Minding the Borderlands

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

A Year in Self-Tracking: Q1 2017 Update

One my goals for this year was self-tracking. I decided to log about 20 data points and observe this data throughout the year.

Covering areas of my productivity, my time, my health, my body, my fitness and a few others random areas, I log my data into an assortment of systems. The majority of the data goes into Apple Health, but I also use aggregators (Gyroscope) and tools (Zenobase, Spreadsheets) to analyze and understand the data.

When it comes to tracking anything, you need also engage with the data. Whether you are trying to understand your fitness training or gauge your productivity changes, simply logging your data isn’t enough. You need to make periodic checks on what you are logging and engage in small experiments.

Recently I had a bit of a tracker’s nightmare. My data in Apple Health became inaccessible. As a self-tracker in the Apple device universe, my main storage engine is Apple’s HealthKit. I log various vitals like my heart rate, record my body weight and temperature and store basic workout data all in Apple Health. Unfortunately at the end of last month, this data stopped working and it got me thinking.

In this reflective post, I want to provide a few updates and ideas on self-tracking. While mostly positive, I’ve had a few setback too. Mainly though I’ve learned the importance of engaging with my data and tracked data points, so that my choices and decisions are informed by what I am tracking.

Apple Health Data Gone?

After three great months of tracking and data observations, I’ve run into my first major data tracking disaster. My Apple Health data stopped working. While the data may or may not be there, the data is no longer accessible in the Apple HealthKit app nor via apps that pull data from Apple Health. Similarly I’m unable to log data to Apple Health. In this two-fold disaster I can neither get my legacy data from the last 3 years nor add to it.

I’m still working with Apple Support on a solution, but restoring from previous backups hasn’t worked nor is there a simple way to reset Apple Health without losing my data. As an obsessive self-tracker, it has been chilling to be stuck in a situation where I would lose so much data. Even though I have backups, those have failed so far too.

On a practical level, I’ve come to realize just how fragile Apple’s Health data system is. Even though you can have backups, you don’t have an online portal for your data. That means if you device or your backups run into a problem, your data could be gone. Obviously Apple takes privacy quite seriously, but the lack of a web portal for your data means you are depend largely on the local data itself.

Fortunately I sync the majority of my data to Gyroscope, an app and site, which aggregates multiple data sources into a cohesive narrative. I do have some previous backups of my Apple Health data. Overall the situation is not great and has resulted in (at the time of writing) both losing access to three years of data and the inability to log data since then.

On a personal level, this event made me realize how dangerous self-tracking can be as cornerstone habit. For me tracking isn’t merely just a thing I do; it is a way I define who I am. That in itself is neither good nor bad, but when technology fails, it means my personal self takes a hit. Over the past week or so I’ve thought several times about how I shouldn’t take my data so seriously. That tracking isn’t really the point or, as I’ll put it in an later section, the point is to be data-driven. In fact, I remain data-driven in other ways in spite of losing my Apple Data.

Actually I’ve come to realize that I’ve already been significantly changed from years and years of general tracking and more recently several months of focused tracking. Behaviorally tracking is a habit for me and the data is a positive vibe I get out of it, but tracking has also changed my behaviors too. I’ve gotten healthier with regular running, cycling, mobility and strength training. I just completed my first marathon and tracking was a big part of that too.

While I’m hopeful that in the coming days I’ll manage to get my data back, if not, I’ll be fine. I have a lot of backups and the most I’d lose is a few areas of data and other data is already in systems like Zenobase. If worse comes to worst, I’ll start fresh. The value of the data isn’t just the sheer history but the short run experiments too. My engagement with the data hasn’t changed.

Tracking Means Engaging With Your Data

I’ll admit that I’m a rather obsessive self-tracker. Besides tracking it, I regularly look at this data to observe different changes and attempt to find possible correlations. Actually though part of the value in tracking is attempting to use that data. If you are merely logging it, then it’s merely another hoarding or collector’s fetish.

These attempts at personal data analysis you might call trials in becoming “data-driven,” by which I mean finding certain data points that can lead towards betterment and self-transformation. In fact the point is not just to collect more information or to get more data but to use that data towards informed actions.

In his book “Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business,” Charles Duhigg looks at a powerful example of teachers at a particularly troubled school who took ownership over the data on students and made it transformative. While previously the teachers had lots of information on students, they were overwhelmed by it and they were using it. This changed, he writes, with new program that:

“focused on changing how teachers made decisions in their classrooms. The reforms were built around the idea that data can be transformative, but only if people know how to use it. To change students’ lives, educators had to understand how to transform all the spreadsheets and statistics and online dashboards into insights and plans. They had to be forced to interact with data until it influenced how they behaved.” (pg. 225)

Specifically, teachers created a kind of “data” room, where they used simple paper and pencil methods to chart their students, note trends, attempt to group students and measure the success of the changes they implemented. “Rather than simply receiving information, teachers were forced to engage with it…By scribbling out statistics and testing preconceptions, teachers had figured out how to use all the information they were receiving.” (pg. 226)

This is an important point for self-tracking and being data-driven: you need to use that data somehow. Personally I use my self-tracking data in a number of ways, but my most conscious way is during my weekly review.

I have been doing Weekly Reviews in some form for over four years. I’ve experimented with different templates and formats, but, as I summarize in “The Power of the Weekly Review,”, the process is two-fold: look back at the past week and look towards the week to come. This consistent process has helped me get better at my work and my life.

Over the years my weekly reviews have added the data I track to help me better understand how my past week was. Specifically data points like my productive time (RescueTime), my project time (Toggl) and my completed tasks (Todoist) provide a way to see how much I accomplished in a week and the time involved there. Similarly I aggregate my tracked workouts to see how I am progressing in my training or maintaining my health.

While this act does take about 30 minutes a week, I almost always feel much more conscious and much more centered about what I am doing. In fact, I’d argue that bringing more data into my weekly reviews has made them more effective too.

One short example is that since I started using Todoist as my main task manager, I noticed there might be an area of improvement by focusing more of my time on higher priority tasks. While my overall weekly completed tasks remains consistent, I became more conscious about the idea of prioritizing my high priority tasks. By increasing my completion rate of those items, my productivity went up too.

Let’s look at another area where data helped me understand a negative trend and implement a positive intervention.

A Health Improvement with Data: Delayed HRV Recovery, Weight Loss, Lower Mental Energy?

For over a year I’ve been running regular, and for the past 6 months I’ve been training for my first marathon, which I completed in late March of 2017. Running a marathon is an incredible experience and the training aspect forces us to become much more focused and organized than I had imagined.

Running like other physical fitness activities is also a great area for self-tracking. In my case, my running involved tracking the workouts themselves (how far, how long, how fast) as well as my heart rate during the session. I also log my weight each morning and do a special heart rate check called Heart Rate Variability (HRV), which measures how much physiological stress your body. HRV is a particularly interesting biomarker I hope to share more about soon.

All of this running and training takes a toll on the body. You are adding a load on your body. It’s a cyclic process of adding loads and taking time to recover to gain muscle and improved endurance. Unfortunately if you aren’t careful, you can actually hurt yourself in a few different ways.

The most common is overuse and overtraining injuries. Runners fail to develop a strong enough body to handle the increase mileage and things breakdown. I saw this in my early training following my first 5k. Subsequently I added more mobility and strength training and I have been largely injury-free since then.

Unfortunately, I started to have some health issues in my final months before my marathon. While I was traveling in Cambodia, I got sick which cost me several weeks of training. But beyond that sickness, I was noticing that I was off. In my data I noticed that my weight and heart rate data were trending somewhat negatively. I was losing weight at a dangerous rate and my HRV reading, which track my recovery, were rather low. Combined with subjective recordings about lower energy and mental energy, I realized that I needed to take some sort of measures.

After thinking more about the weight situation, I realized that most likely I wasn’t getting enough nutrition. I had increased my training to such an extent that I needed to fix my diet more. So, I adjusted my diet to increase my calories and protein intake. Specifically I added a daily shake of whey supplemental protein powder, soy milk, and bananas (or other fruits).

I started feeling better. The following weeks my weight situation improved and HRV recovery improved as well. In spite of an increased training load leading up to my first marathon, my physical and mental improved too.

By tracking multiple data points, I was able to notice certain trends that got me thinking. After considering a few options, I went with an intervention that I felt made the most sense. In following days, weeks and months I was able to feel better subjectively and seeing improvements in my objectively tracked data too. This is the power of being data-driven.

Conclusion: Measure Your Health and Productivity

In spite of a recent data disaster with Apple Health, I’ve derived a lot of value from logging so many diverse data points. With over three months of data logged in multiple areas, let’s look at which data points remain important and which don’t. I’ve divided this by category.

Productivity: Positive

Tracking my Computing Time (RescueTime), Project Time (Toggl) and Tasks Completed (Todoist) remain the foundation of knowing how productive I am. Tactically the best driver is tasks completed since if I am getting key tasks done, it’s almost impossible to imagine that I’m spending my computer or project time poorly.

Creative Writing: Mixed

My main creative pursuit is writing. I track my writing time using a project in Toggl. I’ve been logging my Written Words using Mac Word Counter app. Finally I’m able to see my overall numbers in terms of published pieces, drafts and ideas using Evernote tags.

So far I’ve yet to derive a ton of value from this tracking, except that I am consistent in publishing regular posts. Writing hasn’t been a primary focus this year, though that is changing and I likely need to find a better way to gauge my writing progress from what I am tracking.

Health Tracking: Mixed with a Few Positive Metrics

I track various aspects of my general health, including Steps (Apple Watch), Sleep (AutoSleep app), Body Temperature (digital thermometer and manual logging), Daily Standing (Apple Watch and Activity App) and Weight (digital scale and manual logging). I also use a heart rate check called Heart Rate Variability (HRV).

  • While steps are lauded as our best way to better health, I don’t find steps to be that beneficial, especially if you are a runner or get other more intense experience.
  • In contrast, Daily Standing has been a good metric and reminder to move more regularly throughout the day.
  • Body Temperature has not been that useful of a metric, except during a sickness, so largely once you have a baseline number (or range), then daily recordings are not that important (except if you are trying to get pregnant, which I am not).
  • Body weight can be useful but you probably don’t need to obsess about it. A few recording per week and done in a consistent manner should provide enough data to be useful.

For me the two most useful metrics on my health are how much sleep and my Heart Rate Variability (HRV). Getting good quality and consistent sleep has made me happier and more productive, and according to certain research, it also means I’ll live longer.

Heart Rate Variability or HRV is a topic worthy of its own post. To summarize HRV measures the variability of beat-to-beat heart rate interval. Generally, if you see more variability, then you are in a healthier, more recovered state, while less variability indicates a more stressed physiological state. The causes can be a wide range of factors since it’s tied to your nervous system. Poor HRV could be a result of sickness, drinking, travel, a hard run, overtraining, bad air, work stress, etc. For me, HRV is a reliable gauge on my overall health and my training partners.

Fitness Tracking: Positive

Along with HRV and Sleep, I believe tracking your workouts is another key area for measuring your health and fitness. Specifically this year I am tracking my Active and Resting Heart Rate as well as my running, cycling, mobility and strength training.

I recently realized that my run tracking has some serious discrepancies between runs logged in RunKeeper and how the data is synced into Strava. Overall, this discrepancy and problems with Apple Health lead me to take a more general approach to workout tracking. Using SportTracks and Spreadsheets I now have a regular log of my workouts.

Whether the goal is general health maintenance or training for a distance or race, tracking your workouts has a lot of value. You can look at your active heart rate to ensure you train appropriately and avoid overtraining. You can look at your pace and distance numbers to see if you are improving as expected too. For me tracking my workouts also helps hold me accountable.

Media Consumption: Neutral

I track my TV and Movie Watching (Trakt.tv), Podcast Episodes and Listening Time (Pocket Casts + a DIY Podcast Tracker), Books Read (GoodReads), and Music (Last.fm). Overall media tracking is about having a record rather than specific data analysis and interventions. These tools make it easy to look back and see my patterns and what I read, watched or listened to and when.

I’m not a heavy watcher of TV so tracking my TV and Movie doesn’t come with much benefit besides helping me stay below a maximum of around 5-7 hours per week.

The two exceptions might be book reading and podcast listening. Since both those activities are tied to my studies and self-improvement I do make an effort to ensure I’m reading and listening to beneficial stuff. I don’t find the existing tools and trackers are that helpful though. This is partially why I’ve been building my own podcast listening and tracking app.

My Misc Trackers

I also use and track a number of random areas with some mix benefits.

I track my Mobile Screen Time (Moment app) and this has been helpful in making me less addicted to my phone. I’d say my phone gets its most use when I travel. Otherwise I use it to log a few things, meditate, track my workouts and listen to podcasts.

I log my location and where I am using Moves app and Reporter App. This is largely to provide a record of my past rather than some angle on self-improvement. I still find these tools weak in aggregate for how I want to visualize my life, but the data tracking is there.

Besides helping to ensure I do this every day, I’m not sure that using a technology is the best way to measure my meditation and mindfulness. I currently log these sessions via Apple HealthKit and Calm. My main target is 5 minutes a day of morning meditation and silence. Long term it would be interesting to see how increasing how much I mediate affects other areas but for now once a day each morning works for me.

I’m a big believer in using tools to help with managing our tasks, habits and goals. I currently use an iOS app Productive to log different aspects of my morning routine and I use Streaks app to check-in a few key areas like meditation, mobility session, writing and strength training. The Streaks app works on the Apple Watch and I get good data after. Overall things are trending well which is the main point.

Final Thoughts

It’s important to know why you do certain things. Honestly this data disaster with my Apple Health data hurt in a way, but it also made me reevaluate why I track and realize that I have already gotten a ton of benefits through consistent tracking. Losing some data is that important in comparison to the behavior changes I’ve created.

I’d argue that everyone should track their lives in some way, and I’d recommend having at least one tracker for productivity and one for your health. You don’t need all of the metrics I measure but by focusing on one habit for productivity (like your morning routine or tasks completed) and one habit for health (like steps, running or whatever), you have largely captured the foundation of being a healthy and positive human being.

Best of luck and happy tracking!

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