Minding the Borderlands

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

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?

(UPDATED: Feb 20, 2018 )

After a couple years 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. 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, music, meditation, sleep, podcast listening, habits, TV shows and movies, fitness, screen time on your mobile phone, or on your computer, blood pressure, blood chemistry, 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.

The Required Tools for Self-Tracking: CORE Devices

These are the best things to track your life. While you can do a lot of tracking without these tools, you are really missing out if you aren’t leveraging them.

  • Smart Phone: Smart phones will let you track nearly everything you do. From tracking your steps and location to helping you log your food, tasks and more, a smart phone is required for most self-tracking and life logging. You will need to ensure your permissions are correct in order to track and store data. Either an iPhone or Android device will work. iPhones currently have more self-tracking tools, applications, and better integrations, but Android devices have more open privacy so you can access more raw data.
  • An Activity Tracker, Wearable or Smart Watch: This is something you wear or carry to track your steps and, in more advanced models, your heart rate, sleep and other activities. Alternatively, you can leverage your Smart Phone to serve the same function. There are a lot of good options available today, including FitBit’s activity tracker, Garmin sports trackers, but my recommendation for best all-around tracker and smart device is the Apple Watch. As I share in my Review of the Apple Watch for Self-Trackers, you have GPS tracking without your phone as well as a host of automatically tracked health data points like heart rate, steps and standing. It also easy to manually track other data points too on your Apple Watch, like impromptu workouts, weight log and even mood.

Here’s the data points you should be able to get: steps, location, movements, and heart rate.

The HIGHLY Recommended Apps for Self-Tracking

  • Moves: Moves is a smart phone application to track where you are, how you travel and how long you are at certain places. You can use it to see how you move about during your day. Mostly passive tracking, though you will need to periodically configure it to know if a place is your home, office, etc. Available on iOS and Android. This data integrates well with many applications and can even help you create a data-driven calendar with your places and movements.
  • RescueTime: RescueTime is a computer application that tracks your computer usage in the background and helps you become more aware and more productive with your time. It’s highly configurable and provides a lot of data visualizations. Available for Mac, Windows and Android. I’ve been using RescueTime and other time trackers since 2013 and it’s most “confessional” data point since time usage tells you a lot about what you value and prioritize.

These two tools provide a lot of bang for their buck (they are both free too!). Move will give you data on where you were and how long as well as your methods of transport to get there. RescueTime gives you a breakdown of your computing time, including which applications and websites you spent the most time on and whether you were productive (or not).

If you are on Android, RescueTime works there. Otherwise on iOS and Android there are a few interesting screen trackers that I have used and tried like Moment.

Recommended Tools for Basic Health Self-Tracking

There really is no limit to what you can track today, especially if you are willing to manually log something. As I explain in Manual vs Passive Self-Tracking, in general, you should try to stick to passive tracking, except where manual tracking provides significant value, doesn’t take long to log, or necessary to do very often.

Here are a few more areas and tools I recommend for self-tracking as well as at least one tool for getting started in each category.

  • Scale: Whether you use the latest internet connected scale or a simple bathroom scale, this will let you log your weight over time. My high-tech recommendation is Witherings scale since it logs your data via Wifi to the cloud and can also capture your heart rate. Personally I use a simple digital scale and store my weight measurements to Apple HealthKit via Workflow app.
  • Heart rate monitor: If you are a buying a new wearable or activity tracker, I recommend getting one that also tracks your heart rate. It’s a bit more expensive but provides an additional data point for health and wellness. Alternatively you can use your smart phone or other methods to periodically log your heart rate. My current recommendation is an Apple Watch for everyday heart rate tracking. If you want to log via your iPhone try Cardiio. But if you are doing athletic training, it’s recommended to get a chest strap heart rate monitor in order to get more accurate readings. I currently use Wahoo’s Trackr X, though increasingly I just use my GPS wearable with a heart rate monitor.
  • Sleep Tracker: Sleep tracking is one of the most developed areas of self-tracking. Whether you get a separate IOT device (i.e. more hardware) or use your phone or wearable, there are a number of ways to track your sleep. For starters, I recommend using a smart phone app. I recommend and have been using Sleep Cycle (iOS) for years but also like Pillow. For Android, I like SleepBot. Apple Watch also has some good options like Sleep++ and AutoSleep. In order to create a habit out of sleep tracking, just think of using your sleep tracking application like setting your alarm. You won’t change your habit of setting an alarm; you are merely augmenting it with more data on how long and how well you sleep. I personally use and recommend AutoSleep for sleep tracking with an Apple Watch.

If you are interested in getting a baseline on your health and wellness, tracking your heart rate, sleep, weight and steps is a great way to start.

More Advanced Health Self-Tracking: Fitness, Biomarkers and Health Risks

Beyond knowing how often you move, your sleep and active heart rate, there are increasingly several more areas of advanced health tracking that I recommend. If you want to know more about your fitness, your stress (and stressors) and certain biomarkers that tell you about your health risks, here a few other areas worth tracking and testing.

HRV and Stress: If you want to know more about your stress and factors that affect your body and its response to stressors on a day-to-day level, I recommend tracking your Heart Rate Variability (HRV). HRV is the measurement of variance between heart beats and can be used as a real-time biomarker on your bodily state. Factors like hard workouts, travel, alcohol, weather, air quality, etc. can all affect how to feel and your HRV is a way to measure the impact and your overall readiness. Personally, I do a 1-minute test each morning with my iPhone using the HRV4Training app.

Know Thy Fitness with Tracking: If you are training or just trying to get more fit, I recommend tracking your workouts, runs and cycling time. If you are a bit of data nerd, then check out either RunKeeper or Strava which I have used to track my runs and plan my training. Personally, I use Strava on my Apple Watch to record my running and cycling, since it combines GPS, Heart Rate and other data points. There are literally hundreds of apps to help you track your workouts in the gym, pool or wherever.

Intelligent Training Tools: Increasingly tracking tech is meeting with “AI”-driven training. As a marathon runner, I’ve added a bit more tracking and intelligence to how I run and train by using a platform called TrainAsOne. This system intelligently parses my run data, gives me some metrics on if I’m improving (VO2 Max, Lactate Threshold) and plans my training workouts. As I go into detailed in Data-Driven Run Training, this approach has helped me avoid injury, do quality workouts and improve my race times. Another example is FitBod, a strength training app on iOS, that I use to track my weightlifting and which can recommend exercises, intensity, reps and sets.

Biomarkers and What Your Blood Says About You: Whether you are sick or not, your blood chemistry contains a lot of insight into your health and wellness. I recommend getting your blood tested at least once a year and perhaps two or three times if you are actively making lifestyle changes. Start with a blood panel covering the key biomarkers for your cardiovascular, kidney, liver and blood health. For more on biomarkers and blood testing in general, I’ve created a curated list on blood testing, important biomarkers and health metrics.

Beyond the Basics: Tracking More of Your Life and Work

RescueTime is still the best background time tracker for digital workers. It provides a clear picture of where you are spending your computer time and you can see just how productive (or not) you are.

Beyond health tracking and computer time, there are a lot of great tools that you can use to track your life and work. Here are some more “hardcore” ways to track your life.

  • Project Time Tracking: Most freelancers manually track their work time in order to bill their clients. But I find that any project whether for clients or yourself are worth tracking the time you put in. Toggl is my preferred tool for tracking my manual time and I use it to track my client time as well as study, writing and other areas.
  • Habit tracker app: You are your habits, and habits are the core of how you become a better person. If you are self-tracking for self-improvement, then you really should log and track your habits. I recommend Streaks (iOS) or HabitBull (iOS) for overall habit tracking but if you want to add a gamification or social component, checkout Habitica. It’s a fun way to build good habits and trick your avatar through quests.
  • Task Tracking: Task management and project management tools help work more efficiently. They help you keep track of what you need to do and manage all of your TODOs. There a lot of great applications out there for personal tasks and for teams. I currently use and recommend Todoist since it is not only a great tool and approach but provides a lot of data on your usage. Personally I can leverage Todoist to track my completed tasks each day, week, month or year.
  • Life Logging app: These are applications that let you manually record different data points from mood to how many coffees. If you can’t find a dedicated app to track something, you can use a manual tool to log it. There are a few options here, though my current recommendation is Nomie (iOS and Android). It is flexible and you can log anything with a tap. I have used it to log various daily activities like how often I pee or drink coffee but have also used it to measure how often I get stressed or smile.

Beyond the basic tracking of steps, location, and computer usage and the more in-depth tracking of sleep, heart rate, and weight (as well as HRV, fitness, tasks, habits and life logging), there are many other areas you might explore and track. For example, you can log your caffeine intake and how it affects your mood, energy and sleep. You can record your mobile phone usage to gauge your digital addiction. You can track what you eat, which would be beneficial if you are trying to lose weight. If you are an athlete, it is likely you’ll want to track your workouts like runs, cycling, lifting or even body weight training. You can even track what you watch on TV, music you listen to, or books you read.

I recommend you check out some of my other posts in the “Track Everything” series for more inspiration in how to track your life.

If done thoughtfully, these additional areas of tracking can add even more data about your life and activities. Many of them are simple approach changes that add a lot of data you can learn from.

Where to Store All this Data?

Once you’ve started tracking your health and behaviors, you begin to create an awful lot of data. This leads to the question: Where should you store and manage this data?

While we’ve mostly looked at tools that track, there is also an entire segment of apps and cloud platforms that can help you store, aggregate and, in some cases, visualize this data. If your data is stuck in a silo, then it is not as valuable as data that can be cross-referenced and mashed together. By aggregating your data into a collective background, you can start to see relationships and discover different insights. You started to develop a model of the self or, as is often called, the quantified self.

Depending on your phone, there are two main places you can aggregate your data, especially health data:

  • Apple Health - Multi-purpose tracking platform for Apple devices. Tracks activities, sleep, nutrition, mindfulness, and other metrics (iOS).
  • Google Fit - Open ecosystem to store, access, and manage fitness data (Android).

UP Jawbone, Fitbit, and UnderArmour are all brands that have been building an interconnected ecosystem of devices, apps, and data storage for health wellness. If you already using one of their tools, it might be worth exploring their full platforms.

Ultimately, as you look at different tools, it’s highly recommended that you ensure that the data is integrated into either Apple Health or Google Fit, since this will make it easier later to export, explore or interconnect your data-driven life. It also doesn’t hurt to export your data from these different services from time to time into something simple like a spreadsheet. You can learn a lot through simple spreadsheet charting or more advanced data visualization.

Gyroscope: Recommended Aggregator and Personal Data Dashboard

Once you’ve got basic tracking setup on your phone and computer, the next step is putting it all together. There are number of options for seeing all of your data in one place. As we said, several products provide a useful backend for storing your health data like Apple Health and Google Fit. Several web applications help you aggregate and study your data like Zenobase and Exist.io. Outside of DIY tools, Zenobase is probably the most flexible and self-empowering with your data. My favorite overall tool for data visualization though is Gyroscope.

To summarize, Gyroscope takes all of these data points and creates a complete picture of your day, week, month and year. By mashing up your computer activity with your physical movements, you get a very good portrait of your day. Gyroscope provides a number of additional bonus features like sleep tracking and aggregating nearly any data point logged into Apple Health. At present, Gyroscope really is the best dashboard for looking at your personal data, and over the past year I’ve seen them add more data integrations and smart ways to look at and learn from your data.

Available on iOS and Web with a strong integration with the Apple Watch, installation requires you to integrate data from RescueTime, Moves, your phone and a few other options. After that, Gyroscope does the rest to create great looking and actionable data visualizations.

They have features to passively track your sleep, log your mood, and a way create goals and track your success from logged data.

I’m also a fan of engaging with your data. For example, through a monthly or weekly data-driven review, you can log your data, compare it and reflect on it. Data can be a way to unlock a better understanding of self and create a better, healthier life too.

Conclusion: Beyond the Tools

I hope this post provided you with a lot of ideas for tools you can use to start self-tracking.

There are a lot of reasons to track your life. For some, you are trying to improve your life and hope data can help. Others are interested in technology and data produced by its personal usage. Some, like me, are keen to develop a picture of your life by using and combining this data (and hopefully use that data for betterment).

For me, I am obsessed with documentation. I write and journal in order to capture my thoughts and ideas. Self-tracking is a way to add another layer of data and meaning to my life diary. You can even go one step further and imagine how consistent tracking provides you with a reliable way to go back in time and remember any day in your life. I have not only how many steps and where I went, but I also know what tasks I completed, what events or meetings I had, where my time went, and much, much more.

The end goal to “tracking everything” might be completeness. Can we capture these different areas from music listening to work time completely? In some cases yes and in other cases not quite yet. But in order to get there, you have to self-track.

Personally, I use nearly all of the tools I mentioned above and a few others besides. It definitely takes a bit of time to track a life, but I find the benefits are worth it, especially since I’ve largely created a method of passive tracking and personal habits such that I’m creating a record of my life automatically.

The key is passive tracking and simple tracking habits. You definitely don’t want to spend all of your time tracking!

At the end of the day, self-tracking is not just about the tools, though they help us get there; it’s about personal understanding and possible self-transformation. By collecting all of this personal data and using tools to visualize and correlate this data, we can start to see our life in new ways and patterns. In turn we can set ways to modify our behavior and relook at our data to see if it had an effect.

Data combined with feedback-driven activity and learning are a powerful combination. You can learn and grow. You can know who you were, you are and you are becoming. You can go from data-aware to data-driven.

Good luck and happy tracking!

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