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Attention Data Hounds: What Personal Data Are You Tracking?

I'm working on a roadmap for the Personal Informatics movement (you'll find a quick summary of the emerging field below), which I'll post later this week. In the meantime, as readers of my site (i.e. people who actively improve themselves, either via productivity or more generally) I'm sure many of you are already tracking data about yourselves. I would love to know about what personal data you have coming in, and how you use it. (Well, not too personal ;-) The topic is all categories about the human condition, such as health (diet, sleep, mood, medicine), relationships (friends, family, dating), work (I shared a bunch of productivity ones in Micro-Experiments), finances, parenting, and so on.

So please share: What are you tracking? Why? Did you have any insights about yourself? What kinds of changes did you experience? How sure are you that what you did caused the changes? Would you recommend what you tried?

In my case, a few that I've tried include time tracking (Daily Planning and Time Blocking), diet (using a version of The Hacker's Diet), mood, and mental interruptions (during the day I ticked off every time I was drawn off-task).

Happy tracking!

An Incomplete Summary of Personal Informatics

I'll give this a whirlwind treatment, though the topic deserves a better description. Disclaimer: I'm biased. I see tremendous potential here for self-improvement (especially via small steps - it's why I wrote You Did WHAT? 99 Playful Experiments To Live Healthier And Happier), and for leveraging social media to help each other. There are gaps and missed opportunities (next post), but I think this is big.

Briefly, the personal data movement involves recording quantitative information about ourselves with the rough goal being: data collection -> personal insights -> individual behavior change -> collective societal improvements. This is happening now due to an intersection of new tools, mobile technology, and ubiquitous connectivity. Of course people have been tracking things about themselves for ages (as long as there's been writing, I suspect), with a more modern example being Benjamin Franklin's tracking of his virtues during his week.

Surprisingly there's no Wikipedia article for it (though there is one for Omphaloskepsis), so the best starting point is two articles, The New Examined Life and Know Thyself: Tracking Every Facet of Life, from Sleep to Mood to Pain.

For tools and sites, there are too many to mention. I know of two general ones for tracking and visualizing personal data (Mycrocosm and Daytum), one blog (The Quantified Self - know any others?), and a ton of sites that support specific (I'll call them "vertical") areas of life. Following are a few:

Question: How would you define this?

Reader Comments (20)

I track my time (and the time of my employees) spent at work daily, and enter this information into Quickbooks.

As a procrastination-busting tool, I will sometimes track my activity in 15 minute increments from the start of my day to the end, usually using a timer and writing down what I do for each block. I've found this to be an extremely powerful tool for moving me forward when I'm badly stuck in place.

About ten years ago, worried about the three hour naps I was taking each day, I tracked all of my activities -- 24/7 -- for about 6 weeks. I found that my normal sleep cycle was running about 7 hours (I'd always assumed it was 8). I also found that the naps were anxiety-related, not sleep-related. When under heavy, heavy stress, I sleep.

I journal, and keep a specialized "productivity" journal intermittently. I almost never go back and re-read my journals. Process in this regard is much more important to me than product. I'm in agreement with Natalie Goldberg on this point.

Stikk is an interesting idea. I have an idea for an "accountability buddy" website, which I raised on the GTD Forum and received exactly zero responses. I posted an ad for an accountability partner to help with my GTD Weekly Review on Craig's List: zero responses. I finally partnered up with a friend of mine who was looking for an accountability partner to help her move her music-producing project forward. It's been incredibly effective for both of us. The combination of structured outcome-oriented planning, regular reviewing, lessons-learned documentation, metrics, and social accountability (mentoring might fit here) is the most effective productivity system I can imagine.

June 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDan Owen

I track everything from expenses to mileage on my car to my weight to my 401K values and account balances. Some of this is useful, (as in with investments), but I do it mostly because I find it interesting. What's ironic is that the tracking actually wastes some of my time.

I do like the idea of an accountability partner. I just have to find one.

July 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAtul H. Patel

Thanks, Atul. I'm curious about how you use some of these, i.e., what you've learned, and how you've changed as a result. Also, I'd like to know what tool you use for tracking. (Everyone knows I have a love of tools - when used properly, natch.)

> accountability partner

I encourage you to reach out and ask someone. Ask me if you'd like detail on how to work it.

Thanks for reading!

July 1, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

procrastination.. track my activity in 15 minute increments

Time logging - a classic. Glad to know it helps - it's in my tool kit. I wrote about it in [ 10 GTD holes | http://matthewcornell.org/2008/04/10-gtd-holes-and-how-plug-them.html ] (scroll to "No time use analysis").

tracked all activities -- 24/7 -- for 6 weeks. I found that my normal sleep cycle was running about 7 hours (I'd always assumed it was 8). I also found that the naps were anxiety-related, not sleep-related. When under heavy, heavy stress, I sleep.

Great experiment. Did you end up changing anything as a result?

journal + specialized "productivity" journal intermittently.. never go back and re-read.. Process much more important to me than product

I'm in agreement with Natalie Goldberg on this point.

I forgot about her. Thanks. My wife loves "Writing down the bones." [ Here are her books | http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_ss_b/105-2047763-9138827?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=Natalie%20Goldberg ].

I have an idea for an "accountability buddy" website...

We should definitely talk, Dan. I'm building a comprehensive platform for my Think, Try, Learn work, including built-in accountability/support. We're definitely on the same wavelength here.

GTD Forum: zero responses; Weekly Review on Craig's List: zero responses

Interesting! In [ A Daily Planning Experiment: Two Weeks Of Accountable Rigorous Action | http://matthewcornell.org/2008/05/a-daily-planning-experiment-two-weeks-accountable-rigorous-action.html ] I shared experimenting with this for daily planning, and found it "Very helpful, and a real eye-opener."

The combination of structured outcome-oriented planning, regular reviewing, lessons-learned documentation, metrics, and social accountability (mentoring might fit here) is the most effective productivity system I can imagine.

As usual, well put Dan.

Thanks for the comment!

July 1, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

I had an accountability partner, and it was working well for me for a while, but he wasn't seeing any benefits from it, and so he's backed out. As a result, I'm not feeling as accountable anymore and I think my laser-like focus has lapsed.

It would be nice to find a 'ride board' for accountability partners. Unfortunately when I look it up on the 'net it seems the term is already used for Evangelical Christians trying to stay true to the tenets of their religion rather than productivity buffs.

July 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBrock Tice

I track my spending very closely, using Quickbooks, which I also use to run my business. QB is probably way too much tool for most people, but I'm so familiar with it that it was the natural choice to track my personal finances (plus, my accountant loves getting the data file at tax time). I generate an actual/estimated budget report and take a look at this periodically. I started doing this 18 months ago when it was clear that the looming recession was going to decimate my income, and that I needed to reduce my expenses drastically.

It's interesting to note just how organic these systems are. By that, I think I mean that habits are never really discreet behaviors, but exist within a kind of behavioral ecosystem. (I notice that the David Allen Company has begun referring to one's "technological ecosystem" in their podcasts -- I have mixed feelings about this term, as I do any time words are hijacked and co-opted into service on behalf of the pop-culture or commerce, but I have to admit it's a useful concept.) For example: when I started tracking my personal spending, I almost entirely stopped spending cash because its uses were so much harder to track, and I increased the use of my debit card because the expenses would show up on my on-line statements and were thus vastly easier to track, reference and archive. This had a radical effect on my spending habits. Then, when I found myself pulling out my debit card to pay for a $4 latte, I finally turned my attention to the time management and lifestyle issues (and choices) that lay beneath the fact that I never seemed to have time to make myself a cup of coffee in my own kitchen.

I can't tell you how utterly transforming this all was. It's a truism, of course, that what gets measured gets managed, but the complex inter-relationship of behaviors and outcomes is astonishing, and surprisingly hard to predict ahead of time. In this regard I'm reminded of my own mother, who decided one day to stop smoking and ended up divorcing her husband. Changing habits takes more bravery than you might think.

July 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDan Owen

Brock, I had exactly the same experience. When I decided I wanted an accountability partner for my GTD Weekly Review, I went online and found mostly Christian websites.

I love the idea of a "ride board." I think this would have very broad appeal -- everything from jogging partners to getting sober has a market. Many goals are location-independent, too, so accountability can be provided by a phone call.

I was unsuccessful in finding a GTD Weekly Review partner on Craig's List, but ended up finding one among my Facebook friends. My partner's goal isn't related to mine at all -- I want someone to ask me whether I did my weekly review this week, and she wants some to pester her about moving her music-writing toward production. But the process is the same for both: did you do what you set out to do this week? If not, why not? What change can you make this week to move forward toward this goal?

July 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDan Owen

I track to learn, plan and measure improvement.

1. Weight (notebook weekly)

2. How I spend my time (RescueTime to make sure I live up to my own expectations for time blocking online, calendar on the fridge and online for planning and history to reconstruct the past when that is useful)

3. Reasons to be thankful (5 a day keeps the blues away)

4. Auto mileage (https://www.fueleconomy.gov/ - competitive, I mean I really do drive more efficiently than the other guy :-), helps others buying cars of same make/model, helps me reconstruct my auto log for when I get behind).

5. Finances - self employment can lead to some pretty big cash flow swings - in both the business and the personal life. I track to predict and budget for the future the important payments that cannot be missed. Without data that planning is just guesswork. Not good enough in these times.

6. Goals and accomplishments (in a notebook, reviewed every 6 months)

July 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

I use Excel for everything. My spreadsheets for mileage, fuel economy, maintenance tracking as well as my 401K tracker have gotten so huge that I contemplated finding a way to sell the formulas! The mileage tracker helps me keep my cars under warranty for as long as possible, my weight tracker warns me when I'm getting a bit too heavy before I get fat, and my 401K tracker has lots of algorithms and formulas that let me follow a system. The problem is, I'm somewhat of a nerd, and I slice and dice the data with different charts and tables in so many ways that I spend lots of time absorbing the information. I just find it interesting.

I should try tracking my time and I like the idea of a non-religious accountability partner website. One thing that works is to publicly declare your goals, (even on the ultimate time-waster, Facebook). Then people might call you out on your goals.

July 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAtul H. Patel

I'll be adding a sort of accountability feature to our edison experimenter's workbook, but it will be specific to new things you're trying. Reader and client Abe Crystal is working on Ruzuku http://ruzuku.com/, but it's not out yet. Seems like an opportunity? Skip the Ph.D.!

July 2, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

What *is* an accountability partner's duties? In my experiment, I simply sent daily updates, which she usu. sent brief replies to. We also chatted sometimes about progress, what I learned, etc. Whatever works for you that puts you on the line - I said I'd do x, and now I better because I've committed to someone - peer pressure, I suppose.

July 2, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

I love it. For me brings in ideas from Kaizen ( see [ One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way | http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0761129235?ie=UTF8&tag=masidbl-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0761129235 ] ) via [ Reader Question: Getting Personal Productivity Changes To Stick? | http://matthewcornell.org/blog/2007/06/reader-question-getting-personal.html ] Great smoking story, BTW.

July 2, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Again, we need the secular accountability tool.

July 2, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Behold, problem solved. http://didyoudo.it

July 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBrock Tice

You mean you don't want to just keep talking about it?

I like your style, Brock!

July 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDan Owen

Your Daily Planning Experiment post had a huge influence on me, Matt. In the weeks after reading this post, I tried this over and over again -- sans accountability partner, though. When I'm really intent on crossing items off my task list, this is the technique I use.

>Did you end up changing anything as a result?

When I notice myself getting very, very tired in the middle of the day, I now ask myself what it is I'm so anxious about. Answering this question usually takes about 5 seconds. If the desired outcome is clear, I'll put together a very specific next action list and then integrate the next actions into my day's work. I also keep a list of what I call "anxiety projects" and review that list as part of my weekly review.

I've generally found that most projects don't linger when there's a clear path of written next actions to lead you toward the outcome.

>My wife loves "Writing down the bones."

Your racquetball-experiment post a couple of weeks ago was pure Natalie Goldberg, Matt. She talks about how essential it is for creative people to disable the critical voice in their heads -- what the Buddhists call "Monkey Mind" -- in order to make art, but this really applies to any new endeavor for which one lacks well-developed skills. That neurotic-parental-societal voice that says, "stop, you look like a fool," will shut down any impulse to learn something new if you let it. You captured this very nicely in one of your recent Twitter posts, when you said: "Feel Big relief Treating something as an experiment, letting go of expectations, and admitting 'I don't know.'" A lot of this productivity stuff we try is so goal-oriented that it's hard to let go of expectations, but I think that's an essential component of changing something that's not working.

July 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDan Owen

You don't screw around, do you Brock. Even with a small child...

July 15, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

But necessary in divergent phases?

July 15, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

All good points. Great to have you reading and sharing, Dan.

July 15, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

The most important, in my case, is my work progress: the books I read, the books I bought, the commentaries I write etc. I also keep the usual financial tracking - I am quite known to be a shopaholic. I just try to control myself.

September 9, 2010 | Unregistered Commentercakewalk drivers

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