don’t get too caught up in analyzing data and forget to change your own habits. Otherwise, you’re just wasting time.