Quantified Self 101: Make it SMART

January 26, 2012

So here we are again with another QS101 post. I thought today I would walk you through a concept* that you may find useful for getting started on the path to self tracking. As a behavioral scientist I get a lot of people asking me about goals – how to set them and how to achieve them. I always fall back on a course I taught as a graduate student aptly titled, “Psychological Skills for Optimal Performance.” During that course I taught undergraduates different concepts related to sports and exercise psychology, and one of those was the SMART system. I think this system, beside being a clever use of an acronym, could be useful to your self-tracking practice.** So what does SMART stand for?

S is for Specific. When you decide to track something it is best to choose something that is specific rather than general. For example, you might be interested in your cardiovascular health and you decide you want to start tracking exercise. Well, exercise is a very broad category and can include activities like gardening to training for ultra-marathons. In this example you would be better served to track a specific type or method of exercise. For instance, you could use apps like RunKeeper to track your running or cycling, or you could use a pedometer to track your steps. The great thing about making a goal specific is that it allows you to find the right tool for the job. While you would be hard pressed to find one tool that tracks exercise, you can easily find a method for tracking your strength training activities or your swim laps.

M is for Measurable. You would think this would be a no-brainer, but it happens to the best of us – we forget that what we want to track has to be, well, trackable! Quantified Self is all about using the power of data to help you learn about yourself. When you decide to start along the path of self tracking it is vital to make sure that what you have decided to track can be measured in some way. In future posts we’ll talk about objective and subjective data collection, but for the sake of brevity let’s assume that you decide to use a tool or method that assigns numerical values to your behavior. Great! But, that is only the first part of making it measurable. You also have to take a step back and take a look at the data output(s) and decide if they make sense to you. For example, Gary likes simple 3-point scales to rate his feelings – good, bad, and okay make sense to him. Make sure that your measurement make sense TO YOU, because in the end YOU are what matters in this adventure.

A is for Attainable. Making your self-tracking attainable is a concept that is related to our previous QS 101 post on Keeping it Simple. So let’s assume you have the specific behavior down and you’ve decided how to measure it in a away so that it makes sense to you. It is now time to take a look at what it would mean to you and your daily routine to implement the tools/methods and data collection necessary to engage in your self-tracking plan. Simply put, is this something you incorporate into your life given all of other personal and social commitments. I, for instance, would love to track all of my writing for 2012 (email, twitter, research papers, etc.), but at this point the effort to engage in that task would take enough time that it would take away from more productive and enjoyable endeavors.** Making sure that your self-tracking practice is actually attainable is a good way to ensure that it remains enjoyable as well as informative.

R is for Relevant. The main focus of a self-tracking practice is to generate self-knowledge (look at our header it’s right under our logo). Knowledge generation for the sake of knowledge generation, while interesting, pales in comparison to knowledge generation that benefits you. You want to make sure that when you decide to engage in self-tracking that the insights you are looking for are helping you become your better self. For instance, I could track the number of times I open and shut my refrigerator and freezer doors. While this might give me some insight into what kind and type of food I consume (fresh vs. frozen) that data is probably less relevant to learning how to be my better self than tracking the types of food I consume by using a food diary or food image capture.

T is for Time-bound. This is probably one of the most overlooked and misunderstood aspects of self-tracking. By making your practice time-bound you are not necessarily stating when you start and stop your tracking-practice for a particular behavior of interest. Rather, you can use the idea of time-bounding to set parameters for when it is appropriate to delve into the data and go through the process of analysis and reflection. Setting this time parameter is very specific to you as a individual and the behavior you’re tracking. You may, for example, only need a week’s worth of food diary data to start to make some conclusions about how your diet is affecting your mood. On the other hand you may need to track your anxiety levels for a month to really understand how they correlate with your boss’s travel patterns. The actual time you decide to start the process of analysis and reflection isn’t important because you can always continue tracking after your first, second, . . . nth pass. What is important, is that you decide a priori (before the fact) when you will do it and then stick to that plan.

So there you go. Now that you know all about SMART you can starting using it to “optimize” your self-tracking practice. To get you started with conceptualizing your current or new self-tracking practice within the SMART framework I’ve created a simple worksheet you can use. It is available here for download here or you can access the google doc here. As always, feel free to post questions in the comments!

*This is only one concept for helping you think about self-tracking. We’ll be highlighting other methods and processes in the near future!

**I prefer calling my self-tracking a practice because it is an ever evolving process of doing, learning and refining.

***If you know of a way that I can accomplish this tracking task, capturing everything I write, in a simple and non-time consuming manner please let me know. You can email me here.

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