Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

2017: Here's What I'll Be Tracking

While you can’t quite “track everything” in a life yet, 2017 is definitely a good year for self-trackers. With some common technologies, good routines and a few apps, you can effectively track some very useful life metrics today.

2016 was an especially fun year for me of self discovery around personal data and self tracking. I did a number of experiments and tracked a lot of diverse data points. I tracked the majority of my time and all of my habits too. I tried a lot of gadgets and apps in the quantified self space, and I expect to do more of the same in 2017. That said, going into 2017, the list of tools and apps to self-track is considerable. These tools make it easier than ever to track a growing percentage of your life, but it also can be a bit overwhelming.

In “How to Track a Life,”, I summarized my takeaways on best tracking tools. In short, it is possible to track an array of major metrics related to your health, your productivity and your life with only a smart phone and a few apps. It’s even easier to track with an activity tracker or smart watch, and the data gets more robust and actionable. Most of this tracking I argued can be done passively, and with a few more apps and additional manual logging, you can gain an even more comprehensive log of your life.

Here’s what I’ll be tracking in 2017 through my primary method of data collections (Apple Watch + iPhone):

2017: Here’s What I’ll Be Tracking:

Through a comprehensive survey of consumer devices and apps for tracking and multiple rounds of experimentation, I’ve decided on 20 data points that I’ll be tracking in 2017.

  1. Steps (Apple Watch)
  2. Weight (digital scale and manual logging)
  3. Heart Rate (Apple Watch + Wahoo’s Tickr X)
  4. Location (Moves app, Reporter App)
  5. Computing Time (RescueTime)
  6. Project Time (Toggl)
  7. Mobile Screen Time (Moment app)
  8. Tasks (Todoist)
  9. TV and Movie Watching (Trakt.tv)
  10. Sleep (AutoSleep app)
  11. Music (Last.fm)
  12. Running (RunKeeper)
  13. Creative Written Words (Mac Word Counter app, manual logging)
  14. Cycling (Strava)
  15. Daily Standing (Apple Watch and Activity App)
  16. Habits and Goals (via Streaks, Habitica, Productive)
  17. Books Read (GoodReads)
  18. Meditation and Mindfulness (via Apple HealthKit, Calm)
  19. Podcast Episodes and Listening Time (Pocket Casts + a DIY Podcast Tracker)
  20. Body Temperature (digital thermometer and manual logging)

Most of these 20 areas I’m able to track almost seamlessly via background passive tracking. A few require manual input. Overall, I have experimented with all of them in 2016 or before. So, while it might seem like a lot of work to collect so many data points, I’m already quite comfortable logging all of these.

A Note about Tracking My Podcast Listening

For #19, I have yet to find a great way to track my podcast listening. I’ve experimented with a number of podcast applications. The best one with some form of tracking is Pocket Casts, which I’ve written about. It is able to track your total listening time.

That said, it doesn’t provide a list of listened podcast or when nor a way to see what you listened to on what day. You felt with a raw number, but without the history and context of your patterns, I’ve been rather disappointed.

So, over the last week or tow, I’ve been working on different method to track what podcasts I listen to and when. Inspired by the like of GoodReads, Trakt.TV and Last.fm, I’ve been already built a simple to track my podcast listening and was able to note the majority of the podcast episodes I listened to in 2017.

I plan to continue on DIY tracker for podcast listening in 2017 and hope to share more on that soon.

A Final Note with a bit more on how I’ll be tracking:

There are still some limits to my goal of “tracking everything” in one’s life. You likely don’t really want or need to track everything, though that’s a topic for another day. That said, the limits and barriers to what is possible in self-tracking are decreasing everyday. Not everything can be passively tracked yet, and I’d argue that complete passive life tracking is still not quite there yet.

Your smart phone is arguably your best single tracking device, but wearables and smart watches take it a step further. Personally I have an iPhone and an Apple Watch, though I’ve done experiments with Android and wearables like Fitbit and Garmin, which provide comparable tracking opportunities.

The main consideration with any tool or tracking app is to ensure access to the raw data. This data can be powerful in comparison with other data points and gives you the ability to basic data analysis through a spreadsheet app.

For anyone else looking to go big on life tracking in 2017, here’s a short breakdown of tracking areas, especially passive vs. manual logging:

Passive, Background Tracking: RescueTime (computing time), Mac Word Counter (word count), Last.fm (music) and health data from Apple Watch (heart rate, steps, standing) can be tracked in the background.

Nearly Passive Background Tracking: Moves, which tracks location and transportation types, and Moment, which tracks iPhone screen time, are both nearly seamless and background tracking processes. Both of them require a bit of input from time to time, but it’s generally less than a minute or two per week.

Focused Services with Bonus Data for Trackers: For several services, tracking and data export is a bonus in the process of doing that thing. For example, you use an app to help you meditate and get back a record on your sessions and time. Running, cycling, and meditation are all processes I use apps to record and augment my sessions and subsequently get back useful tracking data. In all three of those cases, I sync the data to Apple Health. Todoist is a task manager that makes it easy to manage my projects and tasks, and, as bonus, I have a record of all tasks I’ve completed and when. Using IFTT, I cross post my task completed to a Google Sheet for weekly analysis.

Manual Media Logging: Excluding music via Last.fm, I’ve yet to find a service to completely passively track what I consume in terms of books, movies, and TV. Arguably Kindle should provide this and does make it rather seamless to initially log when you start and finish a book, but my attempts at hacking and data analysis on the Kindle have provided futile. For now the best option is data analysis of your highlights and bookmarks. Both GoodReads, which I use to log the books I’m reading and have read, and Trak.TV, which I use to log the movies and TV shows I’ve seen, require manual logging but it’s easy to do and helps me keep track of my media consumption and provides a history. In both cases, these tools encourage good habits.

Manual Project Time Tracking I run a web development company and my entire team tracks their work and time via Toggl. We also use project management tools (like Redmine and Jira) that help us track what we get done and have to do. Personally I’m a diligent time tracker and I have used Toggl for ages for both work and other digital and creative projects I pursue. These time logs are the richest data set I probably have on my productive life. It’s manually logged, but also part of a mental focus process where logging my time is focusing my mind. (See: “Time Tracking = Conscious Time Usage” for more on this topic.)

Habit Tracking: I’m a big believer in habit tracking, especially in the way it reinforces good behaviors. It also provides a nice mental jolt every time you check something off. I’m a fan of Habitica as a tool and community but its data model is weak, making it hard to aggregate and analyze. I personally use tools like HabitBull, Streaks, Productive and a few others to log aspects of my morning routine and my creative and health habits. Streaks is arguably the best habit tracking tracking and habit building app I’ve seen. It provides great data and visualizations, making it a great comparison to any New Year’s resolutions.

Sleep Tracking: Sleep is one of the most important data points you can log to understand your life, productivity, mood and overall well-being. Personally I’ve been able to see where not enough sleep costs me in creativity and getting things done, both professionally and in fitness goals. I’ve yet to find a perfect way to log my sleep. Several services are great but require a bit too much manual effect to use when you are, well, tired. For example, Sleep Cycle, Pillow and a few others are great smart alarm clocks with sleep tracking, but you have to remember to use them. I’m currently experimenting with passive sleep trackers like Gyroscope and AutoSleep. My sleep logs have become more complete and tracking has been easier. Both look at multiple data points to “interpret” how much you slept the night before. AutoSleep provides you the option to adjust the numbers each morning.

Completeness and Self-Tracking: How completely can you track a life?

For 2017, I’ve picked these data points to track: steps, weight, heart rate, location, computing time, project time, phone time, tasks, habits, TV and movies watched, sleep, music, running, podcast listening, writing, standing, habits, books read and time meditating. While it may seem like a lot, through self-experimentation I’ve come realize that most of these are pretty automatic processes for me to track now.

These data points are great to track in 2017 due their ease of tracking, importance in understanding one’s existence, and ability to add to the completeness in recording a life.

Ease of tracking is probably one of the most important considerations. If it is hard to track, then you won’t track it. If it’s easy to track, then you will. This is especially true in some of the most popular tracking and life logging tools, like RescueTime and step counters. Anything you simply install and forget about is best.

Importance in helping you understand your existence is another key part of self-tracking. Certain data points can really help you understand your work, your fitness and your health. We are not quite there yet in creating comprehensive models about our lives and how to optimize them, but collecting these data points and telling stories through them are starting to take us beyond mere tracking and getting us more and more close towards data-driven, insight driven self-tracking.

Completeness in recording a life might seem like a funny criteria for considering your self-tracking goals. But for me, part of what drives my passion for self-tracking is the story telling aspect. By collecting these data points and bringing them together in meaningful and beautiful ways, you get to paint some portraits of the human life. Equally this completeness in tracking a life makes it possible to gain a richer digital memory of where you were and what you were thinking, experiencing and dreaming. With much of my reading, including articles, I’ve created a digital memory, which I argue with further optimized in the coming years to help us think, analyze and create.

With all I’ve written a ton on the topic of self-tracking (and more is in the works!), I’ve come to realize that self-tracking is a process. You pick a data point, you find a way to record it consistently and you look back on the collected data points for discoveries and opportunities for change. In some cases, the data point isn’t that useful; in others it becomes a key way to craft small and large life transformations.

Hopefully these data points will give me an interesting story to share in 2017. What will you be tracking in 2017?

Good luck and happy tracking!