There is one kind of personal analytics, or "Quantified Self," that creates mesmerizing visualizations from remarkably in-depth data, as practiced by Nicholas Felton. There is another kind, which involves your Facebook and Twitter acquaintances incessantly sharing the length of their workouts, the location of their lunch, and detailed debriefings on how their infant slept last night. Somewhere in the middle is where you want to be—where personal data tracking really pays off.
There are plenty of tools for tracking just one thing you care about and regularly update on your own—exercise, eating, places you feel comfortable "checking in." But what makes personal data useful and revealing is finding the sweet spot between curiosity and measurable data.
"I think the best way to start is to focus on a question you want to answer or something that you're curious about," wrote Nicholas Felton, crafter of revered annual reports on his life and cofounder of personal tracking tool Daytum, in an email. "For me this started simply enough (how many cups of coffee do I drink in a year?) and progressed to more involved inquiries (how far do I travel in a year?)."
You can see exactly how Felton tracks his day in a Slate video from 2010. Some of his findings are just ooh-neat, but others are rather pragmatic. After discovering the per-mile cost of running, based on gym fees, equipment, transportation, and other costs, Felton discovered that, at $5 per mile, he really needed to run more if he was serious about running.
Ready to make your own discoveries into what you actually do with your life? Here’s a few ideas on how to get started.
See How You Actually "Work" with RescueTime
RescueTime led Lifehacker founder and former Work Smart writer Gina Trapani to switch to a standing desk, based on 40-plus hours of sitting each week. WordPress creator Matt Mullenweg created new email rules after RescueTime detailed his inbox time. It’s so impressive that some of its users became investors.
RescueTime watches what you do, on the web alone or across all your computer apps, and keeps you aware and honest about it. Just setting up a weekly report from RescueTime can help you make some big Monday-morning changes, but RescueTime can also butt into your day when you’ve exceeded your self-imposed limits for email, distracting website time, or other time traps. It’s like having your own personal post-hypnosis Peter Gibbons.
Prove to iDoneThis What You Get Done Each Day
Tracking time spent in particular computer apps is a good first step, but it’s not all-inclusive. You’d like to think you get other things done every day, right? Give yourself a moment of truth with iDoneThis, which is, at its heart, just an email sent to you every day, asking what you got done that day.
There’s a motivational benefit to having to put your day into words, and there’s a long-term data benefit to having a day-by-day account filled with keywords, project names, and little quips. iDoneThis has some rudimentary data visualizations for accounts, like timelines and word clouds, but more helpful is the ability to export everything in a text file that you can pipe into a spreadsheet or just search and read.
Track and Plot Physical Things
Don’t neglect the offline stuff. Physical things, things central to habits and chores, can also provide data and reflection. How often did you feed and walk the dog this year? When does your beer shelf get restocked? Search the web, and you can find ways to monitor and track these things, but those ways look like they require a relative with an electrical engineering degree and some funky-looking hardware.
For a few of those things, GreenGoose provides a few easy solutions. You attach a green "egg" to your Wi-Fi router, and place GreenGoose sensors on other things—your kid’s tootbrush, your pet’s collar, the toilet lid that’s not put down often enough. Data on every time those things have been accessed is then available through a browser or a mobile app.
Or do what Felton does, and use whatever you have on hand. Daytum does a lot of his tracking, but for many moments, all that’s needed is his iPhone, with no tricky apps.
"I have tracked much of my reports using notes or calendar entries on my phone. In fact, the last Annual Report was recorded almost entirely using iCal," Felton writes. It’s important, he adds, to aim low for your first experiment at data-logging.
"Go easy at first, with something that only needs to be recorded a few times (or even once a day). You want to record frequently enough to develop a habit, but not so frequently that it becomes an encumbrance."
(Almost) Everything Else
What else do you want to track, but need some help with the automation and motivation aspects? The Quantified Self Guide more than likely has you covered. A few choice picks:
Mint for tracking where every dollar and cent goes.
MoodPanda for noting on a simple 1-10 scale how you’re feeling, with a Twitter-ish note of explanation if you’d like. Go ahead and snark, but the community around MoodPanda, which is very giving of virtual "hugs," will help you feel less marooned.
PlaceMe, for automated location tracking without the need to check in or do anything, really, other than carry your smartphone everywhere. Creepy at first glance, but the app promises encrypted data and no third-party sharing.
As noted, though, there’s no value to having a heap of data on your life if it can’t answer questions, or at least give you a few surprising moments. Before you spend too much time building the perfect tool kit, be sure you’ve sketched out exactly what type of revelation you’re trying to build.