Attention conservation notice: Borderline obsessive navel-gazing.
Most mornings, I start my day — after I lie in bed for a few minutes willing my eyes to open — by opening up a Google spreadsheet and filling in some data about how I spent that night and the previous day. I’ve been doing this for about eight years now and it’s awesome.
I decided to post about it now because self-tracking as a phenomenon seems to be trending down a bit. Take for example former WIRED editor Chris Anderson’s widely shared tweet:
So this seems a good time to reflect upon the time I’ve spent self-tracking so far and whether I’m finding it useful.
But first, a Chesterton’s fence exercise: why did I start self-tracking? Although it’s hard to say for sure, here’s my current narrative:
- When I was a senior in high school, I remember sitting in the library and wishing that I had extensive data on how I had spent my time in my life so far. That way when I died, I could at least make this data available so that people could learn from my experiences and not make the same mistakes that I did. I tried making a Word document to start doing this, but ultimately I gave up because — as was a common theme in my misspent youth — I became frustrated with myself for not having already started it and decided it was too late. (I hadn’t yet learned about future weaponry.)
- I used to read the late Seth Roberts’ blog — it was one of my favorites for a time — and he once wrote a throwaway line about how he had access to 10 years of sleep data on himself that he could use to figure out the cause of his current sleep problems. When I read that early in college I thought to myself “I want that.”
- In sophomore year of college my teacher and mentor Mark Cleaveland assigned me (as a part of a class I was taking) to write down my sleep and how I spent my time in various activities for a week. This was the major kick into action that I needed — after this, I started tracking my time every morning on the spreadsheet.
It takes about 66 days to develop a habit. The more complex the habit, the longer it takes. I think that by about 100-150 days in it was pretty ingrained in me that this was just something that I do every morning. After that, it didn’t take much effort. It certainly did take time though — about 3-5 minutes depending on how much detail I write. That’s the main opportunity cost.
Three of the categories I’ve tracked pretty consistently are sleep, exercise, and time spent working.
Here’s hours spent in bed (i.e., not necessarily “asleep”):
black dots = data points from each day; red line = 20-day moving average
Somewhat shockingly, the mean number of hours I’ve spent in bed the last 8 years is 7.99 and the median is exactly 8.
I’m becoming a bit of a sloth! Hopefully I’ll be able to get this back up over the next few years. Although note that I have no exercise data for a few months in Summer ’15 because I thought that I would switch solely to Fitbit exercise data. I then got worried about vendor lock-in and started tracking manually again.
Here’s time spent working (including conventional and non-conventional work such as blogging):
One of the other things I’ve been tracking over the past few years is my stress, on an arbitrary 1-10 scale. Here’s that data:
In general, my PhD years have been much less stressful than my time studying for med school classes and Step 1. Although it’s not perfect, I’ve found this stress level data particularly valuable. That’s because every now and then I get stressed for some reason, and it’s nice to be able to see that my stress has peaked before and has always returned to reasonably low levels eventually. I think of this as a way to get some graphical perspective on the world.
I track a few other things, including time spent on administrative tasks (like laundry), time spent leisure reading, time spent watching movies, and time spent socializing.
I also track some things that are too raw to write about publicly. Not because I’m embarrassed to share them now, but because I’m worried that writing them in public will kill my motivation. This is definitely something to consider when it comes to self-tracking. For me, my goal has first and foremost been about self-reflection and honesty with myself. If I can eventually also share some of that with the world, then more’s the better.
Overall, I’ve found three main benefits to self-tracking:
- Every now and then, I’ll try to measure whether a particular lifestyle intervention is helping me or not. For example, a couple of months months ago I found that there was a good correlation between taking caffeine (+ L-theanine) pills and hours worked. Although this is subject to huge selection bias, I still found it to be an interesting effect and I think it has helped me optimize my caffeine use, which I currently cycle on and off of.
- There have been a few times these past 8 years when I’ve suddenly felt like I’ve done “nothing” in several months. One time this happened was about a year into my postbac doing science research at the NIH when it seemed like nothing was working, and it was pretty brutal. That time and others, it’s been valuable for me to look back and see that, even if I haven’t gotten many tangible results, I have been trying and putting in hours worked. Especially in science where so many experiments fail, it’s helpful for me to be able to measure progress in terms of ideas tried rather than papers published or some other metric that is much less in my control. GitHub commits could also work in this capacity for programmers, although that’s slightly less general.
- The main benefit, though, has not been my ability to review the data, but rather as a system for incentivizing me to build process-based habits that will help me achieve my goals. I enjoy the bursts of dopamine I get when I’m able to write that I worked hard or exercised the previous day — or that I got a lot of high-quality socializing in with friends or family — and it makes me want to do that again in the future.
Do you want to try a similar thing? Check out this blank Google spreadsheet for a quick start; it has a bunch of possible categories and a few example days for you to delete when you copy it over to your own private sheet. I like Google sheets because they are free and able to be accessed anywhere with an internet connection, but it’s certainly not a requirement.
Even if you don’t try it, thanks for reading this essay and I hope you got something out of it.