DIY Mood Tracking (Get Your Mood On: Part 4)

January 25, 2013

Welcome to part 4 of the QS book on mood tracking that Robin Barooah and I wrote. This chapter has some tips that we’ve found helpful for getting started with mood tracking. Enjoy!

The excitement of starting a tracking project can lead to a classic newbie behavior of tracking too many things at once. This can get tiring and confusing, so it’s important to be mindful of keeping it simple and not overdoing it. This chapter offers some tips and insights for getting started with the practicalities of mood tracking.

Keep it Simple
Ernesto Ramirez of Quantified Self Labs wrote a “QS 101” post on lessons learned from self-tracking:

“Lesson #1: Something is better than nothing. Engaging yourself in some experiment, no matter how flawed it may be, is better than never starting. The best way to learn is to do. So go out and do something!

Lesson #2: When you decide to start something, try and do the simplest thing that you think might give you some insight. It’s great to have ambitious ideas, but keeping it simple ensures your experiment is manageable.

Lesson #3: Mistakes are worthwhile. Some of our best knowledge comes from learning from our failures, so don’t be afraid of failing. By keeping it simple you also keep the mistakes small and manageable.

Lesson #4: Seek help from others. We have a great network of individuals around the world who are ready and willing to help you on your tracking journey. Find a Quantified Self meetup in your area and don’t be afraid to ask for help!”

Try Different Methods
In order to learn what mood tracking method will feel most comfortable for you, it’s a good idea to try a few different ways for a day or a week each, to see how each one feels.

– Check out mood tracking apps like GottaFeeling and Mood Meter, for iPhone and Android phones, as well as some of the other apps mentioned earlier.
– You could roll your own simple mood tracking form with Google docs to customize your experience. (Instructions at
– Writing descriptive text files and saving them in a Dropbox folder can work well if you like to express your emotions in words. Or even keeping a paper diary.
– For musical emotion awareness, apps like Moodagent (which integrates with Spotify) and Stereomood can help.

Finding a method that works best for you in the context of your life is important, and it can take some time to discover your ideal system. Don’t be afraid to combine tools if you like, with the caveat that simple tracking endures.

Awareness is Enough
To really get a hold on your mood, you need to first be aware of what your mood actually is, and what triggers it. However, awareness alone can be transformative. Once you see a pattern, it’s very hard to un-see it. If you can accept what you see, then make some small changes to your life, and then once again become aware of how you react, you will start to learn how your mood can be influenced by the things you do and the conditions around you.

There is a feedback loop that goes something like this:

Screen Shot 2013-01-23 at 8.23.23 AM

For example, say you notice that every time you wake up and walk into a cluttered kitchen, it starts your day off on a frustrated note.

First, be aware. “I’m frustrated right now!” Second, accept. “OK, I’m frustrated because the kitchen is cluttered, and frustration is my normal response to seeing clutter.” Third, try something. Clean up the kitchen right there, or communicate with other people living with you that you have a strong need for a tidy kitchen, or do some introspection to explore why clutter triggers frustration for you, or post a note by your toothbrush reminding you to tidy the kitchen before you go to bed. Fourth, notice what effect your actions(s) had. Repeat the cycle as needed until you have resolved the situation.

It’s worth remembering that choosing to gather more information or watching to see what happens if you don’t change anything is a perfectly valid action to take, and this is not the same as being unaware of or ignoring a problem. As we mentioned when we talked about compassion and acceptance, there’s no reason you should have an immediate understanding of what a mood is or what to do about it, and it’s always ok to keep watching for as long as you need.

Notice Your Environment
One very important factor in beginning your mood tracking is noticing environmental variables. Are your home and work surroundings loud? Harshly lit? Messy? Emotionally intense? This can have a massive impact on your mood. Small improvements to your environment can be very helpful mood-wise.

An experiment with rats was done in which rats were placed in plain cages with access to cocaine. They quickly became addicted. However, when the same rats were placed in a beautiful environment, with the same access to cocaine, they weaned themselves from the drug!

Other things to look for or experiment with that might be affecting your mood include:
-Environment (noise, smells, temperature)
-Season / Weather
-Diet (both ‘normal’ foods, and reactions)
-Media Consumption
-Drugs / Alcohol
-Philosophy / Views about life
-Mood disorders
-Use of time (sports/exercise, hobbies, relaxation)

Some Challenges

There are definitely a few significant challenges with measuring mood that have not been adequately exposed or addressed to date. We present a few of them here for discussion.

First of all, should we measure mood manually, using words and colors and self-reported number scales, or find more automated ways, like facial expression tracking or galvanic skin response? A completely passive, objective way of measuring mood would seem to be ideal, except that awareness can be hampered by not being involved in the measurement. But being involved in the measurement introduces bias! So perhaps there isn’t one best way to measure, and it depends on how you want to approach it.

Also, how you decide when to measure your mood matters. Do you want to choose when you record your mood, for example whenever it’s intense enough that it warrants recognition, or do you want to go the random sampling route, having text messages prompt you throughout the day to record your mood? Random sampling is used to address the bias that you may track your mood only when you are in the mood to track it. A third alternative is to measure your mood at the same time every day, to minimize bias from circadian mood fluctuations.

Another thing to note is that you may notice variables like time of day and social influences on your mood, which may be confounding factors to consider if you’re running mood experiments. Also, be mindful that changes over time are more important than absolute numbers.

So keeping things simple, trying different methods, being mindful of challenges, and being aware of how you feel and of your environment, will give you a good start as you explore mood tracking. Also, if you are brave enough to share what you learn, you could even help add to our collective knowledge. The science of psychology is so young and changing so quickly, so we can all have an impact. In the next section we’ll talk more about experimentation and sharing.


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