So You Would Like to Start Self-Tracking
A lot of people have been asking me if anyone can do self-tracking, how difficult it is, and how to conduct a successful and insightful Quantified Self project. In this post, I would like to share a couple of recommendations that are based on my personal experiences. So if you are considering to give self-tracking a try, this post is for you. Of course, if you are a “seasoned” self-tracker, you are more than welcome to tune in and contribute to this post, either in comments, on Facebook or Twitter.
You track yourself to meet a specific goal or solve a problem
There should be a clear, logical reason behind your decision. A reason that would turn into objective and that would guide your self-tracking efforts. Of course, you could self-track just for the sake of self-tracking, because it is “popular”, or so you could share cool visualizations on social networks. Trust me, this kind of self-tracking won’t last long. You will more likely to succeed if you use self-tracking as the means to solve a specific problem or achieve a certain goal. In fact, if you look at the Quantified Self projects out there, you will see that most of them have to do with either accountability or self-discovery. Accountability projects (the most prevalent among the Quantified Self folks) are when people track their progress towards a certain goal. It could be a weight loss, six pack abs, a healthier diet, more active lifestyle, higher productivity, better sleep, more savings, etc. While pursuing a goal, you express your intermediate results in terms of numbers, and your logs provide you with a feedback on your current progress, and serve as a motivation to continue your efforts. The second type of Quantified Self projects are self-discovery initiatives. These projects aim at finding solutions to certain problems or meaningful patterns in your life. Most of the time it is a search for cures for some medical condition (e.g., migraine or diabetes). Less often it is about self-experimentation (e.g., testing diet or fitness routines) or simple curiosity (e.g., to see how alcohol or herbal supplements affect your sleep). This kind of projects require both more careful consideration, including seeking prior advice of medical professional or community of patients with similar condition.
Keep it simple
Try to keep it simple, at least in the beginning: not too many questions, not too often, and not for too long. Ask yourself only necessary questions. You can always expand your questionnaire as needed. After a week or two, look at your data and see if it makes sense and if there is enough variability and consistency in your responses. Also, before you buy that expensive self-tracking gadget, do some research and see if you can track the same thing using pen and paper, or a mobile app.
Don’t wait for that special date, start now
For some unknown reasons, we like to start new projects and endeavors on Mondays or first days of the month. The chances are that even if you set up your self-questionnaire or self-tracking app on Wednesday, you will wait until Monday to start using it. My advice is not to postpone and start immediately. Those 2-3 days before the real launch date will serve as a dry run, and will give you a chance to test the questionnaire and fix potential issues before you start collecting data continuously.
Turn self-tracking into a habit
The main secret to success is dedication. Self-tracking should become your habit, just like brushing teeth after meals. Of course, interruptions will eventually happen: you may go down with a flu, go on a business trip or vacation for a week, technology will fail you, etc. The important thing here not to give up and abandon the entire project because of a few missed days: as soon as the life gets back to normal, pick up and continue tracking yourself as nothing happened. In one of the future posts (hopefully, this month), I will talk about dealing with missing data.
Quantified Self Does Not Have to Be All By Yourself
Don’t be afraid to ask questions: the chances are there are already folks out there that have done this before. Check out Quantified Self site, or post question on the forum. Check if there is a Quantified Self meetup in your area, and there is none, you can start one yourself. You can also e-mail me or drop me a line on Facebook or Twitter.