The Quantified Self movement is a remarkable and interesting thing. People who track themselves and quantify their performance, operation, abilities, and accomplishments are usually people with a lot of permance, ability, and accomplishment. Anyone interested in self-optimization needs to be able to track what they are doing and their results. This wisdom was captured by Lord Kelvin in the 19th century, in a statement I’ve heard characterized as basically saying that if you can’t express something in number, your knowledge is incomplete. This is true of productivity in creating software and in raising children and in taking care of your physical, mental, and emotional condition, as well as anything else you can do in life. Having records of what you have done, where you have been, your condition over time, and things you have accomplished is incredibly valuable.
I became interested in the concept of “biohacking”, which is closely related to Quantified Self, in December 2012, when I came across Dave Asprey and his Bulletproof Executive site. I was drawn in by the terms he uses and the way he presents his ideas. His formulation of treating the body as a system and tweaking primarily input, but also other factors, to create optimal conditions for high performance got my attention. His results-oriented and evidence-based approach made my senses tingle. Finally, replicating some of his results myself, especially results I didn’t expect, convinced me of the underlying truth to the revelations he was sharing about the operation of the system that is the human body. I don’t think Dave Asprey knows everything there is to know about human performance, but I believe his sincerity in sharing his results and I have found his approach to life to be appealing. I think his opinion is at least worthy of consideration and I am an adherent to the Bulletproof Diet.
Regardless of your thoughts on types of diets or approaches to physical well-being and to productivity optimization, tracking your results and understanding the impact of your activities and choices are important, as Lord Kelvin makes clear. Tracking, though, can be difficult, cumbersome, and time-consuming. Nobody likes when employers make them track time on projects and consultants/contract workers needing to keep time records for invoicing and such are in a world requiring much too much effort. I have been there and I don’t like it. There was even a time code to be logged at one employer for whom I worked for time spent in the effort of tracking time. This is clearly madness, clearly wasteful, and clearly not worth the time and effort of excellent humans. Tracking what you eat has great value, but it requires a vigilance few have and despite its value, there are few who will do it consistently because it’s just hard to stay with it, even with something like MyFitnessPal (I also think tracking/counting calories is misguided and of low value, which is the emphasis of much of intake tracking – I do think tracking what you eat is valuable, but to make correlations with results, not to count calories). I also remember a time when I was in high school when, for a project, students needed to track daily activity. When I was manually tracking what I was doing, I was thinking about how this record would reflect on me as a person, and I altered my behavior to show a more impressive activity log. While it is true that if this, the Observer Effect, causes a positive change, it should be taken as a positive, the fact remains that conscious tracking has an impact on what is being observed and is not purely tracking.
Tracking that requires effort and/or willpower and/or consistent behaviors still delivers value, but tracking is at its best when it delivers value while requiring little or no effort, little or no discipline, and little or no need to remember to track. It is for this reason that I have chosen many of the ways of tracking myself, my performance, and my behavior that I have. I’d like to outline some of the things I do, hopefully for your benefit.
In order to have effortless self tracking you will need to choose to write a lot of software yourself to help you track things, or sacrifice some privacy by letting some companies know about a lot of things happening in your life. Whether to opt for sharing your location, body composition, calendar, email, and more with businesses that may or may not be trustworthy is a personal choice everyone will have to make for themselves. II f you do deem it worthwhile, now is a wonderful time to live and there are a lot of options for keeping records of your life without having to work (hard) at it.
Knowing where I have been is useful for several reasons. One is to be able reconstruct events if I need to try to remember something and another is to be able to correlate any decline in my performance or how I feel with places I have been that I may want to avoid in the future. For this reason, I have the Saga application installed on my Android phone that goes pretty much everywhere I go. Saga is intended to be a life-logging application that keeps records of everything you do. It is good for that. Honestly, I seldom actually look at the application and the insight it has to offer. I believe there is great potential there and will, in the future explore more the possibilities of what it intends. For now, though, I really just use it for tracking my locations and, because it has IFTTT integration, I am able to use it to track my location in my Google Calendar and in Google Spreadsheets. This brings up something important: If you aren’t already using IFTTT (named for the familiar construct to software developers – If This Then That) and Zapier, which provide integration of many many applications and services without needing to write any code, stop reading this now and go sign up and start using these awesome resources to effortlessly automate. I have a spreadsheet that lists my arrival and departure time from every location to which I go. I have a spreadsheet that lists all the times I have been in a restaurant (and which one). I have a calendar that shows every location (which overlays with my main and other calendars to give me a wonderful visualization that includes where I have been). Note that Chris Dancy, who is to self tracking as Master Yoda is to the Jedi Arts, is the source responsible for turning me on to the idea that a calendar is a wonderful place to visualize self-tracking information. I have effortless documentation of where I have been – all that is required of me is to bring my phone with me where I go – something I typically do anyway. In addition to tracking, Saga with IFTTT gives me the ability to automatically silence my phone when I arrive at a movie theater or library (though this is imperfect, primarily because IFTTT seems to operate on a polling basis and I have not looked it up, but it seems to have about a 15 minute period such that there is latency with the timing between when an event occurs and when the action is triggered – still useful, though). The locations listed in Saga are not always perfect – sometimes it can’t tell me a name of a location or gets it wrong (thinks I’m at a neighboring place). Saga does have a user interface for cleaning those things up, but that would require effort. Effortless tracking with some faults is, to me, better than having to spend mental compute cycles dealing with it. I also get Google Maps links in my calendar entries and spreadsheets to be able to visualize the location in case I am trying to figure out where I was for a name that is missing or incorrect. At one time I noticed my locations had stopped logging and it took a couple weeks to realize there was a problem and then figure out how to get my IFTTT account to reauthenticate with Saga (which was much more painful than it should have been). All in all, though, I think this is a wonderful solution for documenting my existence without requiring effort.
I have a photographic memory. It’s not something with which I was born, but something I purchased. I wear a funny clip on the front of my clothing that does 3 things – makes me look like a weirdo (which is fine because I am one), prompts a lot of questions about what that thing is, and takes a picture every 30 seconds. Using my Narrative clip I have photographic evidence to remember the things that happen in my life. It is effortless documentation of things that have happened to me and with me. The only effort required is that I clip it to my clothing in the morning and connect it to my home computer via USB (to charge the battery and upload the images to their cloud service) before I go to bed at night. While this is not completely effortless, it’s a very small price for a lot of information. The newer version of the Narrative clip appears to be equipped with Wifi, which I assume means getting access to the photos sooner and no dependency on USB for upload (though charging would still be necessary). Narrative provides a website and mobile application where I can go and find my images for any time in my life since I’ve started using it. I get asked often about how this is really useful. My answer is that I don’t always know how I’ll use it, but whenever I have a reason to want to try to remember something, it’s a powerful tool. It even helped me locate my Kindle once when I lost it. It’s also a nice way to capture and share some photos of my children without having to think about it in the moment.
Despite the pain and waste associated with most time tracking, it is possible to track time without tears. If the tracking is an accident of how you work, rather than a life-sucking manual effort, it can be used for good rather than evil. Let me explain what I mean. I use the Pomodoro technique in my endeavors and have written about it before. I believe it is of enormous value and is an upgraded way of working. Given that I am using this technique, I need to use something as my timer. I prefer to use software for this because I will be using my computer for the majority of what I do and it’s easy to just have a piece of software that will take care of doing my timing and notify me when a Pomodoro is complete. As I wrote in the post linked above, I found KanbanFlow for this purpose via the comments on John Sonmez’s blog. This tool is particularly useful because it is web based and I can use it on any machine on which I happen to be working and on my phone if I’m doing something where I’m not on a computer. I don’t use it exactly as intended and pretty differently than John, but it provides two additional benefits for me beyond just having a Pomodoro timer. One is that it gives me a list of the things I have accomplished, grouped by day and another is that it tracks the Pomodoros (and time) spent on any given task. It’s not effortless to put into KanbanFlow the things on which I am working, but with email as my source of things to do, I simply copy and paste a task into KanbanFlow and now have a record of it that will track my time as work through the Pomodoro technique (which I am going to do anyway) and, as I complete tasks, it will show me a nice Done list (which is a much nicer thing to see than a To-Do list). I see also on a feature list that email integration is included in KanbanFlow Premium. Because I don’t really use KanbanFlow as intended, I didn’t think premium would have much to offer for me, but this alone is probably worth it. I will be trying it out. I have also considered implementing my own timer with integrated, email-based tracking. If you want an update on this, please remind me and I’ll let you know.
Another benefit of the Pomodoro technique is that it helps me balance time with my family with working. If I commit to a number of Pomodoros in a given period (like a day or a week), I can know I still need to work more or that I am done with work and need to focus on my children. When my son wants me to play and I have to balance the need to work with the need to be an optimize dad, I can point him to my timer to let him know when I will be available. It’s a powerful tool for being a family man (or woman).
I already mentioned that KanbanFlow gives me a list of my Done tasks. This is an excellent record of what I have gotten done. In addition to having a column in KanbanFlow for this, I also use IDoneThis. It is a wonderful service with what I consider to be the best user interface in the world. Though there are many ways you could use it, the primary and intended interaction is via SMTP. It simply sends you an email every evening to which you reply with a list of all the things you have accomplished that day. This to me, is the ultimate in elegant user interface design and simplicity. Instead of fancy web pages and concern over colors and modern design and “mood” and things that do have some importance, but are overemphasized to the point of inducing nausea, it gives you a reminder in a place you’ll be anyway, your inbox, and let’s you provide your input in a mechanism you already use. It could be argued that with KanbanFlow already housing my list of Done, I don’t need this. You have a point and this is true. I continue to use IDoneThis, though, for two reasons. First, I include some personal things in my IDoneThis that I don’t work through via the Pomodoro technique. I could add these to KanbanFlow, but I like the distinction. Also, it is because I love seeing that email in my inbox and it gives me a reminder of things I have done both yesterday and at some other point in the past. It seems to be random as to what that point is. It could be 3 months, 6 months, or a week ago. It’s a boost to the psyche to look at what I have gotten done and to remember productive days and/or frustrations in the distant or not-so-distant past. Sending an email to IDoneThis is not effortless, but it’s a small effort that involves looking at KanBanFlow and at my Google Calendar to aggregate the activities and accomplishments of the day. Also, both KanbanFlow and Google Calendar have APIs. I have not yet automated this, but will be doing it soon. Let me know if you are interested in this automation and would like to get access to it (or if you have already implemented it so I don’t have to).
As a person obsessed with productivity, I am aware that the condition of my hardware is critical to the operation of my software. With this in mind, I like to take care of myself by choosing my foods carefully and training my body. In keeping with Lord Kelvin’s philosophy, this means I need to track my physical condition. Measuring the condition of the body is a complex things. There are multiple inputs and outputs and different forms for performance and a deluge of misinformation coming from what most take to be trustworthy sources as to what is good for the mind and body and what are the important things to seek and track. I think body weight is of limited value in getting a picture of the overall well-being of a creature, but it is easy to measure. Body composition, especially with the crude and imprecise measurements that make it easy to measure is of greater value, but also limited in its utility. Still, with the ease of tracking of these items and with significant changes in them over time being worthy of study, tracking them is a great thing to do. Stepping on a scale is an easy way to get information about yourself that you can track, but we can do even better than that. With the use of my Withings Smart Body Analyzer, I am able to log my weight, body composition, and heart rate to a Google spreadsheet with the integration with IFTTT. I step on my scale every morning following my daily defecation after getting out of bed. This, I believe gives me the most consistent state of my body in the same state each day. I now have records of these metrics over time that I can plot and analyze and make correlations with places, people, activities that have impacts on the operation of the machine that is me. I also use the Smart Body Analyzer with IFTTT to publicly shame myself via Facebook should my weight go above a threshold I have set.
Tracking that is automatic and out-of-mind is ideal. Even with some effort involved, it is usually worth it. If there is a lot of effort involved, it may be valuable, but typically not sustainable.