Most people are keeping track of at least one aspect of their life. Whether it be via a food journal, one of those fancy apps that you put next to your pillow to monitor your sleep or using PokerTracker or HoldemManager to track your poker results - most of us realise the benefits behind tracking progress and accumulating data. So why not track some of the other areas of our life? Energy levels, happiness, time spent reading or watching TV, quality of sleep, and cups of coffee had – these are just some examples of what can be tracked. In this post I’m going to look into the benefits you can gain from keeping a keen eye on things. I’ll then look at some of the methods that can be used to do the tracking, and how to use the information we accumulate to improve our lives.
Let’s start with what we know. One of the first things any nutritionist, dietitian or doctor will tell you when you’re wanting to lose weight is to keep a food journal. Here’s a study released in 2008 which states that keeping a food diary doubles diet weight loss.
Keeping a food diary doesn’t have to be a formal thing. Just the act of scribbling down what you eat on a Post-It note, sending yourself e-mails tallying each meal, or sending yourself a text message will suffice. It’s the process of reflecting on what you eat that helps us become aware of our habits, and hopefully change our behavior,” says Keith Bachman, MD, a Weight Management Initiative member.
The part in bold highlights an important point about tracking: awareness. Most people who are eating poorly usually have some idea of it, but they can rarely speak of specifics or determine the extent to which their diet is hindering their weight-loss progress. Without that awareness any effort to improve your diet is going to be handicapped. Sure, you tell yourself you’re going to eat better and maybe you will eat better. But that simple statement to yourself is inherently flawed for one main reason: you haven’t yet established a baseline. It’s like trying to play more poker without knowing how much poker you’re currently playing. It’ll work, and you’ll play more/eat better, but it’s an inefficient method of approaching things and you’ll never reach your full potential by willy nilly hoping to “exercise more”, “eat better”, “work harder”, “drink less”, and so on. Once you establish your baseline by tracking what you’re currently doing, it is imperative to continue tracking your progress in order to be able to harness the full power that comes from analyzing your data.
This concept of awareness is applicable to all areas of life. Peter Drucker, a leader in the development of management education, made famous the quote “you can’t manage what you don’t measure”. While it’s not quite true in a literal sense (sometimes you can and must manage what you cannot even hope to measure), it’s still a great philosophy. In the fitness training world you can’t take a step without stumbling upon someone touting the benefits of keeping a workout log. Whether it’s the oodles of threads flooding the 2+2 health & fitness forum, weight watchers, or any old random fitness website, the consensus is clear: loggers are winners.
Something magical happens when you become a tracker. Once you become aware of the data relating to your life you gain power and control over it. You can see real change in front of your eyes – improvements so small that would have otherwise gone unnoticed, but improvements nonetheless. These results inspire and motivate you to continue – to form good habits, and to achieve your goals. Above all though, you are hit with a sense of fulfillment. Constantly. It feels great, and it gets you wanting more. And so more you go after; and more you get.
I personally haven’t been great at this whole tracking thing, but I want to get better. I’m probably like most in that I will often get excited and motivated to work towards a new goal and want to track my progress. So I do it. And it goes fantastically.. for about a week. Or a month, or whatever. Invariably the tracking stops and it all comes down to the same excuse: life got in the way. Is it laziness? Forgetfulness? Is time an issue? With what’s available at our fingertips today it’s easier and quicker than ever to keep track of things, so there’s no excuse not to be doing it. Rather than allowing life to be a thing that can get in the way of tracking, why not make tracking a way of life?
So how do we do that?
- First and foremost I think that it requires a shift in mentality and priorities. Rather than saying you’ll track things to help you better achieve your goals, consider it from another point of view: if you start tracking things, then you’ll become aware of & achieve goals you didn’t even know existed. And when you do want to add specific goals – it’ll be so much easier to start tracking them since you’ve got a well built system already in place for tracking your life.
- Secondly, I would say that you shouldn’t need to spend an excessive amount of time tracking things. There’s a point when it becomes counter-productive. Spending 90 minutes a day writing down everything you ate, did, heard, spoke, etc, is just crazy.
- Lastly, it should be simple. Simplicity breeds ease. The harder your system is, the more likely you are to fail. The more complex it is, the more likely you are to be overwhelmed. Once you get something going you can always build upon it – but I say start off slow.
Think about what you want to track, and why. Then think about how you want to track these things – there are tonnes of options available these days from the basic pen & paper, to an excel spreadsheet, to one of the many apps/programs available. Personally, I want to eventually track a whole host of stuff and do it in a manner that is as unobtrusive as possible. My plan is to start off very general and then narrow down some specific areas I would like to track in greater detail. I’ve done a lot of research and found a whole host of apps/websites/programs that can be used to track things – but none are quite exactly what i’m looking for. Perhaps I can use a few of them in conjunction with one another in my system eventually – but for now I am falling back to a good old fashioned spreadsheet.
I’m literally creating my system as I write this post – so I just took 15 minutes and created the sheet in google docs. I thought about the things I wanted to keep track of and how best to format it. I came up with two categories: tracking, and habits. Tracking is for things that require a valued response: how many hours did i sleep, what were my energy levels like. Habits only require a yes/no response, or a tick, basically a “did it” or “didn’t do it”. This would be for my goals that i’m trying to turn into daily habits. Example: “water in the morning”, “meditate”, “get rid of one thing I don’t really need”. I mark down whether I did it, or didn’t do it, and that’s all. If you’re interested, this is the google docs link to the spreadsheet.
Is it perfect? No. It’s probably not even finished and when I review it later today i’ll add some stuff that I forgot. But it’s a start, and a pretty good one if I don’t say so myself. Just the mere act of creating this spreadsheet has surged motivation within me. I already want to do what I can do put 8s, 9s and 10s into rating my play/focus fields. I want all x’s in the bottom and no more of those ugly o’s. I’m aware. More than that, I can see great potential for when I have more data. I’m not yet sure of the best way to organize it – and I will probably need a better solution than just a spreadsheet before too long – but it’ll be great to see if my hours of poker played relates to my hours and quality of sleep, or diet. It will be very helpful to be able to know if I drink less coffee on the days that I meditate (or the days afterwards). When am I at my happiest? When am I most energetic? The possibilities are endless. Oh man, imagine when I get all x’s in the bottom and turn them into habits. Then I can start to add even more great stuff to my daily life. Seriously, this is exciting. You should try it.
Okay, before I wrap up let’s check to see if this system fits the criteria I laid out above:
- Is there a shift in my mentality and priorities? Sure, I believe there is. I am excited about tracking and I am dedicated to doing it. I don’t have a specific target in mind yet, I am not doing this to prove a point or to see if I can walk 10k steps a day. I’m just doing it. I want to improve my life, and the first step is seeing where it’s at. Only then can I make specific goals.
- Is this something that is going to take a lot of time to upkeep? Hell no. I mean, I thought about how to do it, then created the document, then filled it out in all of 15 minutes. You do the math.
- Is it simple? It’s a freaking spreadsheet. It’s about as simple as it gets after a notepad and a bic. Honestly, I was really excited at the start of this post to talk about, use, and review a whole host of apps that I found. There’s trackyourhappiness, sleepmeter, habitflow, routinely, dontbreakthechain, mindbloom lifegame/juice, and askmeevery. Check them out if you want – some of them are really great (askmeevery and mindbloom are particularly cool, and I tried them both). But honestly, they either all had too much fluff, or couldn’t track enough of what I wanted. I will probably incorporate some into my tracking plan down the line (sleepmeter seems great for getting tonnes of detail), but for now, rock on simplicity.
The last question I have to ask myself is “when will I fill this out”? Being that it’s a google doc and available on my phone, laptop, ipad, desktop, watch (kidding.. but we’ll be there soon) – it’s not going to be hard to keep updated. My intention is to add “filling out my tracking info” into my night time ritual so that I am filling it out at the end of the day before bed. I’ll probably have some stuff already done though – ie in the morning i’ll fill out the stuff about sleep, and after meditating i’ll note down how long I did it for, and when I wrap up with poker for the day i’ll get that info in there too. It might seem like a lot but it’s really not going to take more than 5 precious minutes out of the day.
Well, there you have it. I would love feedback – especially if you know of an app or website that I might not be aware of that can out-do my spreadsheet. I’m most concerned with being able to make use of the data once it starts to mount up. Let me know if you intend to start tracking now, or if you have been for a while and how it’s going for you. Happy Tracking!