The Benefits of a Quantified Self52 Weeks of Habits


quantified self

Changing our habits is a form of self experimentation. Many people will be content to go through their lives with the same habits, the same way of living, never questioning what they’re doing. If you’re interested in changing your habits though, then you’re interested in experimenting on yourself and different ways of living in order to find what suits you best.

It also means you need data. Our own subjective measures of what’s working and what isn’t working are subject to problems like the confirmation bias, sunk cost fallacy, availability heuristic, and more. If we don’t have reliable ways to track what’s working and what’s not, then we might make a change that makes us worse off and never realize it.

Unfortunately there’s no way to link google analytics to our brain (yet) so we have to come up with our own ways of tracking what’s working and what isn’t. The fine people at Quantified Self have a wealth of information on ways to do this, and it’s been immensely helpful for tracking how different habits are affecting my life. Their forums are packed with resources for tracking almost everything, but I want to talk about tracking two things as they relate to habits: health and productivity.

Tracking Your Health

Health tracking is a lot of fun, and with modern tech it’s very easy. I like tracking my health because it gives me a very clear idea of how different dietary changes are affecting me, and helps me more quickly identify what is and is not working. There are a couple ways you can do it depending on how much money you’re willing to put down, with the main difference being convenience and accuracy of data.

Cheap Method

Tracking your health doesn’t have to be expensive. All you have to do is create a Google Form through Google Drive where you can add any measurements you take on a regular basis. You can use a generic scale for your weight, a cheap pedometer to measure your activity and distance traveled, and something like body calipers to measure your body fat percentage. You then add this data manually and track any changes overtime. You’d also want to add a “notes” section where you can record any changes in your diet and lifestyle and notice how they affect your weight or fat gain.

High-Tech Method

There are primarily two high-tech methods for tracking your health: Fitbit and Withings. They’re more or less interchangeable, as they both provide a suite of devices meant to provide you with a clear quantification of your health over time. The Fitbit One and Withings Pulse are both super-pedometers that measure your steps, distance traveled, calories burned, staircases climbed, and how well you slept. In addition the Withings Pulse can track your heart rate. They both automatically sync with your computer and phone, so you get a a daily digest of how healthy and active you were.

The Fitbit Aria and Withings Smart Body Analyzer are both digital scales that measure your weight and body fat percentage, then upload it to your computer over your home wifi. This data is also sent to your phone, so you can see all of your personal data whenever you want to. The main difference between the two is that the Withings scale can also track CO2 levels in the house, as well as your resting heart rate when you measure your weight.  It is also 20$ more expensive though.

Also, if you’re an If This Then That fiend like I am, there’s a Withings channel in IFTTT that can automatically push your data to Evernote, Twitter, or even do crazy things like turn on your coffee maker after you weigh yourself in the morning. Fitbit unfortunately only gives you your API if you pay for premium, so there’s no IFTTT integration.

Productivity Tracking

Tracking productivity is valuable because the better you understand when you’re productive and how different choices can make you more or less productive, the more you’re able to capitalize on productive times in the future. Our productivity and willpower fluctuate throughout the day, and we all have natural “power hours” and dead hours during which we get a ton and nothing done respectively. By understanding when these times will likely occur, we can create our schedules more appropriately to avoid burnout and maximize our daily output.

How you track your productivity is heavily dependent on what you’re doing, but it’s important to have good accurate measures of what you’re actually “producing” to differentiate from just spinning your wheels. “Lines of code written” for example might seem like a good way to measure productivity, but as most coders will tell you it’s not since a lot of the time you’re trying to minimize the amount of code needed. The same goes for writing–sometimes you want to write a lot, but other days you might be editing and need to measure your productivity on pages edited. However you choose to quantify your daily productivity, make sure it’s appropriate to what you’re doing.

What I’ve Found to be Most Effective

Similar to the “cheap” way of tracking your health, I think that a Google form is the best way to keep a running log of your daily productivity. The way I’ve done this is the first question on the form is “how productive were you today” and then a scale of 1-10. Below that, I have a number of other questions relating to things that I think might correlate with my daily productivity. These are questions like “did you work out today?” “How many Pomodoros did you complete?” “Did you go work outside of the house?” “Did you complete your Rule of Three?” All of these questions are then logged on a spreadsheet so I can see how different daily changes affect my productivity, and help me understand how changing things can help me be more productive in the future.

The other thing I do is keep a separate google calendar for tracking my “power hours.” Power hours are a concept I got from Getting Results the Agile Way where J.D. Meier talks about how we naturally have times where we’re highly productive (power hours), and times where we’re much less productive, and part of success and productivity is maximizing our number of power hours and making sure that we’re using them effectively. By periodically tracking on a separate google calendar whether the last few hours were “power hours” or “dead hours” I can get a much better idea of when I should be doing the hardest tasks, and when I should do the lower-impact work.

Habit Tracking

In addition to tracking how new habits are affecting your health and productivity, you can actually track the habits themselves. The best way to do this is to use the “Seinfeld Strategy” or “Don’t Break the Chain” where you try to go for as many sequential days as possible succeeding at the habit. What’s great about this is that every day you succeed, the chain becomes longer, and the longer the chain is the more incentivized you are to not break it and have to start over again. This is the technique that Alcoholics Anonymous uses with its “chips” that denote how long someone has been clean for.

Now, you could use a google spreadsheet for this as well, but there’s a better way. is a web and iPhone app (Android coming soon hopefully) that lets you easily log whether or not you succeeded at a habit for a given day, as well as track your friends successes and cheer them on. It’s by far my favorite app for habit tracking, and that will be the subject of my next post!



3 Responses to Google Analytics for Your Mind: the Benefits of a Quantified Self

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