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):

Achieving Your Goals: Make It Measurable, Trackable and Have a Plan

Rarely do we fail at our goals because they are simply too hard or we are too busy. We in general fail at a goal because we didn’t make it a habit.

The simple answer to why some people succeed at so many things and others don’t is that successful people create feedback-driven processes and habits. They set an objective that is reasonable and has measurements to know if you are getting there. They come up with a way to track and see progress as you work on that goal or projects. And they follow and modify a expert plan to get there.

To increase your chances of achieving your goals, the formula is simple: you need to set a goal you can measure, a goal you can track, and a goal you can build a plan around.

How to Track a Life: Ultimate Guide of Tools, Apps and Techniques for Self-Tracking

What are the recommended tools to start tracking your life? What apps and devices might you use get more personal data? How to track a life?

After several months exploring self-tracking and the quantified self, I’d like to share my advice on the recommended toolkit for anyone getting started with personal tracking. This list of tools is biased towards smart phone apps since I believe it is the best way to get started and, in many cases, a smart phone is the best tool available for tracking.

While my current goal is to track everything or at least understand how complete a picture we can get of our lives through self-tracking, I also realize that most folks aren’t quite as obsessive as me. In the past months, we’ve looked at tracking steps, getting a record of what music you listen to, how often you meditate, total podcast listening time, which habits you are checking off, what TV shows and movies you are watching, how you spend time on your mobile phone or on your computer, and even how to manually life log or record anything else you want to track.

I’ve diligently tried a lot of tracking technologies with an emphasis on consumer tracking on a smart phone or wearable. Hopefully this article can provide fodder for personal exploration into some new area of self-exploration with data. I hope you enjoy and happy tracking!

Here are my tips for setting up a tool kit for your own self-tracking.

Living in Qingcheng: Digital Nomad in a Chinese Mountain Town

This post was original published on ChengduLiving.com. Thanks to Just Charlie for building and cultivating this great site on life on Chengdu.

I’m writing this from the second floor of my three-story villa. Above the cobbled roof, it’s blue skies with a tinge of puffy white clouds. It’s a hot day but cool fresh air greeted me during my morning jog amongst rice fields and corn rows. In the background sits the ancient mountains called Qingchengshan (青城山), and since late November 2015, I’ve called this place my home.

“Home” has a more nuanced meaning for me after so long abroad. I’ve spent more than a decade abroad now. Over one third of my life outside my home country. I’m an American, but over the last decade of so, I’ve spend less than a few weeks a year in the United States.

My long stays in great cities of Europe, South America and Asia and my journeys in-between have made me more cosmopolitan, more of a digital nomad. I’m not homesick or travel weary. I’m passionate and enjoy wandering the world. It’s my identity baggage.

After having called Barcelona, Hangzhou, Paris, Shanghai, Strasbourg, Chicago, and even Chengdu at times as my home, I’ll admit that Qingchengshan and even China might seem like an odd choice for a multilingual, cosmopolitain American. And it was.

So, how does one end up living in a Chinese mountain town and what’s it like? Here’s the tale.

Documenting a Life, One Photo at a Time

I want to think about photos and the process of self-documentation. I want think about documenting a life, one photo at a time.

A couple months ago I added a new experiment to my list of habits and routines and part of my quest to track everything: take and share a photo from each and every day.

A Liquid Life: Hydration Tracking or Some Science and Self-Experiments in Measurement

My body felt flat and my mind was off. This run wasn’t going as planned. I wasn’t exactly thirsty since I had been drinking water since the start, but my body wasn’t responding well. I had woken up late or, better said, went to bed late after a late-night client call. It was sunny and warm and I wanted to run with it.

The sun was up when I finally got up and on the road at 9am. It was getting humid and hot already. Perhaps over 25C outside in the sunny parts. I had my gear and even my water-backpack. I was aiming for a 13k (8mi) run over an hour. But my body and conditions soon dictated otherwise. My mind and body weren’t right.

So, I slowed down considerably, took a couple breaks and cut my run down to one of my standard routes: 7.5k run. over 49:34 at a pace 6:36. I had run too fast in these conditions. For a medium run like this, the effects were noticeable: general weakness, slight dizziness, heart palpitations, confusion and sweating. I was dehydrated.

Whether you are a runner or hydration has an important effect on all of our lives. In my case, this hot day run left me tired in a different way. The rest of the day I was off and even the next day I didn’t feel great. The obvious lesson as a runner was that I needed to run earlier on a hot day and if I was going to run in the heat, I needed to slow down to run without danger.

The broader lesson for me was an exploration about hydration, tracking what I drink and even a few experiments to help improve my exercise and everyday life with different drinks.

In this post we are going to look briefly at hydration. We will look at the science of hydration and some numbers scientists point to in terms of how much water you should drink. As our main goal is “tracking everything,” we will then look at why and how to track hydration. There are surprisingly a lot of apps and tech for tracking hydration and liquid consumption, but I think the main challenge before you even start is figuring how the measurements of your drinking vessels. Once you know, it’s easy to log your water and other drinking through apps like iHydrate and Waterlogged. Finally we will look at some of the key takeaways I’ve learned about tracking hydration.

How to Track the Articles You Read and Augment Your Digital Memory

Let’s future proof of digital memory by tracking the articles we read.

A lot of what we read today are internet articles. We rarely read physical newspapers. Instead, we consume information from our computers, phones, tablets and e-readers. It has all become digital or a lot of it at least.

Because so much of what we do is connected to the digital via devices and sensors, we can conceivable track everything. From steps, heart rate, sleep, and food to time, place and mood, it’s getting easier and easier to self-track. Socrates’ challenge to “know thy self” now has concrete data to base that philosophical survey upon.

Like the books we read, the articles we read constitute an intimate portrait into our mental lives. Whether you are consuming all the latest gossip or the upcoming IPO and tech gadgets, what you read is a significant portion of how you think of yourself. Like movies and music, articles and books are the backdrop upon which a thinking person exists.

Fortunately, for the self-tracker and knowledge worker, it’s easy to capture and track the things you read. With a few tools and simple processes, you can keep track of all the articles you read. You can know exactly how much and what you’ve read over time. Equally you can start to develop what I call your “digital memory” or “digital archive.”

In this post we are going to look at few tools (like Pocket and Evernote) to track what you read. All of these applications provide a way of storing articles to “read later.” By being disciplined about checking-in articles you read now on a browsers, these tools can be used to record the all articles you read. Or, if you prefer, all the key articles you read.

Furthermore, by tweaking your approach and setting up a few additions, you can measure your article reading. You can know how articles you read each week. If self-improvement or just reading more is one of your missions, you can aim to increase this number.

Moment: Automatic Track and Know Your iPhone Usage

How addict am I to my phone? How do I check it? How often am I on it? These are some of the questions an iPhone tracking app called “Moment” is helping to answer.

If you think back to the “old days” of pre-iPhone and pre-Android days, times were different. Men were men. Women were women. And phones were phones. The big player was Nokia. Back then we used our phones to make calls and send text messages. And, if we were lucky, there was some simple program or game like a calculator and slither.

These days are gone. Today we carry around little computers connected to the internet. Smart phones broke the barrier between work and everywhere else and they made it possible to be entertained, distracted or connected socially anywhere and anytime. And we do. Heads and necks aching from so much hunching over, eyes blood shot from all day usage.

We spend a lot of time on our phones. Ironically we don’t even realize how much time we spend on our phones. According to a piece in the Huffington Post called “You Probably Use Your Smartphone Way More Than You Think,” “New research conducted by British psychologists shows that young adults use their smartphones roughly twice as much as they estimate that they do.” So while you think you are only spending a few minutes here and there, the time adds up.

The study goes on to cite some startling numbers. The researchers discovered that young adults spent on average five hours per day using their phone or “roughly one-third of their total waking hours.”

So, what can we do to better know how we spend our time on our phones?

If you are in an Android phone, you are in luck. You can install the background tracker RescueTime or BreakFree to record and track your usage. RescueTime in particular is the same tool I recommend for tracking your computer time. It’s also one of my favorite overall self-tracking methods.

If you are on iPhone, it’s a bit more of a challenge. Fortunately recent upgrades in iOS 9 and iOS 10 have exposed battery usage time so you can manually check your stats. We looked at in “How to Get Your iPhone Usage Data” and found ways to calculate your app usage in a day or over a week.

This manual solution isn’t ideal. Fortunately, there are a few automatic apps to help you track and understand your iPhone time.

The best of the bunch is Moments. Using clever GPS location tracking and parsed battery usage stats, Moments helps you realize how much time you spend on your phone and where that time is going.

In this post, we are going to look at how to track your iPhone time with Moments and some of the numbers we get back. Ultimately they can help you understand your mobile phone time and, if you want, make behavioral changes.

Tracking Your Book Reading, Data Points to the Soul

When I was a child my mother bribed me to read books. I believe the going rate was about dollar a book. Unemployed and still living with my parents (I was only 8 or 9 years old at the time), I did my best to earn a steady income by reading. Visits to the library and the added bonus of “pan pizza” deals from Pizza Hut kept me fueled. I got hooked on reading.

I was an addicted reader in high school and college, and reading remains one of my most active and regular habits.

According to my records, I’ve read over 760 books, and, if I follow through on reading regularly, I have no doubt I’ll hit my 2000 book reading challenge in the next 20 to 25 years.

As a bit of an “OCD” documentarist and hardcore reader, I’ve been reading and tracking the books I’ve read for sometime. I remember using an early service on Facebook via Living Social to log the books I read. I eventually switched to Goodreads as my primary means to track my reading, though I also have lists in Evernote and spreadsheets to help organize my reading.

While I shun most social media and rarely use Facebook or Twitter, I track my reading and share it on Goodreads. It’s ironic that I don’t often post an update status on my life, but there is a public url showing what I have recently read or am currently reading.

To me, it feels pretty profound and meaningful to hide from social networks but to make public what you read.

There a lot of ways to read book today from your tablet or phone to ereader or even a physical book. Unfortunately, in spite of all of the tech to read, the experience of tracking what you read is not quite as easy. At present there is no perfect solution for seamlessly tracking the books you read from your ereader.

In this post, we will look at tracking the books you read. We will briefly look tech challenges to seamless tracking of what you read. Then we will see some approaches to manual tracking using a spreadsheet or using a service like Goodreads. With this data, we can dig into the key data points about reading, including our reading trends and tracking a positive habit or goal like books read.

Finally we will conclude with a reflection on the intimacy of knowing what someone reads and sharing this publicly. For example, I’d argue that knowing what books someone reads might be more revealing that all of the garbage someone shares on Facebook.

How to Get Your iPhone Usage Data

How much do you use your phone? Which apps do you spend the most time on? Are you addicted to Candy Crush or some other game? How often are you checking your email? Just what are you doing on your phone?

These are some of the questions we all want to answer about our phone usage. Unfortunately, Apple devices can make this a bit of a pain.

While an iPhone is an amazing device for tracking steps and loads of other health data, Apple’s permissions have historically made it hard to track the overall phone usage. Unlike an Android, you don’t have access to a lot of underlying activity on your phone. Fortunately, there is an easy workaround for any self-tracker looking to know more about their mobile usage.

Hidden in your iPhone preferences is section called “Battery” and it contains a lot of interesting information. Technically it’s recording how certain apps consume your battery. But with the click of a setting, you can suddenly see all of your iPhone usage data as an amount of time. You can even know your actual screentime on these individual apps.

In this post, we will how you how to find this area and some simple techniques to log your usage as well as how you might use this data for self-improvement.