Track Your life: How I Changed My Life One App at a Time
We save planning, tracking, and interesting data for the office, but what gets measured gets managed (and improved), so why aren’t we setting and tracking goals for our personal lives too?
“Humans make errors. We make errors of fact and errors of judgment. We have blind spots in our field of vision and gaps in our stream of attention. Sometimes we can’t even answer the simplest questions. Where was I last week at this time? How long have I had this pain in my knee? How much money do I typically spend in a day? These weaknesses put us at a disadvantage. We make decisions with partial information. We are forced to steer by guesswork. We go with our gut.” (source)
I won’t lie. I’ve developed some pretty bad habits over the years like overindulging in sweets and not exercising or sleeping much, to name a few.
All the above, combined with the fact that I’m not 20 anymore, obviously made for the perfect weight gain storm. (Sigh.)
It felt like it happened overnight, but of course, it didn’t. My small but horrible behaviors (e.g. eating chocolate croissants instead of oatmeal for breakfast), day after day, snowballed into a major problem (gaining a nice chunk of weight).
I felt my clothes becoming increasingly snug, but I wasn’t weighing myself, so it was really easy to be “willfully blind” because I wasn’t quantifying the problem.
“The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.” ― Samuel Johnson
Had I been more self-aware (and accountable to myself), I wouldn’t be overweight.
“We don’t notice tiny changes because their immediate impact is negligible… But if we repeat small behaviors day after day, our choices compound into major results. Eat pizza every day, and it’s likely you will have gained considerable weight after a year. Go jogging for 20 minutes every day, and you’ll eventually be leaner and fitter, even though you won’t have noticed the change happening.”
In the world where I don’t gain weight, I would have been tracking my weight all along and quickly noticed a depressing upward trendline early on, before I embedded these bad habits into my everyday life.
I know this is true because, nine years later (exaggerating), I’ve purchased a scale (+ app), weigh myself daily, and track my progress.
Since I started doing this, somewhere between one and two months ago, I’ve dropped 17 lbs (3 lbs/week), which has motivated the hell out of me.
According to research, this isn’t surprising.
People who track their goals — whether it’s the number of steps they take a day, the quality of their sleep, or what they eat at each meal — are more successful at reaching their health and fitness goals than those who don’t.
Tracking works because it makes you self-aware and therefore, accountable. By providing feedback and “nudges,” tracking helps you literally see your good and bad habits.
And “once you know the facts, you can live by them.”
Whether you want to shed some pounds, be more productive, quit smoking, save money, develop a new skill, or do whatever else your little heart desires, this post is for you.
In it, you’ll learn everything you need to know to improve any aspect of your life simply by tracking it.
What should I track?
“We become what we repeatedly do.” — Sean Covey
These are in no particular order, as everyone has different challenges and situations and therefore, different priorities, so feel free to skip to the section that’s most relevant to you.
Track your sleep.
I started tracking my sleep after reading the book “Why We Sleep,” which pretty much scared the hell out of me because I was a total insomniac for a long time.
Not sleeping enough is terrible for many reasons. It adversely affects our mental and physical health and leads to obesity and car accidents, to name just a few of the cons of not sleeping.
There are a variety of products that track sleep, but some are more accurate than others.
After a lot of Googling, I purchased the AutoSleep app ($2.99 | iPhone and Apple Watch) because:
- It *automatically* tracks your sleep.
- It’s supposedly one of the most accurate apps on the market.
- I have the Apple Watch and iPhone.
- It’s extremely affordable.
- It’s №1 in Apple’s Health & Fitness category.
AutoSleep tracks your sleep in one of two ways.
The first (and best) option is to wear your watch to bed.
If you DO wear your Apple Watch to bed, you don’t have to worry about anything but falling asleep. The app will automagically track not only your amount of sleep but also the quality of your sleep.
If you don’t wear your watch to bed, simply put your watch on its charger before you go to sleep. In the morning, when you wake up, put your watch back on, or touch your iPhone when you wake up, then put on your watch within 30 minutes. Once you put your watch back on, you’ll see the metrics start to populate shortly thereafter.
Since using AutoSleep for awhile now, I’m left wanting more. The UX is clunky, and there’s a lot of metrics that are just over my head.
After conducting more research, I’d also try Pillow (which works on all Apple devices and costs a one-time fee of $4.99) and/or Sleep Cycle (which is for Android and iPhone users and costs $29.99 / year)
I personally don’t think a premium app is necessary for sleep tracking because they present you an overwhelming amount of information that can be confusing and paralyzing. So I prefer simpler apps that just tell me how long I slept for (sleep duration).
Unfortunately, many trackers get sleep duration wrong because many rely on movement to decipher how much sleep you’re getting, which is not the most reliable way to track this.
See the chart below to see how many hours you should sleep each night based on your age group.
Just being aware of how many hours I wasn’t sleeping was enough to get my sleep back on track in a short amount of time. Don’t underestimate the power of awareness.
Track your posture.
As someone who spends a ton of time at their desk and on the computer, I’m very aware of how much I slouch (and that I don’t want to be a hunchback at 80).
I bought two for $149 because my mom needs to get her posture in check too, but you can buy one for $80.
It came in last week. I’ve only used it a few times since then, but I’m happy with it so far, and I have high hopes for it’ll help me solve my posture problems.
For $80, you get a small rectangular thing that sticks on your back via adhesive tape, which you’ll eventually have to order more of if you want to continue using it (But I think any tape will work — it doesn’t have to be their tape necessarily).
The rectangular thing vibrates every time you slouch, and the data syncs with its app to show you how often you’re slouching.
Getting started with Upright is super self-explanatory, as their onboarding is pretty legit, so I won’t dive into how to get set up. If my mom can figure it out on her own, so can you. 😉
Track your weight.
I wish — SO MUCH — that I had been tracking my weight for the last few years because I wouldn’t be where I am right now if I had been.
Tracking my weight is literally changing my life. It’s probably the biggest motivating factor behind why I’ve traded in my unhealthy habits for a more healthy lifestyle.
Withings offers three different scales, but I went with the Body+ because I thought it gave me the most bang for my buck.
I paid $99.95, but it’s on sale right now for $74.96 (not sure how long that will last).
The scale connects to WiFi and comes with an app (iPhone and Android versions) that automagically syncs with your scale, so you can visualize your metrics over time (which is invaluable!).
Health Mate (the app) tracks:
- Body Mass Index (BMI)
- Body Fat %
- Total Body Water %
- Muscle Mass (kg or lb)
- Bone Mass (kg or lb)
I like to review all of the above, but in particular: weight, BMI, body fat, and muscle mass.
The Health Mate app also has a great onboarding process, so it’s more than easy to set up. And I love how it explains what everything means in an easy-to-digest way with its in-app content. It also tells you what healthy ranges are for each metric based on your weight, height, and age.
Track your water intake.
Experts recommend we drink eight 8-oz glasses of water per day, which equates to about two liters, or half a gallon. This is known as the 8×8 rule.
I purchased a Hidrate Spark, which is a smart water bottle that syncs with an app, other fitness trackers, and notifies (by lighting up) you throughout the day when you need to drink.
You can set daily goals with the app and view your progress overtime.
Track your food.
I don’t currently use anything to track calories because it’s such a manual process still, and I find the inaccuracy frustrating. Seriously, it’s 2019. I expected an automated and accurate calorie tracker by now.
(Let’s brainstorm how to bring the above baby to life! If you have any ideas on how it’d work, tell me in the comments!)
The free version will work just fine, but if you want to upgrade, it’ll either be $9.99 per month or $49.99 per year.
Track your movement.
I started tracking my movement, when I bought an Apple Watch because it automatically tracks three key activities daily:
- How many calories you burn in a day
- How many times you stand per hour
- How many minutes you exercised that day
During the onboarding process, it forces you to set goals for all of the above.
You can’t escape these metrics because they’re right there on your screen every time you look at your watch.
While I went with the Apple Watch, you could track all these metrics with a FitBit or a Garmin or Withings fitness band. I’ve read that FitBit’s data is the most accurate. Could be fake news, though. 😉
Any easy way to get started with exercise is by simply moving more, hence the reason I’m suggesting tracking your steps.
The average American walks 3,000 to 4,000 steps a day, or roughly 1.5 to two miles. Before setting a goal, figure out what your current daily baseline is, then pick a target from there.
I aim for at least 10,000 steps a day, because I read (everywhere) that 10,000, which equates to five miles, is a good target for a healthy adult.
“Healthy adults can take anywhere between approximately 4,000 and 18,000 steps/day, and 10,000 steps/day is a reasonable target for healthy adults.”
If you’re looking for a way to compare your daily steps to an activity level, consider the following categories:
Don’t let yourself get too carried away with this metric. Just use it as a way to incrementally increase your movement throughout the day. I will admit, though, that tracking your steps is extremely motivating, if you’re competitive.
I also use my Watch’s Activity tracker to track my workouts.
All I have to do is go to the app on my watch, choose the type of workout I’m about to start, and then click record.
Until I end my workout, it shows me amount of time completed, current heart rate, as well as calories burned. It’s good to know your target heart rate based on your fitness goals, and then make sure you’re reaching it for some period of time during every workout.
Heart Rate Variability (HRV)
TLDR: At rest, a high HRV is generally favorable and a low HRV is unfavorable. When in an active state, lower relative HRV is generally favorable while a high HRV can be unfavorable. (source)
I never understood the point of HRV, until I downloaded the Gyroscope app.
Heart rate variability, or HRV, is a new metric that reveals your stress level and whether you have recovered from your last workout. It’s been added to a lot of watches recently including Apple Watch since watchOS 4 & iOS 11.
HRV tells you how stressed your body is. It sounds weird, but the higher your HRV, the lower your stress levels.
How to use and improve your HRV via Cult of Mac
There’s more to HRV than just idle curiosity. When you get used to looking at your HRV and you have established a baseline (i.e. what normal readings look like for you), you can then use it to help you decide what kind of workout you should do.
When you have a low HRV, that suggests your body is under some stress. Maybe you did an intense workout the previous day and your body is still recovering from it, in which case you have earned yourself a rest day.
When your HRV is higher than average, that might mean you’re in top form and your body is ready for a more challenging workout.
If you’ve been sick, you might notice that your HRV is lower than usual, and it might be wise to hold off on exercise until it returns down to your normal level.
A wide array of things can cause your body stress.
Common causes include getting sick and worrying a lot. An example of good stress would be that caused by exercising.
Heart rate variability is a way of detecting the level of stress your body is under. Generally speaking (and a little counterintuitively), the higher your HRV, the lower your stress levels.
Follow your HRV trends over time, and you’ll begin to see patterns in how it changes or how your body responds to exercise, anxiety, and sickness. Beware of an unusually low HRV too, as it could indicate you’re about to get sick.
“Just choose a rating from 1–5 and save! It’s optional, but we highly recommend you also write a short note about what made your day good or bad. It’ll add context about your day for when you look back.”
Then it helps you figure out what makes you happy. (Crazy, right?!)
“Exist combines your mood ratings with all the other data you track, to find trends and correlations that can help you figure out what makes you happier. Perhaps it’s listening to a particular artist that perks up your mood, or spending more time being active. Maybe sleeping less leads you to rate your day lower. Exist will find the correlations you can’t find by yourself.”
Another benefit? You can create custom tags for anything you want to track.
Example tags: piano, floss, french, meditation, reading, guitar
“When combined with mood, you can get a more complete picture of your emotional well-being by tracking emotions, energy levels, and mental health symptoms. Whether you’re dealing with a chronic condition or simply want to have more happy days, Exist can help you find the trends and correlations to make that happen.”
I’ll talk about this app in more detail later on, though, because it has a lot more cool features and integrates with a lot of key trackers.
Exist costs $6/month or $57/year.
This might sound really old-school, but a soft-cover Moleskine and a good pen can be a phenomenal mood tracker tool as well. #SuccessfulPeopleJournal
Track your screen time.
Personal Screen Time
Fairly recently, Apple released the “Screen Time” feature on its devices to show you how much time you’re spending on them.
It looks like this:
Note: Make sure to turn on the feature in your settings if you want to track this.
If you work on the computer, I recommend tracking your work and personal screen time separately because it’s easier to see how you’re splitting your time.
For instance, I spend significantly less time on my phone (personal) than I do on my computers (work), so I focus more on tracking the latter than the former.
Work Screen Time
I’ve been tracking how much time I spend on the computer for years now.
For 95 percent of that time, I’ve used Timing (Mac app) because it automatically tracks your time and syncs across Apple devices.
While I still use Timing, I also purchased a subscription to RescueTime because it was cheap ($36 / year), and it integrated with this app I’ll tell you about soon — Gyroscope, which is like a life dashboard.
When I first installed Timing, I was flabbergasted by how much time I was logging on my Mac. It’s the first thing that really alerted me to the fact that I wasn’t living a healthy or sustainable lifestyle.
Timing hangs out in your Mac’s menu bar (see above), so you’re constantly aware of your screen time.
I find this helpful in triggering me to get off before my productivity score plummets. (This is what usually happens toward the end of my day… my productivity score deteriorates before my eyes, as it should I guess.)
Track your tasks.
My first full-time boss was the worst micromanager ever. He made me turn in a sheet that listed everything I’d done for the day, minute-by-minute. Talk about a time suck.
Eight years ago, I didn’t see the value in doing this. Today, I do.
For one, tracking your daily tasks forces you to get stuff done because you’re acutely aware of your productivity.
More importantly, it helps you keep track of your achievements, so you don’t have to scramble to figure out what you did all year when performance reviews roll around or when you need to build a new resume or update your portfolio.
Option 1: My System
My system is far from perfect or automated, and I tend to change methods/tools every few months. But here’s how I’m finding it easiest to do it right now.
Each night, I take a blank piece of computer paper, and I write down in a schedule format what I must accomplish along with any hard stops (meetings, appointments, etc.) for the next day.
I cross off items as I finish them. On the back of the paper, I jot down any “interruptions,” such as last minute, higher priority tasks that my boss asks me to do on the fly, for example.
This way, I know why I didn’t get everything done, and I can clearly articulate the reason to my manager if need-be.
If I finish a big project, or if I created any reports on any given day, I save those to my Trello “Achievement” board. I save absolutely anything that may pose useful career-wise, in the future.
Take screenshots, save spreadsheets, and PDFs — anything that will prove you’re an asset to a company/client.
Option 2: Task tracker
There are a million and one productivity apps, making it extremely easy to get analysis paralysis.
I’ve tested many different to-do list apps, and Todoist, is by far the most addicting.
NOTE: While I used Todoist religiously for a while, randomly, one day, I noticed I just fell off the wagon and stopped using it. Not sure why exactly because it did make me more productive.
The Premium version is only $36 per year, which I find completely reasonable.
A premium membership allows you to further customize the app (create custom filters, labels, and comments) and see your productivity trends over time.
The most motivating aspect of Todoist is its Karma feature, which gamifies your work.
As you successfully complete tasks on time in Todoist, you’ll gain Karma points and achieve new Karma levels. You can see your current Karma points and level by selecting the Karma tab from the Productivity view.
You earn Karma when you:
- Add tasks.
- Complete tasks on time.
- Use advanced features like labels, recurring due dates, and reminders.
You earn bonus Karma when you:
- Reach your daily and weekly task goals.
- Achieve new daily and weekly streaks.
You lose Karma when you:
- Have tasks that are 4 or more days overdue.
Todoist also makes pretty, year-in-review-reports for its members at the end of every year.
More Resources on Todoist
Track your meetings.
Ever wonder how much time you’re wasting in meetings?
I did, so I connected my calendar to this free tool called Meeting Stats, which analyzes your calendar and produces easily digestible meeting stats.
Here’s what the report looks like:
Track your network.
Your network is your net worth, so it’s not a bad idea to track your relationships. Of course, this is a more qualitative category, but it’s important nonetheless.
How could you track your network?
I use Bonsai to track my client relationships.
It’s like an all-in-one dashboard for freelancers.
You can even manage your accounting in this app.
Emails are the best way to keep track of all your relationships, because it’s probably how you communicate with most people outside your company.
Track your Google activity.
Track your money.
I make a decent amount of money, but I have very terrible spending habits, which can make life stressful, especially when you just wing it and hope for the best.
In the past, I’ve tried Mint, Learnvest, and a few other similar budgeting apps, but this habit just never stuck before.
Recently, I started a free trial of You Need a Budget (YNAB), and it’s really grown on me. It’s the first finance app I’ve actually used every day so far, and it’s definitely curbing my spending because I don’t want to see my money disappear.
It’s free for 34 days and costs $6.99 per month after that. I will be subscribing. I find this app crucial now.
There is a little bit of a learning curve, but support is available through chat in the app, and they respond super fast. You can read about how the app works in detail here.
You can even take free online workshops to help you reach your specific money goals with the app.
I have a nice chunk of debt thanks to student loans and other things that piled up in college when I was a broke AF.
A few months ago, I hired someone to help me repair my credit so I can buy my condo by the end of the year, but also because having bad credit can seriously hold you back in life since so many big-ticket purchases revolve around your credit score.
Anyway, my credit repair specialist insisted I don’t use Credit Karma to monitor my credit. I listened to him because I’ve always been a bit suspicious of the company that gives you your credit score “for free.”
Now, instead of Credit Karma, I monitor my credit with IdentityIQ, which is $9.99+ per month. I know it’s not pretty or free, but I feel safer, and I’m not inundated with ads for credit cards I can’t even get right now.
To save money, you could register for a month, and then export your report along with creditors and their contacts you owe money to. Then, you could organize the information into a spreadsheet.
Track your learning.
If I could only pick one app for the rest of my life, I’m pretty confident it’d be Pocket.
Pocket is a read-it-later app that allows you to save articles across the web. As a writer, I find Pocket invaluable.
While Pocket doesn’t have built-in analytics, it does give you pretty cool year-in-reviews.
Obviously, you may want to track this throughout the year though. I personally don’t because I find it extremely easy to read a lot (I LOVE reading!!).
But if you don’t, there are a few resources you can use to get the data you want out of Pocket whenever you want.
The Non-Developer Solution via Quartz at Work:
When writing this article, it became clear that this method is not accessible for a lot of people. I decided to think about a non-developers solution. Thanks to the editor of my company’s blog, Becky, I’m prototyping a simple process using IFTTT + Pocket.
I created a public applet that links Pocket to Google Spreadsheets. Unfortunately, Pocket doesn’t have a field for the archived date, so I’m using tags to track the month I read the article. The result will look something like this:
The D column is related to the time this article was added to Pocket. I decided to keep it so I can easily see the time from added to read. It’s not very elegant to have to add a tag every time I read an article, but it seems to work ok.
Now that we have the spreadsheet, it becomes straightforward to retrieve the data we want. The monthly date tags in column A are numbers, making the articles easy to sort and count. I still don’t have charts for this data, but they’ll be easy to build in Google Sheets depending on the trends I want to track.
You could use a subscription app, like Zapier, to develop your own reading system and then create a custom tracking solution.
Zapier is like IFTTT. It allows you to automatically do stuff.
I’d think the Pocket + Google Sheets integration would pose most useful. Check everything you can do with this pair here, and see if you come up with anything.
Free Extensions That Give You Pocket Stats
Other Helpful Articles/Inspiration
Books are easier to track than articles, thanks to Goodreads, which integrates with the Kindle store and automatically populates a Facebook-like profile centered around the books you’ve read/are reading.
I don’t really keep too close of an eye on this because I tend to use Blinkist and Pocket WAY more for reading. I find books to say a lot of things that don’t need to be said, which is such a waste of time.
If you go to the left-hand menu, you’ll see the heading, “Your reading activity,” and below that is your “Reading stats,” which look something like this:
Degreed is like a social network for learning.
Users share stuff such as a good article they’ve read or a new course they’ve completed.
This is what you can feature on your profile:
I LOVE the concept, and it’s free, but I don’t use it for a few reasons.
- It features too much poorly curated content, featuring courses I’ve heard from numerous people are a waste of money.
- The site isn’t exactly user-friendly. It could definitely be easier to navigate.
- It’s too much work to use it.
With all that being said, I’m feeling inspired by it to hack my own system together because this would save me a lot of time whenever I update my portfolio again.
I could hack this together by creating a private Facebook group and dumping everything I do each day as a quick post to myself. I could use Pinterest as well, but Facebook would probably be easier.
Here’s what someone who actually tracks their music has to recommend for this one:
Last.fm usually sends yearly reports as well, and they are fabulous:
Both apps provide statistics on your listening time. For Podcast Addict, you will have something like this under settings > stats:
Unfortunately, the apps don’t make the data easy to extract. When I added up all the months to write my year-in-review, I had to do it manually. In general, it’s enough for you to think about the amount of content you’re consuming and how much it’s contributing to your personal development.
Track your social media usage.
I used to do this, but not really anymore.
Timehop was my app of choice, when I did.
Each day, it shows you what you were doing on that day according to your social media accounts 1, 2, 3+ years ago.
Beware of exes creeping into these reviews, though. It’s probably not ideal for newly single people.
“The best kind of happiness is a habit you’re passionate about.” — Sharon L. Adler
“You can’t make yourself feel positive, but you can choose how to act, and if you choose right, it builds your confidence.” — Julian Smith
Gyroscope gathers all the personal data I track about my life via my Apple Watch, social media, and location sharing, and presents it into a unified dashboard.
Not only does Gyroscope aggregate your stats in one dashboard, but it also supercharges your data with context, so you can make lasting changes.
Gyroscope collects everything:
- Heart Rate
- Resting Heart Rate
- Heart Rate Variability
- Sports activities
- Body fat
- DNA (Even integrates with 23andme!)
My two favorite features?
- The ability to set and track goals (i.e. Lose 2 lbs this week)
- The personalized health score
The health score is a single number (between 1–100) that tells you how healthy you are overall. When your body is doing well and all your metrics are positive, your score will be close to 100. If issues are found, such as too little sleep, or your habits are unhealthy, your score will drop, and you’ll get a warning about what is wrong.
Here’s what this looks like:
These are premium features. Premium costs $69.99/year.
I also purchased Exist, which is $6/month or $57/year, to see how it compared to Gyroscope.
I haven’t used it much, but if I did, I think it’d pose useful.
The biggest difference between the two is how the apps look. Exist is not as visually appealing, and I find myself checking Gyroscope often because when I check Exist, it’s just not providing me with as useful information as Gyroscope.
This may just be because I haven’t been using Exist, and with these types of apps, you need to use them to get value from them.
One cool feature of Exist is how it surfaces correlations between what you do and your data/results. This can be helpful for recognizing patterns or breaking/creating habits.
The first step to changing your life is awareness.
Developing good habits can be extremely difficult, but it helps if you keep this in mind:
“Everything sucks at first, very few things suck forever.” (source)
The first step to solving any problem is being aware of the problem. If you aren’t aware of it, then you can’t fix it. And the best way to stay aware of your life is by tracking it.
Even if you don’t have any bad habits, tracking your life will prevent you from ever developing bad ones because you’ll catch issues before it’s too late, and you wind up overweight and unhappy like I was.
Socrates once said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I can’t help but wholeheartedly agree.
Try it. You’ll change your life forever.