What Tools Should I Use To Make Tracking Easier?

Jeremy Johnson sent in this question for the illustrious QS Scientific Advisory Board, so we set about finding an answer for him. Gordon Bell and Seth Roberts responded with lightning speed! Jeremy’s question and their answers are below. If you have a question about your self-tracking that you’d like some help with, let me know.


Jeremy’s Energy Experiment:jeremy.jpg

My purpose is to track multiple variables related to sleep, exercise, diet and supplements to make evidence-based decisions
to increase my energy level.

Variables are tracked in a Google doc, http://docs.google.com/Doc?docid=0AcCCHmQcRfM7ZGRmbjZkd3dfOTdmanZ3N3Jqbg&hl=en&invite=CL2n6L0B

My question is, what existing tool (iPhone or web) will minimize the burden of data collection so this is sustainable?


Gordon Bell’s Answer:

GordonBell.jpgJeremy might start by tracking (aka recording) exercise, diet, sleep, work, his overall mood/stress level, and compare with how he feels about his energy level.
A couple of devices will focus on energy expended:
- BodyBugg captures energy expended using several measuring transducers;
- a plain old pedometer like the one from Oregon Scientific gives steps taken that is a stab at energy expended and it goes into your computer with no fuss or muss – all it requires is logging on to a site to be fed monthly.
Energy input (aka diet) is probably the most important and hardest to deal with. There are several packages like FitWatch that allow you to count calories. I did this for a few weeks to get the hang of calorie costs.  A good kitchen scale is important.
Weight is important and change is just the difference of energy in – energy out. This says you really know your body. If you are overweight, reducing weight is clearly the easiest place to get energy!
Drugs: caffeine, vitamins, alcohol, etc. are all inputs I don’t understand or want to comment on. Less is probably more though.
Zeo looks interesting for sleep. A friend uses it. I haven’t bothered to try it because I am generally in a state of: What, me worry?
Stress.  The BodyBugg actually tracks this through their skin resistivity sensor, but you can’t get hold of it. The company BodyMedia that sells them the device might make it available.  This would tell how much stress one is under each day.  A diary will have to suffice for now.


Seth Roberts’ Answer:

sethroberts.jpgI use R to collect data. R is free open-source software. I can use it without internet access. On the other hand I cannot carry it around with me. If R is too difficult, I might use Google Docs.

Jeremy, I think you are starting too big. You are trying to record too much. If I were you I would start by trying to record one thing day after day. It would be something I wanted to improve — maybe sleep or energy level.

After I’d managed to record one thing daily for several weeks then I would start doing little experiments. I would take one thing I can vary — say, how much coffee I drink. I start tracking it — measuring it each day. After several weeks, I would intentionally change it — say, drink less coffee — and see what happens for several weeks.

That’s three steps.
Step 1: Measure one thing you want to improve. Do that for several weeks.

Step 2: In addition, measure one thing you can easily control (e.g., coffee consumption, exercise) that might affect what you want to improve. Do that for several weeks.

Step 3: Change that thing you can easily control. See what effect that change has.

In other words, try to do the smallest easiest thing that will put you closer to your goal. That tiny little goal will be turn out to be much harder to reach than you imagine. In the beginning, the smallest easiest thing is to measure one variable day after day.


Thanks to Jeremy for the question and to Gordon and Seth for their answers! Wonderful QS readers, please send in your questions and we’ll do our best to find answers for you.

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7 Responses to What Tools Should I Use To Make Tracking Easier?

  1. CE says:

    You haven’t been around enough bodybuilders and anorexics!!

  2. Derek@Zeo says:

    We talk about Jeremy’s problem quite a bit at Zeo.
    More and more products are appearing that cater to a particular niche of life, but at the end of the day, integrating data from multiple devices can be difficult (and not sustainable as Jeremy mentioned).
    For now, I think that Seth’s answer is the right one – start small and take control of one particular facet of life (you can even track different daytime habits with the Zeo online journal). But long term, diet, exercise, and sleep are so integrated that there should be an easier, more sustainable way to get data from different products that specialize in each.
    Even longer term, perhaps, programs will pop up that take a more integrated approach…
    Will be interesting to watch this unfold.

  3. Jeremy Johnson says:

    Gordon, Seth, and Derek: thank you for your helpful feedback.
    Seth’s suggestion to start by tracking one thing for several weeks makes a lot of sense. Right now that one thing is sleep, as I just started tracking my sleep earlier this week with the Zeo. From my experience so far, I can say that it meets my requirements for minimal overhead or effort on my part to collect the data. I revisited my Google Doc earlier today and was pleased to see that Zeo actually measures every variable I had listed under the sleep category. What’s interesting is that I had originally intended sleep to be an input variable (something I could control) whereas the Zeo quantifies the quality of sleep as an output variable.
    Gordon, thanks for pointing out the armbands for sensing energy expenditure. This is certainly a more practical and accurate option than a pedometer alone, or trying to wear my iPhone and run a pedometer app during a workout. I wasn’t aware of the additional sensors being used for this measurement. Regarding the BodyBugg and your comment that “you can’t get hold of it,” I assume you mean that the skin resistivity data (correlated to stress) isn’t available.
    After reviewing the tracking devices and services mentioned, I’ve come to the realization that my goal for tracking is distinct from other users. With the exception of the Zeo, the demand for these tracking devices is primarily for improving fitness and losing weight. My goal is to maximize my mood and energy level. I exercise because it positively effects my mood and energy, not because I prioritize physical fitness. My eating choices are driven by a desire for consistent energy levels (e.g. protein & complex carbs), not by a desire to restrict calories or lose weight.
    There are two challenges I perceive to finding a personal tracking method for helping me meet my goal of optimizing mood and energy. First, I may not represent a large enough market to attract companies to develop a device for tracking the variable that I ultimately want to improve. In short, I would hypothesize that there are more people struggling with keeping pounds off than there are people struggling to stay positive and energetic.
    The second challenge I perceive is the difficulty identifying a measurable signal that can be tracked automatically and translated into metrics for mood and energy. The best method I’ve encountered to date is selecting a point on an x-y graph with axis equivalent to mood and energy (presented by Margie Morris at the last Quantified Self Meetup; see QS blog summary by Gary Wolf). I certainly would’ve appreciated this mobile app a few years ago when I recorded these variables in a spreadsheet at 2-hour increments. I’d be curious what the scientific community knows about correlations between measurable signals and mood/energy. Earlier today I was joking with a friend that perhaps the signals measured by Zeo were correlated (EEG/EMG?). Then the only challenge would be dealing with friends and coworkers getting used to me wearing the Zeo headband around all day!
    Another possible correlation I’ve been interested in is blood sugar. Knowing that what I eat has a noticeable effect on my mood and energy, I’d be interested in automatically tracking my blood sugar and testing for correlations.
    Gordon’s choice not to comment on drugs & caffeine represents another challenge I’ve been aware of for some time: the difficulty finding a physician or other care provider with sufficient expertise across all of my options. A nutrition clinic wasn’t familiar with the meds; a psychiatrist only knows the meds; an OD and endocrinologist had great ideas regarding hormones, which the other care providers don’t understand; caffeine is so common that I seem to be unique in my view of it as a key component of my daily therapy. At the end of the day, I am the most vested in the outcome and know myself best. This is probably what drives my interest in QS and personal tracking. I look forward to continuing the conversation with this group; learning, sharing, and helping us all make meaning from the data that will inevitably be collected.

  4. SWFM says:

    I use a combination of Daily Tracker (to track events) and Infinity, both for iPhone. I’ve posted a review of Daily Tracker here, and I’ll post a review of Infinity in the near future: http://softwareformac.org/blog/2009/11/daily-tracker-for-iphone/
    For me, having access to these native iPhone apps, which both export into CSV format, has been easier than tracking in Google Docs.

  5. David Collin says:

    It’s interesting to see the beginning of personal tracking for health purposes. But I’m wondering what efforts are being made to standardize hardware, software, data, and record systems before this turns into the typical fragmented proprietary mess.
    It seems to me for tracking to have wide impact the sensors are going to have to be a low-cost mass product that communicate to and through smart phones rather than expensive specialized transmitting devices. Input from many sensing devices for many purposes are going to need to be captured into versatile personal health record system that are user-centered. Standards and calibration for sensors will be needed. Versatile data summarization and display software are needed. And eventually the data people collect about themselves will need to be interfaced at times with the medical establishment — a task that definitely will not be easy.
    My point is that I hope somebody is doing something to head-off the mish-mash that could create great barriers to a much needed process.

  6. Alexandra Carmichael says:

    Thanks for all the fantastic comments, I’m excited about this format of question and answer to initiate dialogue on self-tracking issues.
    I forgot to include some additional links in the post, so here they are:
    - Gordon Bell’s new book Total Recall, How the E-Memory Revoluion Will Change Everything, is at http://totalrecallbook.com/, with videos about recording life content at http://totalrecallbook.com/videos/
    - Seth Roberts’ thought-provoking blog is at http://www.blog.sethroberts.net/

  7. George Karabelas says:

    I use http://www.withings.com/ to track weight/BMI.
    If I weigh myself before I go to bed and as soon as I get up it will log the two events enabling me to determine approximate length (but not quality) of sleep.
    http://www.livestrong.com/ seems to have some useful tools and an iPhone app but I haven’t used it yet. I’ve used the Weight Watchers online service but find that it’s quite limited as it doesn’t allow export of data.

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