Ask LH: What’s The Deal With Self-Tracking? Is It Really Beneficial?

Ask LH: What’s The Deal With Self-Tracking? Is It Really Beneficial?

Dear Lifehacker, It seems like a day doesn’t go by where I don’t hear about some new self-tracking app or device. Do I honestly need to know where I am or what I’m eating every ding-dong day? Sincerely, Doubting Tracker

Dear DT,

Self-tracking, quantified self, lifelogging; you’re certainly right that these buzzwords are everywhere right now. It seems like every app out there wants to know what you’re doing and where you’re doing it — and granted, that’s something we really like about smartphones. But these things can be a little worrisome from a privacy standpoint, and it does seem like an awful lot of detail to be logging about your own life.

That said, there are situations in which these tracking devices and apps are useful. Let’s take a look at both the benefits and the pitfalls of different self-tracking apps.

Tracking Your Health and Exercise Pushes You To Make Changes

Ask LH: What’s The Deal With Self-Tracking? Is It Really Beneficial?

Fitness trackers are all the rage right now. Every day, we see tons of new apps that track your health and wearable gadgets that keep an eye on what you’re doing all day long. We’ve talked before about how to use these gadgets properly and when you do you’ll see benefits.

The reason to track your health is so you get some feedback on what you’re doing and accomplishing. Studies have shown that keeping a food log makes you more conscious of what you eat, and our own Adam Pash found that technology helped him get in shape. Likewise, our own Adam Dachis found that he was able to improve his sleep with the help of technology. In most cases, self-tracking is all about watching your progress as you get into shape, lose weight, improve your training, or track your habits.

Self-tracking is also helpful for keeping an eye on diseases, health indicators, and the effectiveness of care. Tracking your health has long been used by doctors, but now that you can do it on your own you have more control of the data. According to one Pew study people are using self-tracking apps to track indicators for everything from weight to headaches, sleep patterns, and more.

All that said, it’s really up in the air how beneficial tracking is when it comes to health. It depends a lot on your own disposition, how much you’re motivated by goals, and whether seeing metrics makes you more likely to continue improving your health. If you’re interested in experimenting on yourself a little and keeping track of improvements, self-tracking is great for health and exercise. If looking at a graph that breaks down your health isn’t interesting or motivational to you, then self-tracking really isn’t going to help you.

Our Memories Suck and Tracking Apps Help

Ask LH: What’s The Deal With Self-Tracking? Is It Really Beneficial?

We know that our memories suck and one of the benefits of self-tracking is the fact that you can easily keep tabs on where you’ve been.

There are a lot of apps out there that track your movement throughout the day. Something like Saga is all about tracking where you go and offering up a ton of graphs based on how much time to spend somewhere, how you get there, and plenty more. Likewise, something like Moves simply tracks where you go throughout the day and how you get there. You can even take it a step further and inject all kinds of data from what Moves collects into your social network updates into a single app like Narrato.

The reason for doing this really depends on what you’re looking for in a self-tracking app. Both Saga and Moves are great when you’re on vacation or in a new city because they track every step you take automatically so you can look back on where you’ve been. I’ve been using Moves after a recent city relocation and it’s been helpful to keep track of restaurants and places I’ve been. Any app that tracks your movement might be helpful for this same reason.

Essentially, these types of tracking apps are all about looking at where you’ve been on a map. They effectively turns your movement into a journal that you can look back on in the future so you can remember things better.

The Risk of “Over Tracking”

Ask LH: What’s The Deal With Self-Tracking? Is It Really Beneficial?

We’ve only touched on a few different apps and gadgets, but you can track pretty much everything you do throughout your life. So, just like life hacking, self-tracking comes with the risk of overdoing it.

The point of most of these tracking apps is to create an automated system that takes care of itself and gives you data without you thinking much about it. That’s great when it works, but if you’re spending more time tweaking the systems, trying new apps, or migrating your data between services then you’re doing it wrong.

So, once you experiment a little and find a system that works for you, stick with it. New apps, gadgets, and services are popping up every day. If you’re able to track what you care about, whether that’s your morning run, your blood sugar, or your location, then stick with what you’re using and move on.

Beware of the Privacy Concerns

Ask LH: What’s The Deal With Self-Tracking? Is It Really Beneficial?

As you’d expect, there are a lot of privacy concerns that come along with apps and gadgets that track your every move. The most obvious among those is that you’re willingly handing over your location data and personal information to a company and often to the public at large. There are obvious reasons this is a bad idea.

Your GPS data is less private than you think, and it’s easy to figure out where you are based on just your social network posts. The more data you put out there, the easier it is to pinpoint your exact location, address, and more. There’s no real solution to the fact that most companies keep the data you collect, but you can at least make sure the public doesn’t know what you’re doing.

Like anything, the benefits of self-tracking depend how you use the data you collect about yourself. Make sure you balance your time properly and read over any privacy agreements you might sign. How much you get out of self-tracking depends entirely on your own motivations, but it’s worth a little time to experiment if you’re interesting in seeing all that data.


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