Minding the Borderlands

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

Types of Self Tracking: Passive vs Manual Tracking

There are a lot of different ways to track and quantify your life. Before getting overwhelmed by all the kinds of tracking and even the time it might take to setup, let’s first categorize the types of tracking.

Broadly speaking, you can separate tracking into two categories: passive tracking and manual tracking. You can then separate the types of manual tracking according to the effort, time and/or professional equipment required to measure something.

In general, the best form of tracking is passive tracking, but there are several examples of both simple manual tracking and more intensive manual tracking that are worth the effort and provide extremely valuable insights.

We shouldn’t forget though that tracking itself is just the first step in a process to become data-driven and, ultimately, to optimize your life. Don’t just track. Use it to make better decisions and changes.

We can breakdown tracking into three categories: passive tracking, minimally manual tracking and professional, manual tracking. The difference lies in the amount of on-going action required to track the thing and need for professional help or tools for measurement.

Passive Tracking

The preferred method for most tracking is passive. Passive tracking might require some setup or specific tools but once it is working, the actual tracking should be largely automatic and require almost no additional action from the tracker. All you do is turn it on and you are collecting data.

Passive tracking can include step counters, computer time tracking, electricity usage, house and room temperatures, audiobook listening time, music listening, heart rate monitors, word count trackers, sleep trackers and several others.

My two favorite tools for passive tracking are computer usage tracking with RescueTime and heart rate, step and sleep monitoring with Apple Watch.

While passive tracking makes the data collection easy, the point to remember about any form of tracking is that you need to do something with that data. Simply tracking is useless unless you are getting feedback from it, analyzing it, and, most likely, implementing some kind of intervention to then observe how your tracked data changes.

Minimally Manual Tracking

I divide manual tracking according to how time intensive it is and whether or not it require professional equipment or expertise.

Minimal manual tracking involves some amount of user input to track the thing. It should only be step or two to log the data and shouldn’t take much longer than a minute. Unlike passive tracking, you have to take some step or action to log that particular data point. In most cases, you can log that data point using your phone or a simple and relatively inexpensive device

Minimally manual tracking includes manual time tracking, food tracking, heart rate variability tracking, weight tracking, media consumption (like books and articles read, podcasts listened to, movies and TV shows watched), blood pressure, task tracking, and glucose monitors among others.

Fitness tracking like recording your runs, cycling and strength workouts are also minimally manual since while the tracking is mostly automatic, it takes a step or two to start, stop and save the workouts on your tracker or app.

I avoid tracking that requires my input. Occasionally I do think there is value to certain kinds of tracking that require your input, especially if done for a short period. For example, if you’ve never tried it, I highly recommend doing a week or two of food tracking. It takes some effort, but food tracking can teach you a lot about your eating habits and the data you collect can expose some nutritional gaps too. It’s similarly useful when implementing a new dietary change.

While I mostly stick to manual tracking for periodic checks, the big exceptions that I do daily are Heart Rate Variability and Fitness Tracking. In both cases, I get so much useful data and insight through these manual tracking that it is worth the effort. With HRV, I can gauge how I’m dealing with stressors like sleep, work stress and training to avoid burnout, and with fitness tracking, I use the data to check how I’m improving and to adapt my training regime towards specific goals.

Professional Manual Tracking

While manual manual tracking is something you can do on your own, the last category for manual tracking generally requires extra time, special equipment or even a visit to a professional. I call this category: professionally manual tracking.

These kinds of tests or tracking involve more time to record the data point and most often involve special machines, visits to a lab or facility or even working with a particular expert. These are generally only one-off tests, which are done periodically or during sickness and disease. They are mostly for health, wellness and fitness.

Professionally manual tracking includes blood tests, DNA tests, fat measurements, gut tests, telomeres, and physical and fitness assessments. For example, I did a VO2 Max Lab test to measure my fitness level.

For Professional Manual Tracking amongst self-trackers, the “gold standard” test is the blood test. While there is debate amongst medical professional about the value of doing regular blood tests, personally I think blood tests are something we should all do periodically whether or not we are sick. Blood testing is about being proactive with your health. It’s about measuring well-ness rather than treating disease. By measuring different key biomarkers in your blood you can track your health and implement lifestyles changes to improve your wellness.

Like any kind of tracking, the value comes in using that data. The challenge with most professional manual tracking is that results are not easily understood by non-professional. You should definitely work with a doctor or medical professional when using this data for medical diagnosis, but at the same time, it’s possible with a bit of study and common sense to read and understand your blood work data, and it is a topic I hope to write more on soon.

Conclusion: Just Tracking to a Data-Driven Process of Self-Improvement

Self-tracking and field of the quantified self are growing. Nearly everyday there is a new device or app to measure a different aspect of your life. Broadly speaking you can separate self-tracking into either passive or manual tracking. Manual tracking can be further divided into manual tracking you can do yourself in a few minutes and professional tracking that requires time, expertise or professional equipment.

By better categorizing the types of tracking that is possible and implementing a mix of these types, you can develop your own tracking routine for whatever area you want to measure and however you want to optimize your life using tracking data.

In general, the best form of tracking is passive. I highly recommend setting up and using a mix of passive trackers. These provide a way to explore correlations too. For example, it’s easy to get a heart rate, step and sleep monitor and to add various computer usage trackers. I also like Task Tracking and Time Tracking as way to measure productivity. At the same time certain kinds of manual tracking are so valuable that it is worth the effort to do them on a require basis, like HRV, blood testing and fitness tracking. These can provide a lot of useful background data as you implement different lifestyle changes.

Ultimately, I’d argue that the value of tracking comes with using that data. Passive tracking can generate a ton of data, but is it useful? And are people using the data that comes with wearing an activity monitor? Sadly in most cases, the answer is no. In a widely reported study on weight loss and wearing an activity tracking, there was no improvements in weight loss by wearing an activity monitor.

I don’t find this all that surprising. Too many people expect the act of tracking to be the solution itself. Tracking is no panacea.

For it to be useful, tracking should be considered just the first step of a data-driven process. The next steps are studying the data and doing simple data analysis. The point is to gain insight and understanding using tracking and data, before implementing a change. The end goal is self-improvement and optimization. Tracking doesn’t change anything; it just measures.

One way to using this tracking data is your weekly review, which is a practice where you take some time to organize the previous week’s stuff and optimize for the week to come. You might go so far as to devise your own “Data-Driven Weekly Review” like I have.

Rather than focusing on just the act of self-tracking, I instead aim for “data-driven interventions.” Whether passive tracking or manual tracking, you use tracking to get a baseline number, you implement a change, and use tracking data to check on the success of that integration. The actions you take are what lead to an improvement. The tracked data is part of the feedback loop you use to measure its success or failure.

Simply put: tracking is best used to implement a data-driven life.

Good luck and happy tracking!

Comments