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How to Use Tracking Apps to Improve Your Daily Life

Reviewed by Jabeen Begum on October 04, 2021
photo of woman using phone at gym

Not long ago, tracking your health data meant writing down your exercises in a log or -- for the truly advanced -- using a pedometer. But in a few short years, a flurry of new devices have changed everything. You can now track personal data through activity monitors, smartphone apps, smartwatches, clothing with sensors, and even smart eyewear. Power users of these devices have revolutionized the way we transform behaviors and wellness goals by using the data in whole new ways.

What Is a Qser?

A mass of data doesn't do you any good unless you know how to interpret it. That's where power users of activity tracker devices come in.

These self-made data-interpreters make up the Quantified Self movement. Power users are quantified selfers or QSers. Their activities are sometimes called “life logging” or “systematized self-help.”

QSers aren't as rare as you may think. Data from the Pew Research Center show that 70% of us are tracking some aspect of our health, whether we’re using cutting-edge technology like a wearable tracker or old-fashioned pen and paper.

What You Gain From Your Personal Data

When you monitor your movement over time, you see how truly active you are. You can use your numbers to help you decide if you need to exercise more. And you can see how the changes you make affect your stats, like how many calories you burn when you take the stairs instead of the elevator.

You can track and use data about what you eat in the same way. Keeping a food journal on an app or on paper shows you the cups of coffee you drink added together. When you see all those coffee cups checked off, you get new insight about your caffeine fix. Suddenly, your jitters, midday energy dip, or late-night insomnia might make more sense, and you can adjust your habits accordingly.

Another helpful piece of personal info you can track is your mood. If you’re having a stressful day, bombarded with texts and demands, some trackers can turn changes in your pulse or breathing patterns into meaningful data. When you look at your stats for a week or so, you can start to identify the situations and times of day that are the most challenging. Then, you can use that new insight to adjust your work habits or how you spend your down time (yoga, anyone?).

QSers don’t just collect data. They use it to improve their lives by testing assumptions and changing their behaviors. Here’s how you can, too.

Tip No. 1: Track to Test Your Assumptions

Before you start, you need to find out where you stand now.

"This is the equivalent of weighing yourself before hiring a trainer so you have data about the beginning of your journey," says John Havens, author of Hacking Happiness: Why Your Personal Data Counts and How Tracking It Can Change the World.

It’s very common to think you exercise or sleep more than you do. And many people think they eat less than they do.

When you wear a tracker or log data in an app, you see the facts. With that info, you can set a specific and personal goal.

Tip No. 2: Track Only One Thing to Start

It can be tempting to have a long list of stats you want to track. But tracking veterans have learned (often the hard way) that long lists can actually be counterproductive.

“To get started, focus on one thing to track,” says Peter Alperin, MD, a San Francisco tech entrepreneur who does research on QS.

By starting narrow, you’re giving yourself time to figure out how to make the device work for you.

The goal is for you to make tracking part of your daily routine, not feel like you're a slave to your tracker.

Tip No. 3: Track With a Goal in Mind

Across the board, most QSers stress the importance of having a specific goal or objective. First you need to know what you want to learn or change. Then you track the right data to give you the answers.

QSers are known for using quantified data -- numbers, like calories eaten. You can also use qualified data like comparing how you feel from one time to the next.

During the year that she taught herself to dance, much of Karen X. Cheng's data were qualified data. Instead of numbers, she compared her performance with daily videos.

“I used tracking to become my own coach,” says Cheng, a San Francisco entrepreneur. (You can check out the video of her progress on YouTube, if you're not one of the 3.5 million who have already seen it.)

She used the website Lift.do to track her practice and relied heavily on self-recording. “Each day, I used video to record my performance, and I watched it to find what I was doing that worked and what was tripping me up,” Cheng says.

She recommends focusing on your work in progress, not on your final performance. Focus on just one change or improvement until you master it, then move on to the next. You may need to tweak your goal, too.

Cheng also benefited from some quantified data during her training period. Based on data tracked by the SleepCycle app, she changed her sleeping habits. As a result, she was more alert, which improved her ability to learn those new moves!

Tip No. 4: Turn Data Into Motivation

Fun makes a difference, too. “We all like to feel like we’re winning or succeeding. So look for apps or trackers with a gamification angle,” says Alex Ince-Cushman, who tracks everything from sleep to exercise to time on his computer.

“For example, I set my tracker’s target goal to 3,000 points a day. [Points are how the Nike FuelBand keeps track of activity.] There have definitely been days when I was close but not quite there, and I ended up squeezing in a short run to get over my self-imposed arbitrary line,” Cushman says.

Many people work harder when they have a number to push against. Quantification --counting and measuring -- can urge you to spend more and more time working toward your goals.

Tip No. 5: Seek Advice if You Need It

Don’t discount the value of community, especially if you have a significant goal.

“Increasingly, physicians, nutritionists, and trainers are incorporating tracking into their offerings,” says Paul Abramson, MD, a QS enthusiast. If you end up with more data than you know what to do with, they can help.

You can also get support and info from quantifiedself.com. This website hosts meetup groups in cities and communities around the world. It's a collaboration between users and makers of self-tracking tools. Also check out:

  • Experimental.com: The blog for the app AskMeEvery, which helps users track daily behaviors, emotions, and actions.
  • Quora.com: This site allows you to post questions and get answers from users with first-hand experience. It has quite a few questions and answers about the Quantified Self movement as well as about specific fitness devices and apps.
  • The QS Facebook group or the Linkedin QS group

Tip No. 6: Embrace the Unexpected

Finally, be it food, workout, stress, or just about any other kind of tracking, be open to what you learn. Give results your attention, especially when they're unexpected.

Kat Bishop, a New York executive, tracks her moods in her life through daily one-minute video diaries. “Tracking has made me pay attention and see beauty and oddity in places you often overlook,” she says. Now that's a pretty effective mood lifter.

It’s no wonder some experts view the tracking movement as an example of behavior psychology at its most positive. It helps you know what’s benefitting you and what isn’t. Tracking directs you on what to work on.

Whether you choose to skim the surface of this trend or go all in for the QS-ing life, happy data tracking!

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Peter Alperin, MD, tech entrepreneur, San Francisco.

Karen X. Cheng, entrepreneur, San Francisco.  

TechCrunch: "The 'Dance in a Year' Video Becomes a Platform for Anyone to Learn a Skill in 100 Days."

John Havens, author, Hacking Happiness: Why Your Personal Data Counts and How Tracking It Can Change the World

Alex Ince-Cushman, consultant, San Francisco.

Paul Abramson, MD, medical director, The Quantified Doctor web site.

Kat Bishop, book publishing executive, New York.

OMsignal: "Technology Woven Into Life."

medGadget: "OMsignal's Biosensing Clothing That Monitors Heart Rate and Activity."

Gigaom: "Who Needs a Smartwatch? This shirt monitors breathing and heart rate," "Rock Health Startups Spiare and Augmedix Show Wearable Tech's Applications Beyond Fitness."

StrartUpHealth: "Spire."

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