Minding the Borderlands

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

Heart Rate Variability: The Amazing Biomarker to Understanding Our Body, Health and Fitness

When it comes to health and fitness tracking, one of my favorite health data points is Heart Rate Variability.

Appreciated as “HRV, “Many doctors and athletes consider heart rate variability to be one of the best biomarkers for understanding how your body, health, and fitness are affected by a whole host of factors like training load, sickness, alcohol, nutrition, sleep, and air quality to name a few. Psychologists have even used HRV through activities like meditation and guided breathing to treat psychological issues. While it’s mostly been used by elite and Olympic athletes to gauge their training stimulus, load and recovery, it’s increasingly become a useful data point for the recreational athlete too.

In short, Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is a great biomarker to understand your life.

What can HRV data be used for? HRV can be used to help you look at how certain lifestyle changes affect you. For example, by measuring HRV, you can see correlations in how a previous day of hard training, a night of poor sleep or excessive drinking among a few notable factors affects your HRV value the next day. Over longer periods you can use HRV readings to see other chronic trends in your health, wellness and fitness.

For self-tracker and quantified self enthusiasts, HRV data provides a reference point for understanding aspects of your life and your self-experiments. The challenge is that you can’t run a controlled experiment when your sample size is only you. Fortunately, with HRV it becomes possible to measure the effect of life changes in terms of your HRV. For example, HRV data can be a good data point to measure the effect of different training or nutrition regimes.

One of the other great features of Heart Rate Variability is that it is a particularly easy biomarker to measure. Using either your phone or a chest strap heart rate monitor, there are several services that can enable you to log your reading to your smart phone and then help you track changes over time. In about a minute, you can log your HRV biomarker. There are also several running watches and wearables that provide an estimation of your HRV too.

As a slightly obsessive self-tracker, I measure many aspects of my life, including my productivity time, my workouts, my tasks, my weight and many others. Personally, I measure my HRV each morning and have seen connections and correlations between several aspects of life and my HRV scores. For example, during my recent marathon training and 42k run, I saw noticeable changes in my HRV readings, and, as a regular traveler, it is easy to spot how long and short travel affects us physiologically.

So, what is HRV? What are you measuring with HRV? What does this particular measurement signal when it comes to your health and fitness? What are a some things that affect your HRV and how can you see this in your data? And finally why should HRV matter in general and for you personally?

In this long post, we are going to explain what is HRV and how it is measured (both practically as a user and scientifically as a biomarker). We will look at why it is important to log the context with your HRV and some of the factors that can affect your HRV day to day and chronically over time.

This post is intended as a beginner’s intro to HRV, so we’ve left out the deeper science behind HRV, including the automatic nervous system. I plan to provide more on this and demographic HRV comparisons in a later post.

Obviously the body and its interaction are complicated. Yet HRV remains an incredibly interesting data point to better understanding yourself. Let’s dig in!

Tracking Your Tasks With Todoist

The best expression of being productive is completing tasks. Even better is completing tasks in pursuit of your most important projects and needs. Quite frankly, productivity is about getting things done.

But how can you measure your productivity? Is about productive time? Efficiently getting things done or productive output? Or something else?

Arguably, the two biggest areas that are typically obsessed by self-trackers and quantified self enthusiasts are health and productivity. Tracking health might be captured in logged workouts, body composition, step counters, heart rate monitors, HRV, blood testing or glucose monitoring among others. These are essentially a mix of biomarkers and metrics gauge how health or fit you are, and, to a certain extent, they are objective measurements. They can be linked to medical research, compared with general populations and demographics and charted over time.

For productivity, it is much more difficult to reach objectivity. The metrics of productivity depend on what you do, how you spend your time and the things are trying to achieve. Everyone is different, and so the measurements of being “productive” varies from person to person.

While there might be the same level of shared biomarkers when it comes to productivity, fortunately there are a few tools that make it possible to track several areas of your life, like your time usage, computer usage and tasks completed. By using these tracking tools and tweaking the settings, you can come up with your own personal guidelines to score how productive you are and were over a day, a week or even a year.

This post will look at productivity and the tracking of your tasks. Specifically by using a task management tool like Todoist, you can pull out your data on completed task and clearly notice periods of higher productivity, by which I mean periods where you are getting more things done.

When it comes to tracking and personal data, it’s also important to engage with your data. Merely tracking does little to improve or change your behavior. So we will also look at a few ways I engage with my tracked tasks data to improve my productivity.

NOTE: This post focuses on Task Tracking with Todoist. If you are interested in knowing more about using Todoist as part of a productivity system like GTD, please see my post, “Getting Things Done With Todoist”.

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.

Building a Podcast Tracker App: Dev Update and Other Podcast Listening News

I love me some podcasts. And this year I’ve been getting a healthy dose of podcast listening in. According to my count, I’ve already logged 2 days, 7 hours and 55 minutes of podcast listening so far in 2017.

To track and log this, I’m currently building my own podcast listening tracker.

It’s been almost 3 months since I first shared the first version of my podcast listening tracker and what I was up to. We’ve got some new features and more users. So it’s time to share a few updates.

In this post, first, I’ll share a bit about #trypod month and a few of my favorite new podcast listening discoveries. Second, I’ll provide an update on development and progress. And, finally I wanted to share a bit more about what’s next.

Getting Things Done With Todoist

The true goal of productivity is to get your most important shit done. It’s about completing the tasks that drive value to your projects, business and life.

In order to get tasks, projects and important goals done, you have to be organized. You have to deal with a world of too much information and endless distractions. You need to process, priorize and execute.

I’ve read a lot of books about work and productivity, but arguably the most influential on me (and a lot of other high functioning executives and entrepreneurs) is David Allen’s “Getting Things Done.” It was a game changer for me personally. It’s a book I highly recommend and have gifted the most.

Like a lot of modern digital worker, I have struggled with all of the work and information I have to deal with. Figuring out your priorities and managing all of the stuff is hard. This is situation is the challenge of most modern digital workers, as Allen points out. His book and methodology pushed me get dominion over the “stuff” and create a system to get it out of my head and into a process.

The GTD system leads us to a better “product” of productivity: getting things done or, to put it another way, completed tasks, project and goals. The point is to get tasks done and projects advanced. In turn, this product of productivity (completed tasks) become a great measurement of your productivity too.

When it comes to implementing David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” or GTD methodology, there are a lot of options. The book itself is fairly agnostic about a preferred tool and approach. Allen’s website lists several options from software (like Wunderlist, OneNote and Evernote) to physical notebooks. Most of the book looks at a non-digital approach of using paper, folders, file cabinets, and a calendar.

For the more digitally inclined, there are a lot options for managing your checklist, todo list and projects. A comprehensive review of checklist and task managers is beyond this post. Personally, in my first adaptation of GTD I used Evernote. By adapting Evernote, a flexible tool for handling notes and media, I created my own GTD task manager. For more on that, see “The GTD Way: Managing Your Tasks and Information with Evernote”.

About a year ago, I decided to switch to Todoist, a multiplatform task and project manager. It’s a tool with a bent towards GTD but also general good piece of software for handling tasks, projects and goals. My impetus for switching was tracking. My GTD Evernote System worked great, but as a slightly obsessed self-tracker, I wanted more data.

In this post we will look at David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” methodology and how it applies to getting things done using Todoist. We will talk about a few best practices for using Todoist as your primary tool for task and project management.

Hopefully it can help you get better at mastering all of the stuff and focus on the “getting things done” part.

In the conclusion (and in more detail in a later post), we will dig into all of the tracking data on tasks and how you can use this to measure your productivity from small tasks to complex, multistep projects.

Self-Tracking on Apple Watch 2 - a Review

I got my Apple Watch a few months ago. It is touted in the quantified self community as one of the best things for tracking your life. Yet, it sucks in a lot of ways. For many it might not even be a very necessary addition to your digital device arsenal. But for self-tracking (and a confessed obsessive self-tracker like me), the Apple Watch is an amazing addition to my tracking toolkit.

In spite of its imperfections (and there are many), the Apple Watch is a great device for self-tracking, especially tracking your health. It’s not a great smart watch in the sense that it can replace my mobile phone, but as an activity and life tracker, the Apple Watch allows you to record several meaningful health data points.

I’m able to know my resting heart rate throughout the day, my main movements (steps, hourly standing, and my workouts) and how much I sleep. With the Activty Circles or Rings, Apple’s designers have provided several a good way to visualize a healthy and active day. In pursuit of avoid excessive phone usage, the watch can easily be configured to provide a life dashboard of your data.

In this post, I’ll be reviewing the Apple Watch 2 with a focus on self-tracking. I’ll also cover some of its limitations and problem points, and I’ll share some of my configurations and optimizations for avoiding turning your smart watch into another distracting machine. In the end, I’ll share my way of using the watch as a key component in pursuit of “tracking everything.”

How to Track Your Sleep

A lack of sleep can seep into nearly all aspects of your life. You become less able to be mentally focused, make good decisions and process complex situations. Your body and health takes a hit. Your physical training suffers as you don’t get enough recovery. Your mood and social relationships suffer too as you are unable to engage with others as fully since you are tired.

While we know we need to get enough sleep, how much is enough?

Even before we chew that question, first off, how much are we getting? And, secondly, how does a certain amount of sleep affect other areas of our life? For example, how is our productivity, mood, physical training, etc. correlated to the amount and quality of our sleep?

Over the past several years and especially the last couple months I’ve been obsessively tracking my life. By documenting different trackable areas of our lives, I’ve collected a lot of interesting data to compare and learn for. I’ve assembled a toolkit to passively track many aspects of my life, like computer time, steps, heart rate, and music listening among others. Besides just being interesting to learn about, this data has empowered me to be more “data-driven,” i.e to work smart, live healthy and be happy.

I also track my sleep. By tracking a range of aspects of my life along with how much I sleep, I’ve been able to see correlations between my sleeping patterns and higher performance in other areas of my life. This is particularly true when it comes to physical training, focused work, productivity. But it is also subjectively positive as well. I feel good, energized and happy.

We often say that one way to gain a better quality of life is to sleep more. And, like a lot of goals, if you can’t measure it, you can’t really change it. Fortunately there are a lot of great options to track your sleep. Along with steps and activity trackers, sleep is one of the most tracked areas today.

In this post, we are going to look at some ways to track your sleep. Your initial goal should be to reach a baseline number of just how much sleep you are getting. Hopefully you should also have a new habit that makes tracking your sleep passive and hands-off.

Once you are tracking, you become accountable and can take measures to ensure you get enough sleep for your heath, mental clarity and creating the best version of you. We will look at deeper sleep analysis and data correlations in a later post.

Some Great Books on Running: Personal Reviews, Takeaways and Quotes From Runner-Writers

“People sometimes sneer at those who run every day, claiming they’ll go to any length to live longer. But don’t think that’s the reason most people run. Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you’re going to while away the years, it’s far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive then in a fog, and I believe running helps you to do that. Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life—and for me, for writing as whole. I believe many runners would agree.” (- Haruki Murakami, “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”)

2016 was my first year of running. I started out of shape, aiming to complete a 5k, and I finished my first full year (2016) by running my first half-marathon distance and by reading a memoir on running, life and writing by Japanese novelist Murakami entitled, “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.”

Like most new challenges and skills I pursue, I approached this year of running through reading and study. Besides running, it was also a year for reading about running. While you mostly learn to run by running, visualization and following good examples are key aspects to accelerating how fast you learn and improve.

We might be “born to run,” but there are many aspects of running and performance improvements that can be gain by reading about running from elite athletes, scientists, new and old runners and coaches. Quite simply, I also learned to run by reading some of the best books on running by runners.

Running is not just about fitness, I’ve come to learn. Like Murakami’s quote at the beginning, running is about pursuing and exerting yourself to the fullest. Life is to be lived.

In this post, I’m going to categorize, summarize and share my favorite quote and takeaways from some great books I’ve read on running. Hopefully this will give new and old runners alike some books to add to their reading list.

Tracking Your Goals: Getting Your New Year’s Resolution Right

It’s the beginning of February, and we are already one month into a new year. How are things going with those New Year’s Resolutions of yours?

Typically the New Year means an increase in gym attendance, weight loss clubs and dozens of other manifestations of the infamous New Year’s Resolution.

Various folks laugh at the idea of these “silly” attempts at self-improvement and even the rituals themselves. Personally I admire the whole idea of the new year’s resolution since its a vocal and public attempt at self betterment and life improvements. If nothing else, it’s people trying to be better than currently are.

Unfortunately, as winter fades into spring and sometimes much, much sooner, these goals for the new year end up failing. You decide it’s too hard, you are too busy, you aren’t ready or a thousand other justifications for why this year just wasn’t the year to do something you’ve always wanted to. Excuses pile up. Your willpower declines. You give up.

Goals can fail for a lot of reasons, but in my view, one of the main ways we fail in our goals is not setting up a system to track and reinforce new habits and behaviors.

As I wrote in “Achieving Your Goals: Make It Measurable, Trackable and Have a Plan,” there are three steps to increase your chances of successfully reaching your goals: 1. Make It Measurable, 2. Track It, and 3. Have a plan.

By pursuing measurable goals with tracked data, you get on-going feedback. This data shows you your progress objectively. By leveraging a plan that you take from experts and build and modify according to your data and your experience, you take ownership over the process. The cornerstone of this system is getting feedback. And the best way to get feedback is to track.

While there are a lot of ways and tools to track your life, I want to look at few focused examples of how adding a tracking component to your New Year’s Resolution pursuit

Running in Angkor Wat and Siem Reap, Cambodia

Temple Run meets Indiana Jones meets Tomb Raider? Welcome to Running in Angkor Wat and Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Recently I spent about a week in Siem Reap in Cambodia, famous for Ankor Wat temple, floating villages like Kampong Phluck, and a few other spots. Along with visiting these sites, I also did some running.

Considering the lack of guides on running in Siem Reap and Ankor Wat, I wanted to share some of my observations, experiences and route “maps” to help fellow traveling runners.