Personal Informatics Blog

Preparing to Self-Track

I wrote and posted this article originally on the HealthTap blog on August 3, 2010.

So you’re interested in self-tracking. A doctor or a physical trainer may have urged you to track your behavior or habit over time. Or you may be trying to achieve a goal, such as eating healthier food, drinking less sugary drinks, or walking more often. Or you may just be curious about your own behavior and habits. Self-tracking can help you gain an understanding of yourself, so that you can make better decisions about how to change or maintain a behavior. In any case, there are three questions that you want to answer to start your self-tracking regimen. Proper preparation for self-tracking is important because you will have to invest some time tracking your behavior. Picking the information to answer your questions will go a long way to make your self-tracking worthwhile and insightful.

First, you have to identify what about yourself you want to answer. There are different aspects of yourself that you might be curious about. These aspects are physical, mental/emotional, social, and environmental. The following are questions that you might ask for each aspect:

  • Physical (your physiological signs). How active am I? How well am I sleeping?
  • Mental/emotional (your inner thoughts and feelings). How happy am I? Does exercise improve my mood?
  • Social self (your interactions with others). How often do I talk with people important to me? Do I communicate effectively with others?
  • Environmental (your immediate surroundings). Where do I spend my time most often? How does the weather affect me?

Second, you have to find the correct type of information you need to collect to answer your questions. Some questions require simple information. For example, if you’re curious about how active you are, you might track the types of exercises that you do and for how long. You may also track the number of steps you take using a pedometer [1]. Some questions require more complex information. For example, if you’re curious about how well you’re sleeping, you might need to track your deep and REM sleep, which would require more advanced devices, such as Zeo and SleepTracker [2]. To guide you through finding the correct type of information to collect, read about the behavior or habit you want to track to find out more about the types of information that are relevant. You can also visit the Quantified Self to read articles about what information people track about themselves.

Lastly, you have to decide how you’re you going to track the information. The following are the different ways you can track yourself.

  • Write in a notebook or a form. This is the easiest way to start self-tracking. At the end of each day, record the date and something about yourself, e.g., your overall mood, your weight, whether you’re active or not. You can also use a form to help you structure the data that you record. You can download forms at D*I*Y Planner for health and diet.
  • Use a web site or mobile phone application. There are many web sites and mobile applications that you can use to track your behavior and habits. You can find an extensive list of web sites and applications at the Personal Informatics Tools site. The following are some examples of tools that you can use:
  • Wear a device. There are many devices in the market that you can wear or carry with you to track your physical information. These devices will automatically collect information about you, such as the number of steps you take (pedometers), your heart rate (heart rate monitors), your sleep quality (sleep trackers), your location (GPS monitors), etc. These devices cost money, but they will make your self-tracking easier.
  • Install a desktop application. There are also applications on the desktop to track your computer usage. These applications may give you insight on how you use your time and how productive you are.

Use the questions above to help you start your self-tracking. Answering the right questions, picking the right information to answer those questions, and deciding on how you track the information will make your self-tracking more insightful and worthwhile.

Links

  1. Top 9 Best Pedometers
  2. The Science of Sleep: 5 Tech Tools to Track And Improve Your Sleep

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