Blog Post

Living by the Numbers: What Happens When You Quantify Everything?

Just like most people with web access, my life is well documented. If a future grandchild idly wonders what I did last October 24 in the afternoon, some notebook, blog post, or social networking site will hold the answer.

I decided to take this a step further — what if I made a real effort to note down what I did every minute of my life? What if I recorded all the food I ate, the water I drank, exercises I did, and even my happiness? Not such an impossible feat, given that in this Web 2.0 world there’s an app for everything. So I decided to track my life for at least a week to see how feasible it was to do.

Gathering Tools for Life Tracking

Tracking every aspect of one’s life sounds like a daunting task, so I needed to automate as much of it as possible. I started with ManicTime, a downloadable app that tracks computer usage. Among the stats it gathers are the applications you use and the web sites you visit. You can also tag your timeline to better identify what you were doing at any given time. My tags included “digital fiddling,” “email,” “online reading,” “freelance writing work,” “design work,” and “personal writing.”

While ManicTime is tied to computer usage, I also used it to tag the time I spent away from the computer including “sleep,” “eating,” “chores” and “offline reading.” I simply tracked my offline time via pen and paper and tagged it in ManicTime at the end of the day. This was a handy way for me to compile all my time information in one place, as well as take advantage of ManicTime’s statistical features.

Remembering a previous post by Dawn Foster, I also signed up for DailyBurn to track my nutritional intake as well as my exercise. Its food database was quite extensive, so I rarely had to input nutritional information manually.

Next came the most difficult part: tracking my mood. After a bit of research, I found some specific methods over at Kevin Kelly’s Quantified Self blog. The only disadvantage of the proposed methods was that they were too specific. I wanted something simpler and more automated, so I signed up for Track Your Happiness instead.

Findings and Results

By just the second day of my experiment, I was already learning something. To my surprise, I spend most of my waking hours writing, whether paid (freelance work) or unpaid (personal projects). This came as a surprise because most days I feel like I don’t really do anything, so it’s comforting to know that I spend that much time focused on nothing else but putting one word after another.

Here are some other non-work stats, gathered throughout the entire experiment (daily averages):

  • Digital fiddling — 0.54 hours
  • Sleep — 7.67 hours
  • Family time — 2.67 hours
  • Time spent tracking and analyzing these things — 1.10 hours

I was also glad to discover that I always drank more than nine glasses of water per day. My average calorie count wass within the norm (1638 Calories), but I had the tendency to go over my carbohydrate limits per day.

As for my mood, it appears that I’m a generally happy person — except when I talk to children or work on things I neither want nor have to do. The big surprise, I suppose, is that I’m happiest when I’m planning my business.

Tracking Your Life: Should You Do It?

Here’s the thing I have to admit: except for getting my happiness report, I didn’t finish the experiment. I only lasted until the fifth day, and by then, doing all this tracking was taking its toll on me. I saw that as I tried to keep up with jotting down every fleeting moment, I was getting more stressed. Sure, it only took me roughly an hour a day to track and analyze data, but that’s an hour of my life I’d rather spend on something else.

Quantifying your time, nutrition, and mood can be a learning experience — but you need to know your limits. If tracking your life lessens your enjoyment of it, then either change your approach or only track what’s necessary.

What aspects of your life or work do you keep track of? How do you keep track of them?

Image by karen_d from flickr

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