This article first appeared in Alpha Efficiency Magazine: Issue 13: Self Quantification
I can’t remember when exactly I first started tracking my weight, but I’ve been doing it for at least three years. My situation was not unusual: slightly overweight (though not obese) and feeling a bit fed up about it. Though I’ve dieted before, 2012 was the first time I used a tracker to monitor my progress.
I started out with a simple spreadsheet; simply weighing myself and recording the results. I soon found myself wanting something a little more robust, and so after some research I found “MyPlate” (later to become Livestrong – a health tracking service that offered the functionality to keep a food diary as well as weight tracking.
And so my experiment in self-quantification extended from recording one metric – my weight – to keeping a track on my eating habits, opening up a wealth of data: how much fat I was consuming, what I was eating that pushed me over my limit; How my food consumption changed after a glass or two of wine. I was hooked.
I used MyPlate/Livestrong for two years on and off, entering my food consumption, exercise and weight manually each day. The introduction of an iOS app in 2012 made this process easier, but it was still relatively labor-intensive. I found myself dipping in and out of my tracking habit; losing interest when things were going well and dropping out entirely after a particular “binge” session – usually a party or holiday.
Tracking my eating and exercising habits had a profoundly positive impact on my weight. In the first two months, I lost 18lbs, reducing me from a BMI of 26.6 (overweight) to 23.6 (normal). I sustained this for about six months before a “lapse” caused me to gain 11lbs, putting me back into the “overweight” category. There was a clear correlation with a period where I didn’t track and my steady weight gain.
Having woken up to my predicament, I resumed tracking and the weight duly came off, this time 11lbs in a two-month period. I felt great when I lost weight, and I lost weight when I tracked.
Looking back, I’ve continued this yo-yo cycle fairly consistently over the last three years – six months to gain the weight, two months to lose it. I’ve spent most of that time on the cusp of a “normal” BMI rating – getting close to my original goal weight, but never quite reaching it again.
I guess you could look at this pattern and see a lack of persistence; A failure to push through, achieve a goal and maintain it. I don’t see it that way. Like a submerged buoy bobbing to the surface, I know that I have my weight rises inexorably when I’m less aware of my diet and exercise routine and that my habits of tracking and managing keep that weight to a level at which I’m comfortable. Although I don’t think my particular journey can be held up as a triumph of the power of self-quantification, for me it demonstrates how measuring your life data can give you greater control over certain attributes of your life.
I should add in my defense that during those three years I’ve been raising two small boys, and I challenge any parent not to compromise their personal goals and habits a teensy bit with toddlers in the house…
Great Self-Quantification Gets Out of the Way
Even though my commitment to self-quantification has been…erratic, I’ve made few observations during my journey about how to give yourself the best chances of succeeding. The most important of these is to take as much of the effort out of the process as possible. Daily recording of any piece of information, however trivial, requires effort and discipline. When I first started out, my workflow included getting on the scales, noting down the reading, booting my laptop and recording the result in Excel. Food recording was even more labor-intensive.
In 2014, on a whim, I bought some FitBit Aria bathroom scales. These scales upload your weight and body fat % automatically to your FitBit dashboard. Boom. This tiny little time-saving made regular weight recording so much easier than before! Provided I had the wherewithal and willpower to stand on the scales in the morning, my logging was done and available to me immediately in the FitBit iOS app. A minor automation, albeit at some additional cost, resulted in a significant reduction in effort.
I’ve found reducing the friction of recording at every possible point is key to maintaining the quantification habit. MyPlate was a good app, but I’d become frustrated that it wasn’t straightforward to key the same meals a day in, day out. I always had cereal for breakfast; Why did I have to repeatedly enter it? Switching to MyFitnessPal gave me a workflow where this wasn’t fully automated, but it required fewer taps of the screen.
Equally, I found that with MyFitnessPal I could sync the steps counted by my newly-purchased FitBit Flex into my diary automatically, another step (no pun intended) towards a fully-integrated tracking system.
With FitBit synced with MFP, all my diet and exercise data is now collated into one single place – the FitBit dashboard. Not everybody is comfortable relying on a proprietary platform, as it does tend to lock you into that particular brand, but it’s a compromise I can live with.
Track Every Day for Maximum Success
The other observation I’ve made is that quantification works best when you turn it into a daily habit. My best results come in those periods where I’ve had the discipline to record every day, no matter how I felt. This was hard! It’s amazing how much of a psychological brick wall goes up when you know you’ve had a bit of a binge and you’re faced with the task of stepping onto the scales and seeing the consequences. The more ingrained the habit, the more naturally this will come. Over time, I’ve learned to grit my teeth and step onto the scales even when I’m expecting the worst. Sometimes my fears are realized; sometimes it’s not as bad as I think it’s going to be. But the key is in the knowing – fumbling around in a vacuum of information because you can’t handle the truth is not helping you achieve your goals.
There are plenty of apps to help you keep on track – my personal favorite is [coach.me]() (formerly Lift), but you can do it with reminders, task managers – whatever comes most naturally. Fitness apps like MyFitnessPal often come with their own reminders built-in, but I find there’s something satisfying about knowing when you did and didn’t stick to a particular habit – something coach.me summarises very effectively.
These two rules – minimize friction and build a daily habit – sit at the heart of effective self-quantification. I really got into You Need A Budget last year, but despite it being a fantastic app the grind of keying my daily financial transactions in manually made it hard for me to stick to and ultimately I’ve dropped out of the habit. I will resume again, but I know that Bojan’s had much greater success with Mint, which is much more automated but unfortunately unavailable in the UK.
My own quantification journey has been fairly basic, especially compared to some of the more impressive individuals out there like our very own guest Jamie Todd Rubin. But minimizing the friction in your workflow and embedding a daily habit will allow you to build a strong foundation. From there you can decide how deeply you want to delve into the world of self-quantification.