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Ultimate Guide 02:
Self-Tracking

Know thyself. Through numbers.

Admittedly, I used to think Formula One (F1) racing was a boring sport in which “athletes” tediously drove around in circles. More context: I’m a former college baseball player. So yeah. For me to think a sport is boring is saying a whole lot…

But I was dead wrong about F1. Now here’s why: these are NOT simply automobile teams. They’re technology teams piloting the most advanced applications of machine learning, cloud computing, and data analytics.

Did you know that a modern F1 vehicle has 300 onboard sensors and generates 100,000 parameters of information?1 That’s everything from tire wear to engine levels to driver responsiveness, and even the amount of G forces a motorist feels going into a turn.

Formula One car on tack
F1 cars have a top speed record of 246.908mph (397.360km/h) and can go 0-62mph (100km/h) in 2.5 seconds.2

Where does all that data go? Straight to the “pit wall”—the trackside lab filled with the racing team’s analysts and strategists. From there, the data reveals the optimal course of action.

In the words of Forbes journalist Jeff Koyen, “The team can make certain adjustments during the race itself in response to track conditions, the weather, or even data-driven predictive warnings of a potential part failure.”3

Monitoring F1 vehicle performance is especially important. An F1 car contains about 80,000 components, about 90% of which must be replaced throughout a 23-race season.4

Alan Jacobson, Alteryx chief data and analytics officer, adds, “If you can beat your competition with fewer parts [or] you pick the right repairs in a certain window of time, that can be the difference between winning and losing a race.”5

There’s no better example than Max Verstappen’s 2021 title race,6 in which he topped Lewis Hamilton to decide the World Championship. Picture it: the final lap (out of 70), and Lewis Hamilton is in the lead. He briefly glances in his rearview to see Verstappen rapidly approaching and nervously asks his pit crew, “Does he have fresh tires behind me?”

All to say, data constitutes the foundation of a racing team’s strategy. Data clarifies improvement opportunities otherwise blind to the naked eye. It's the fuel to breakthrough performance.

Although the human body is comprised of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen (rather than carbon fiber and processing chips), our bodies, too, are advanced systems. Therefore we can use data to operate like powerful, fine-tuned machines.

Now, we don’t need to put 300 sensors on ourselves. But, if you want to squeeze every single drop out of your potential, tracking five to seven of the RIGHT things (sleep, hydration, etc.) is the answer.

Let’s get started. In 3, 2, 1…

What is Self-Tracking?

Self-tracking is the practice of collecting data on yourself to enhance self-knowledge. The goal? To discover actionable insights for improvement.

Perhaps you’ve heard the famous quote, “What gets measured gets managed.” (Fun fact: Peter Drucker never actually said that, but it rings even more true now than in his day.)

Across both life and business, keeping track of your health, wealth, and time can help you better manage those factors on a day-to-day basis.

Note: Self-tracking is sometimes referred to as personal analytics, quantified self, or data-driven lifestyle. I’ll use them synonymously throughout this guide.

 


 

History of Quantified Self

The Quantified Self Movement—also known as QS—put contemporary self-tracking on the map. Founded in 2007, QS is an international community of people interested in self-knowledge through numbers.7

Interestingly, Google Search data show that interest in the term “Quantified Self” hit its peak in 2013 and then fell off dramatically.8

Google search interest of quantified self

My opinion: QS stagnated because, while it showed people how to track, it wasn’t prescriptive regarding what’s useful to track.

I’m forever grateful to QS because it taught people like me how to fish. But what didn’t QS teach? When to fish, where to fish, or the best fish to eat. In other words: What self-tracking metrics will lead to the most significant personal development gains?

For instance, a data-driven baseball team could track the amount of time a pitcher chews gum in between pitches. But would that be useful? A more insightful metric might be a pitcher’s fastball velocity correlated to how many pitches they’ve thrown in the game (as a measure of conditioning and sustained performance).

By all means, people should measure the growth rate of their fingernails if that’s what makes them happy! It’s just not likely to foster greater levels of wealth, health, or free time. If you’re anything like me, those three outcomes interest you.

Without clear direction on what to measure and why they’re measuring it, people experience decision paralysis. In the words of author Daniel Pink, “Clarity on how to think without clarity on how to act can leave people unmoved.”9

At System Sunday, I’m clear about tracking the metrics that involve the least time investment and lead to the biggest payoff in self-knowledge, actionable insights, and personal growth.

Despite my mom telling me otherwise, I don’t think I’m special. I’ve simply read 214 books on personal development. Based on those books, I’ve developed a strong intuition of the most important metrics to measure. Now, I’m excited to share those metrics with you and how they’ve transformed my life.

I publish a weekly dashboard of my seven self-tracking metrics for personal energy management. There, you can access a free playbook on my favorite data-driven lifestyle products (like Oura Ring).

Next, we’ll discuss the underlying principles of self-tracking. These are the “what” and the “why” of building your domain knowledge, leading to belief and motivation. Then, you’ll be ready to take full advantage of the “how” when I share some cutting-edge tactics.

 


 

Principles of Personal Analytics

While products and services come and go, principles are timeless. Here, we’ll discuss the four core principles of self-tracking:

  1. Data Omnipresence
  2. Self-Knowledge Through Numbers
  3. Bounded Rationality
  4. Feedback Loops 

Principle #1: DATA OMNIPRESENCE

The notes are right underneath your fingers. You just gotta take the time to hit the right notes.
RAY CHARLES

You’re constantly creating data, whether you measure them or not. A decision not to collect data is itself a data point. With self-tracking, people capture their useful data to discover improvement opportunities and truths hidden in plain sight.

Ray Charles once said, “The notes are right underneath your fingers. You just gotta take the time to hit the right notes.”10

Similarly, the data is always there. We just gotta take the time to identify, collect, and act on what’s valuable—to hit the right notes.

Caveat: In an ideal world, the things we’d measure and optimize for are feelings: love, enthusiasm, creativity, etc. Perhaps, one day, there will be biometric tools to codify and measure these emotions in our brains—or, if Elon Musk and Neuralink have anything to do about it, create those feelings on demand.11 Today, our self-tracking efforts are better spent on things we can directly quantify, like time spent meditating, which contributes to feelings of love, enthusiasm, and creativity.

Principle #2: KNOW THYSELF THROUGH NUMBERS

Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.
ARISTOTLE

Self-knowledge is crucial to understand where you are, where you’re going, and your capabilities to bridge the gap.

Historical strategies for improving self-knowledge (like journaling) are primarily subjective. By subjective, I mean relying on qualitative—often biased—interpretations of events.

As discussed in books like Thinking Fast and Slow and Predictably Irrational, many cognitive heuristics prevent people from experiencing reality objectively. For example, illusory superiority compels most people to impossibly mark their performance as above average.12

So, what’s new about self-tracking? Its immediate addition to value by reinforcing the pursuit of self-knowledge with objectivity, helping lift the cloud of human bias.

Don’t misunderstand me: I believe quantitative AND qualitative methods for knowing yourself are valuable. I journal every morning. It’s just that most people entirely skip the quantitative.

My question is: Why does self-tracking make people more uncomfortable than journaling?

I think it’s because unfiltered data reveal the fallibility of humans—that we are prone to making errors in decision making and acting irrationally. In other words, the data challenges our ego.

Deborah Lupton, the author of The Quantified Self, advances this point:

“For some people, self-tracking may be a sign of weakness, of inability to engage in self-management without technological assistance.”13

My take: The most successful people of the future will work with technology to achieve unprecedented levels of wealth, health, and free time. There’s no room for ego on this accelerated path to personal freedom.

Another reason people avoid self-tracking? The feedback can be uncomfortable, especially when the data indicates incongruence between our actions and identities (a psychological state known as cognitive dissonance).

In the words of Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, “If most of us remain ignorant of ourselves, it is because self-knowledge is painful, and we prefer the pleasures of illusion.”14

Let’s refuse the soma15 and press on. 

Principle #3: BOUNDED RATIONALITY

Decision-makers can’t respond to information they don’t have.
DONELLA MEADOWS

The behavioral economics term of bounded rationality16 explains that we base our best decisions on the information available to us.

Let’s bring this to life with an example.

Imagine you’re an unknown author, and you’re about to release your first book. You know that choosing a good book title and cover design will be crucial to getting sales traction. There are two approaches (although you may only be familiar with one of them):

  • Go with your intuition and pick the one that looks the coolest
  • Split test several options using Google Ads

One such author chose #2, statistically raising his odds of success. That book sold over two million copies. Thus, The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss became an international best-seller.17

In the words of HBR journalist Howie Jacobsen about Ferriss’ original title for that book, “it’s hard to imagine Broadband and White Sand generating the same buzz.”

The critical thing to note: If you didn’t know about marketing techniques like split testing, Option 1 would have seemed an entirely rational decision.

So, what do you think is the most frequent cause of suboptimal decisions? It’s limited information.

Donella Meadows, author of Thinking in Systems, sums this nicely: “Decision-makers can’t respond to information they don’t have.”18

Think about it: Why would anybody wish to be wrong? Everybody is trying to be right. The gap between wanting and being is often one of information.

Meadows writes, “It’s amazing how quickly and easily behavior changes can come, with even slight enlargement of bounded rationality, by providing better, more complete, timelier information.”19 

The bottom line: Self-tracking expands the limits of our bounded rationality. Our next principle dives deeper into self-tracking’s underlying mechanism of feedback loops.  

Principle #4: FEEDBACK LOOPS

Dad, can we please just use
the GPS?
TOO MANY PEOPLE

“Dad, can we please just use the GPS?” This is a common debate during a family car ride.

If you’re like me, you want to use the GPS and know you took the wrong exit AS SOON AS HUMANLY POSSIBLE.

You can think of feedback like a GPS, course-correcting when you stray off the path and alerting you when you’re on the quickest route.

In Thinking in Systems, Meadows shares a fascinating study in which homes that had visible energy meters in the front entryway rather than in the basement consumed one third less energy.20

Why did this happen? The energy meters in the front entryway provided owners feedback on their energy use. That feedback helped shape and guide future behaviors of greater efficiency.

You see, feedback is crucial to know whether you are making progress. It turns out that knowing you are making progress is wildly motivating. As Daniel Pink, author of Drive, shares: “The single biggest day-to-day motivator on the job is making progress in meaningful work.”21 (I think we can agree that building the best version of ourselves is a meaningful and badass endeavor.)

Let me explain this dynamic of feedback and motivation further.

Knowing that you are making progress leads to motivation, which you’ll likely reinvest in the same activity, empowering you to improve even further. This reinforcing loop is known as a virtuous cycle.

As I mentioned earlier, the pursuit of self-knowledge is not new. What’s new are the measurement tools available to us that enhance self-knowledge through feedback. These smart devices enable, track, and reinforce positive habits.

I refer to this emerging category of positive habit-building devices as habitech.

defining habitech with oura ring

One example of habitech: HidrateSpark, a smart water bottle that automatically tracks my daily hydration. The base of the bottle subtly glows to remind me to drink more water in real time. Its mobile app gamifies the experience showing a dial with markers of current intake vs. recommended pace. (And, like Google maps, you better believe I’m trying to beat that ETA!)

What’s most interesting here is using technology to track performance automatically. Stick with me because this is crucial.

Historically, one constraint of self-tracking is that it takes too much time. Most people are too lazy (or too busy) and can’t be bothered. In the words of Kimberly “Sweet Brown” Wilkins: “Ain’t nobody got time for that.”22

Here is one area in which I see habitech taking personal development to an unprecedented level: providing people timely and accurate information with little or no extra effort. The inevitable result? Better decisions.

Curious to learn more about habitech? I write extensively about this emerging category of products in my Superhuman Trends Report [2022].

 


 

Self-Tracking Tools

Every week, I publish an Energy Dashboard of seven powerful self-tracking metrics for energy optimization.

I track energy-related metrics because my energy has cascading effects on everything I do (health, career, relationships, etc.). In the 80/20 ratio of personal development, this is the 20% of the activities that lead to 80% of the results.

Earlier I mentioned the importance of having a clear direction on what to track to realize the life-changing benefits of personal analytics. So I’ve created a free playbook that reveals my go-to metrics, products, and strategies.

Here’s a direct sign-up:

7 Powerful Self-Tracking Metrics for Energy Management

Download the free playbook that
reveals my exact tools and strategies.

My challenge to you: Start tracking a single metric. Pick an area where you feel you have the most room for growth. For example, perhaps you check your phone too much (like me) and want to spend less time distracted.

Tracking your daily phone pickups may be an excellent free place to start. And when I say “track,” I mean looking at the numbers. All our phones can tell us our screen time and step count. But, if you never look at those, you’re not actually tracking them.

The key is knowing what you’ll do with that info. Perhaps you’ll charge your phone outside your bedroom if your screen time is up. If your step count is down, you can take a walking meeting tomorrow. All to say, it’s essential to have an action plan, which is why I’ve included those details in the playbook.

I want to emphasize something here: The seven metrics I report weekly are NOT all or nothing. On the contrary, each is powerful. Should you decide to combine the metrics, you’ll experience a force multiplier—that’s all.

 


 

Quotes About Data-Driven Lifestyle

It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.
SHERLOCK HOLMES

“Information is the oil of the 21st century, and analytics is the combustion engine.” —Peter Sondergaard

“Without self-knowledge, without understanding the working and functions of his machine, man cannot be free, he cannot govern himself and he will always remain a slave.” —G. I. Gurdjieff

“To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom.” —Aristotle (attributed)

“If most of us remain ignorant of ourselves, it is because self-knowledge is painful and we prefer the pleasures of illusion.” —Aldous Huxley

“Understanding patterns in one’s life is the starting point for making changes on the basis of these observations, and new digital technologies support this endeavor.” —Deborah Lupton

“The data derived from self-tracking appear to offer at least some degree of certainty, which one’s own perceptions cannot attain, and a relatively high degree of control over the messiness and unpredictability of the fleshly body” —Deborah Lupton

“If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.” —Jim Barksdale, former Netscape CEO

“In God we trust, all others bring data.” —W. Edwards Deming

“The core advantage of data is that it tells you something about the world that you didn’t know before.” —Hilary Mason

 


 

All Articles on Self-Tracking

 


 

About the Author

Ben Meer writes about technology, systems thinking, and conscious living. Tired of non-actionable life advice, Ben started System Sunday to teach people how to use tech-enabled and data-driven systems to accelerate personal growth.

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