This article first appeared in Alpha Efficiency Magazine: Issue 13: Self Quantification
At the beginning of 2014, I vowed to focus my efforts on quantifying the data on my life. I wanted to keep myself accountable, spot correlations and identify those seemingly unimportant activities that were leaving a big impact on my satisfaction with life, as well as my productivity.
I’d previously accumulated quite a few failed attempts at gathering data on my life. The passion was there, but the discipline wasn’t. Every time I slipped in inputting the data manually, I would lose a bit of faith in the value of self-quantification. After numerous failed attempts, I gave up completely.
Failing at simple manual data entry is a disheartening experience, one that I certainly don’t recommend. The cost of manual data entry, without an external prompt, takes an immense toll on your willpower. So in the last year, I’ve tweaked my efforts a little bit, and the results were a complete game changer.
Perhaps my self-quantification efforts are not where I want them to be; however, they are giving me valuable insights. Self-quantifying your life is like going to the gym. The more you collect, the better you get at it, which in turn creates more valuable insights… Eventually, it just becomes a normal part of your life.
Since realizing that automation works for me, I’ve kept at it. Adding a tool at a time, making sure that I don’t overwhelm myself. And bit by bit, my dashboard has grown, evolved and started to accumulate my life’s wealth of information.
One of the things I realized over the course of last year was that self-quantifying the right way can make quite a dent in your budget. The accumulated cost of gadgets, software tools and services is not insignificant, but depending on your income levels, they can grant you a peace of mind that far outweighs the costs.
The Tools that made a difference
I’ve tried far too many tools, but the ones that made it through, did so thanks to their reliability in data collection and ability to export and import data to and from other applications that I’ve started using over time.
Exist App – Analytics of your life
The cornerstone of my life’s analytics is Exist App. It is a small startup that focuses on collating the data from other self-quantifying apps into a unified dashboard. I’ve been using Exist for eight months, and so far I’ve been a happy user. The cost of the app is around $5, and it provides a home for all your data, giving you immediate insights and correlations. For the price, I am pretty content with the value obtained.
Exist enabled me to put everything into context. All the data obtained through various different platforms managed to find its contextually relevant place within a single dashboard. Apart from external data collection, they’ve made a small, email-based protocol, which allows you to track your mood. Mood tracking and its correlations have enabled some pretty insane insights, showing me for example that my mood is worse on the days when I haven’t walked enough. Also, there was a significant correlation between sleep, productivity, and mood that helped me piece together the puzzle of my life’s data.
Exist imports data from 13 applications, including Fitbit, Jawbone, Last.FM, Twitter, Foursquare, and RescueTime.
Mint.com – Tracking Your Finances
Out of all all of my self-tracking activities, I think that financial tracking was the most important for me. I remember when I was a child, how diligent my father was in tracking his expenses, and I was in awe of it, with every day I grew up. I don’t know how he had the discipline, but he managed to track everything manually inside a single Excel spreadsheet. Year after year, he knew how much his net worth increased. fall the manual data entries, the one that I pursued the hardest was tracking my finances. Prior to my arrival to the USA, I operated in the realm of hard cash. When I moved, I functioned solely on debit cards.
Most of the USA-based banks are supported when it comes to Mint. Mint allows me to have projections of my incomes and expenses, as well as providing me with pie charts, with little or no effort. When it comes to pricing, I believe when it comes to Mint, you are paying with your data. I don’t have a problem with that, but there is a slight and non-intrusive advertising found within the application.
Considering the fact that it’s “free” and has a seamless data collection, for an app that I use a couple of times a month, I am pretty satisfied.
Simple.com – minimal budgeting and expenses in one place
My budgeting needs are pretty simple. I need to allocate money from my contractual income, so I can set it aside for taxes, as well as putting a portion of my income towards investments in stocks and bonds. Setting this money on the side would be a pretty complicated endeavor with a regular bank account. Simple provides me with the same financial expenditures tracking that Mint has, with an added bonus of creating budgets straight inside of my banking app, that works wonders on my iPhone 6 plus. I know they have a great Android application also.
It’s not a self-quantifying application per se, but it provides numerical benefits, as all of your expenses are connected to a single debit card, and you can access them from your phone. Their connection with Mint is pretty stable too, unlike some of the other banks I’ve had in the past.
###Rescue Time – Tracking your day to day laptop activity
My laptop is my primary productivity device, and I try to focus mostly on my work when I am on it. Rescue Time is merciless and tracks your activity with 100% honesty. It tracks which websites you frequently visit, which applications you use the most, and how much time you spend in front of your computer. I can rest assured that the data I collect over time is good, and will give me a decent ROI. It costs around $9 / month, but so far I’ve been satisfied with the results. Did mention that it also integrates with Exist?
I’ve learned that I spend a pretty good part of my day using instant messaging applications, as they are a necessity of my remote work. I always need to be available to my company, and it helps me manage my outsourced consultants for Alpha Efficiency.
Toggl – Manual Time Tracking
Despite the fact that Rescue Time does a pretty good job at estimating which websites you visit, it doesn’t always have a proper context for what I am trying to accomplish. In general, I try to keep track of how long it takes me to stick to a task. Manual time tracking is an experiment of mine for the time being, where I try to see how much actual time it takes me to complete a single task. The good side of manual time tracking is the fact that it reminds me of being mindful that I am doing a single task, and mentally prevents me from task switching.
I don’t always time track, but it feels good when at the end of the day, you can see that you’ve spent a good portion of your time doing the things that move you closer to your goals. For example, I am tracking right now, and up until this point in the article, I’ve spent 41 minutes writing it (and hitting a 1219 word count equates to31 words per minute).
The best about Toggl is the fact that the application is completely free.
FitBit – Tracking my steps and sleep
Fitbit is the latest addition to my self-quantification efforts, and I’ve been pretty happy with it. It allows me to track my steps and sleep, which in return give me a pretty good correlation. Thanks to Fitbit, I’ve learned that I have much less of the actual sleep than my previous data collection about my sleep patterns had indicated.
I find it significantly better (and significantly more expensive) than my previous efforts of sleep data collection with iOS applications.
One of the biggest advantages of FitBit is the silent vibrating alarm. The app is pretty solid by itself and allows you to modify the information you’ve collected over the day, allowing you to manually correct any software mistakes.
Jamie Todd Rubbin’s Writing Script
Considering that writing is the biggest measure of my personal productivity when it comes to content creation, it is natural that I want to understand everything that I can when it comes to this activity.
Because my writing is platform agnostic, I had to rely on a full automation of quantifying the writing efforts. For this purpose, Jamie’s script uses Google Drive. However, for my particular use-case, I need to add Dropbox and Byword.
While the script is free, setting it up has a technical challenge, even for my geek majesty.
If your writing is focused on your Mac, I believe you will be perfectly happy with Word Counter. This app is always running in my background, but because I have hard times exporting the data, it is more of a just a local version of Jamie’s script. Allowing me to see how much words I write inside of the Messages app and Skype.
Drafts App and Evernote – Daily short form log
Instead of Tweeting things out, I like to know what I am doing, with a time stamp included. For this purpose I created a Drafts action that “prepends” the timestamped logs with my activity, creating a newsfeed of my daily activities. I am not as diligent about it, as this is more manual effort, but I like to know that if I want to remember something, I can go back in time and see when a specific event took place. As all of this happens in a few of Evernote notes, I don’t feel overly concerned over the maintenance of this activity. It’s proved to be helpful a couple of times.
Timefull and Lift App – Tracking Your Habits
For the last of the applications that I use, these are a bit of an oddball, as they either don’t have a seamless way of integrating my habits data, or they fall short when it comes to creating an input out of my habits. They are also in their experimental stages within my own system, but they feel more like a filler and a reminder than an actual quantification application.
I would love to have a way to integrate information from these apps into the Exist dashboard, or at least inside of some kind of spreadsheet, where I could create some kind of correlations, or at least the frequency and consistency of my habit-building efforts.
Both of these applications are free on the App Store, and a great way to keep yourself in check.
Google Drive – To put the data in the context
Exist won’t have all the correlations that I need, and some of this data can be automatically imported inside Google Spreadsheets, allowing me to create automated charts, which give me a dashboard of all my activities on daily basis, without doing any kind of manual entry.
Part of this information will start to become public as an embedded chart on the Alpha Efficiency website, as a part of productivity tracking efforts.
For this purpose, Google Spreadsheets is a pretty great tool, as it can give the context and insights towards your previously collected information. A lot of the aforementioned apps show you to export your information in a .csv format.
Further areas of quantification that I want to explore
Despite the fact that my quantification efforts are pretty solid by my own calculations, for the time being, I know I am far off from what Jamie Todd Rubbin and the crew over at Bullet Proof Executive are doing, but they are enough for me, for the time being. However, there are
The biggest challenge that I haven’t yet solved is in following my eating habits. Ever since I moved to Washington state area, the access to tasty quality food has been obliterated, which left me to relegate to occasional fast food binges in the crave of some form of the taste. Luckily in the near future, I’ll be moving to the city where I will have access to Whole Foods and other organic food vendors.
However, tracking food intake is still a fully manual labor, and missing out on data input puts the value of weeks of tracking food data in the water. I would love to see how my nutritional habits are connected to my sleep patterns and how glucose levels are affecting my overall willpower; But more about that in 2015.
Self Quantification is a long game, and the sooner you start the sooner you will see the benefits from it. Investing in the right tools can give you insights into your behaviors that will allow you to improve your planning, execution, your energy level, as well as your health.
The only people doing it, for the time being, are early adopters; However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t take advantage of your own data in a similar way that marketers already do.