You've Started Self-Tracking. Now What?

According to figures published recently by Pew Internet Research, only 46 per cent of people who track some aspect of their health say that it has changed their overall approach to maintaining their health. This is a startlingly low number. If less than half of self-trackers are able to find any actionable benefits, what on earth are the rest self-tracking for?

Picture: Yusuke Kawasaki/Flickr

If you’ve just started self-tracking, you may well be wondering the same thing–how should you use the data that you collect to make genuine self-improvements? The sheer quantity of data can be overwhelming. If you're one of those who are slightly perplexed about how to really get the best out of the quantified self (QS), here are five tips.

Define Your Goals

If you want to do more than tracking for tracking’s sake, you need to know exactly what you want to achieve. Always set your goals and objectives up front. By specifying the things you want to improve, change, or remove from your life, you give the whole process of self-tracking a focus. This focus is absolutely crucial if you are to achieve the best results.

In defining your goals, choose objectives that are: 1) really important to you and 2) achievable with relatively minor lifestyle changes. Then commit to them for a period of time. You’re not going to see your weight drop within a couple of days of starting a new diet–improvements will always take a degree of patience.

Experiment

An easy way to gain actionable insights is to simply go out and try something new. Ever wanted to try out that new diet that all your friends are talking about? Why not try it for a month, tracking your weight as you go? This “build, measure, learn” process is the core principle of Eric Ries’ Lean Startup philosophy, and it’s effectiveness can be easily applied to self-tracking.

Tracking the results of these experimental changes is great for two reasons. First, it allows you to test things where the outcome isn’t certain. If you’re a sleep tracker, for example, it’s difficult to judge how a new mattress or darker blinds will influence sleep quality. By tracking the results, the effects of these changes are easy to see, and conclusions are easy to draw. Second, it can help show the importance of things that you know are good for you. We all know that we'd be better off if we ate healthier food, but many would be surprised by the enormous impact improving your diet can have.

Track Correlations

If you track multiple metrics at once, you can gain insights into the correlations that happen between them by comparing the metrics against each other. For example, looking at the effect your activity level has on your sleep quality, or that your mood has on your productivity levels.

Examining correlations is easy to achieve by using dashboard applications like Tictrac, which imports your data from multiple outside sources and charts it into beautiful visualisations. Alternatively, if you want to customise the correlations and metrics, it’s relatively simple to roll your own spreadsheet to chart the data. The latter route requires a tracking source where you can export your raw data. Be careful here: there are some closed tracking products that don’t allow you full control over the data you collect.

I’ve personally found this tactic to be very helpful. By tracking my activity levels and my sleep quality and examining the results together, I’ve been able to see the dramatic influence exercise has on my sleep.

Embrace Gamification

One of the most successful aspects of the QS movement has been the use of game mechanics in health tracking products. These game mechanics are great at motivating people to make healthier lifestyle choices.

By embracing game mechanics in your own tracking, you can boost your ego by collecting badges and beating your friends. Gamification and social implementations are not only motivational and fun to participate in, they also bring meaning to the numbers without having to dive deep into the data. Nike+ Fuel is a great example of this — it has little to no meaning in everyday life. It only takes on meaning when compared relatively with your own past performances or those of other people.

Focus on What’s Important

The number of metrics possible to track is growing fast, but they’re not all equally worthy of your time. To really get the best out of self-tracking, you should focus on the metrics that will make the biggest impact on your life. The metrics that you focus on will be tailored to your goals and objectives — if you want to lose weight, you’ll likely be tracking food consumption (and of course, weight); if you want to be more productive at work, you’ll be watching how you spend time. But there are a few metrics that everybody can benefit from tracking.

A great example is WellnessFX, a service that takes a blood sample and gives back an array of actionable health data including cholesterol and vitamin levels. Not only that, but they provide a personalised consultation session to help you make changes to improve the metrics that aren’t optimal. Tracking these figures is something that anybody could get a real health boost from.

Chris Hollindale is the co-founder and CEO of Hasty, a seed-funded stealth startup whose mission is to improve the health of humanity. Follow Chris on Twitter @hol, and read his blog here.


Comments

    Simple, detailed awareness is one huge benefit of self-tracking, as such awareness translates into action. For example, if you'd asked me, I would have said that on the days I work at home I probably don't walk very far or do anything particularly active, and on the days I commute to an office, I do a whole lot more working. But that remained intellectual knowledge and didn't inspire any action.

    Having begun using a fitbit tracker (together with myfitnesspal for tracking nutrition) about three months ago, I've found that my intrinsic motivation to get up and go for a walk or do something active during the day when I'm at home has increased hugely. Part of it is the "gamification" aspect: playing the tracking game and seeing your score or steps or whatever add up is kind of fun. Part of it is a desire not to "break the chain", wanting to keep my home days as active in my dashboard as office days, keep my averages looking good and so on. Those things wouldn't come into play if I weren't tracking and able to really see and assess what each day is like. Similarly, by tracking and being able to assess the nutritional value of my meals, I find I'm less likely to skip meals (a bad habit of mine) and/or reach for empty calories. Awareness is everything.

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