Author’s Note: I’m currently in the process of migrating old blog posts to this new system. That may mean some links, syntax highlighting, and other details are broken or missing temporarily. Sorry for the inconvenience!

I’ve never been afraid of math. I’m given to understand that many people have some strange fear or hatred of math, but I have to confess it seems completely strange to me.

Just as language gives us these strange symbols by which we can express abstract ideas, math allows us to condense problems into their barest essence, so that hopefully we can recognize some patterns and discover a solution. To hate something like that just perplexes me. So I guess I’m “a numbers guy”.

That makes me a prime candidate for the quantified self movement!

The Quantified Self

That’s a pretty old video. And in fact, the entire movement is several years past “peak hype”. For a while, everybody was excited about their Fitbits and pedometers. But for the most part, I think people are dissolutioned with the idea.

Part of the reason for this, I suspect, is that it’s just too much of a pain to track things. If you’re tracking how much water you drink…well, you need to remember to write it down. Or log something on your phone. Probably not in the same place that you’re tracking your daily steps. Even passive tracking devices have to be charged, which means that your technology is trying to demand some amount of control over your schedule. It’s easy to see why this doesn’t appeal to everyone (and why enthusiasm may be waning).

Quantified Self is Dead! Long Live Quantified Self!

Now that things have calmed down, and “ooh, it tracks my X” isn’t some hot new feature, some devices are getting better. I’d like to share some of my experiences.

The Dreaded Scale

I’m a very large person. I hate mirrors; I hate taking my shirt off; and I hate the scale. At least, I thought I did. I actually don’t mind the whole stepping-on-and-stepping-off part! It’s the look-at-the-number-and-memorize-it-so-you-can-either-write-it-down-or-just-generally-feel-guilty-until-next-time part that I really struggle with. With a wifi scale, that goes away.

On a daily basis, I step on, and step off now. And I very often look at the (still rather frustrating) number the scale gives me. But I’m licensed to move on with my day. I don’t need to write it down; I don’t need to remember it to compare against tomorrow; it’s already logged. Here’s what I get to look at now:

Now this, I enjoy looking at. Even on the bad days, I can see the general trend. My weight is something I want to know in retrospect, but not something I have to dwell on in the present. Passive tracking is the right way to go here!

Personal Finances

Can I confess something? I’m still not great with my finances. I’m better than I used to be - I’m storing stuff away into my 401k, and I’m not running crazy credit card debt anymore. But I’m terrible about budgeting. Every so often, I’ll open up a spreadsheet and make a plan. But I’ve never stuck to it.

Being able to track my purchases in retrospect (I used to use Mint, but now I prefer PersonalCapital), it’s very easy to tell if I’ve started spending a little too much on WAY TOO MANY AMAZON PURCHASES, COME ON KEVIN!

It’s another place where the passive tracking really helps. I can determine at any moment exactly how much debt I have, how much I’ve been spending in various categories. This is information that doesn’t require effort for me to collect, but gives me a lot of insight in retrospect.

Exercise

This is one area where tracking isn’t great. Exercise machines often have their own tracking data, but it doesn’t sync to anything. Which means - like the dreaded old scales of yore - you need to remember or transcribe that information. What am I? The elliptical machine’s secretary? (I should mention that I don’t think I’ve ever used an elliptical machine)

For walking, running, and cycling, things are a bit easier. My personal choice (for walking) is the Withings smartwatch, for one simple reason: I don’t have to charge it. I swap out the battery twice a year, and it pushes the step count to my phone.

I have to admit though, this one doesn’t do much for me. Tracking the information doesn’t motivate me to get off my ass. Gamifying the experience though (apps like Zombies, Run, or The Walk) definitely help a bit!

Diet

I don’t like MyFitnessPal. It’s an app plagued with user experience issues; it tries to be too many things; it’s ad and spam-heavy. But it seems to be the de-facto standard, and it has nutritional information for everything.

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been preparing my meals on a weekly basis lately. And I’ve been sticking to that (it’s easy to avoid snacking when you don’t keep anything in the house). So realistically, there’s no need for me to track my daily intake. I can work out from the recipes what my weekly calories are, and I’m eating the same meals each day, so I can cleanly divide it all out.

Strangely enough though, I’ve been adding my meals each day. This is one bit of self-tracking that I’m doing that’s active, not passive. And I think it helps for precisely that reason. I like completing that list, and it encourages me to stick with my current food plan. I don’t want to break the chain

What About You?

I want to start expanding some of the things I track, and ideally build out some nice dashboards (maybe even on this site). But I’m curious as to what you track. Do you track things? Actively? Passively? Does it help?