In the age of the quantified self you can track just about any personal metric.
Track too much, though, and you’ll be too overwhelmed with data to use it. So what’s worth measuring? When I asked people drawn to the well-measured life, they listed these metrics as the ones with the best payoff:
The good news is that you may sleep more hours, total, than you think. According to the American Time Use Survey, the average American gets 8.48 hours of sleep per weekday. But quality is different than quantity, and it’s hard to figure out quality on your own. So get a wearable (e.g., a Fitbit) that helps with figuring out if you’re spending much of your night in lighter vs. deeper sleep. There is little more frustrating than spending eight hours in bed and still feeling tired at the end of it. While tracking alone won’t solve this problem, it can give you data that can help you make lifestyle changes.
Whatever device tracks your sleep can probably also count the steps you take per day. This is a good number to know. But to get the most out of this measurement, don’t wear your device while you’re exercising. If you run three miles on the treadmill, you’re already aware of that fact. A step counter’s real benefit is to help you move more during normal life: pacing while on the phone, walking to a colleague’s office rather than emailing. Even people who exercise regularly can suffer long-term health damage from being sedentary the rest of the time. So if you can get your “normal life” number up somewhere near 10,000 steps, any exercise you do is just a bonus.
Keeping track of time is incredibly enlightening. An entrepreneur friend of mine recently tried Toggl (see our list of 10 time-tracking apps that will make you more productive) and realized she was spending closer to 30 hours, not 40 hours, on paid work per week. Recognizing something like that will help you be more realistic about what you can take on.
That said, I suspect one reason lawyers are among the most unhappy professionals is the need to constantly keep track of time. So don’t track forever. A week is enough to see how you spend both your work time and personal time. Don’t worry about finding a typical week. There are no typical weeks, and you can learn a lot about your life from atypical ones.
Plenty of people want to lose weight. One study found that dieters who kept food journals lost six pounds more than those who didn’t. Many apps can help you track calories. But in any given dish, there’s often ambiguity, and few people are going to whip out a digital scale every time they partake. A simpler approach? Track how many servings of fruits and vegetables you eat per day. Your stomach is only so big. If you eat the recommended 5-9 servings, there won’t be as much room for junk.
Some people shy from tracking because much of the data feels punitive. You’re supposed to be appalled at how much you’re spending, indulging, etc. If you’re looking to solve a problem, there are good reasons to open your eyes to such things, but to keep a positive outlook, try balancing the punitive with holding yourself accountable to something more fun.
What leisure activity would you like to do more of? You can track the books you’ve read, the new restaurants you’ve tried, the old friends you’ve reconnected with. What gets measured gets done, and this is an easy way to add more joy into your life.