That’s an actual graph of my productivity this week.

That’s an actual graph of my mood. Notice anything?

Lately I’ve become obsessed with metrics. “Metrics” is a fancy way of saying “something you can measure.” Metrics, data, analytics; anything that takes my life and puts it in graph form, I love.

Why the sudden interest in measuring things? As it turns out, measuring your life is the key to improving it. In this post, I’ll introduce the newest movement in self-improvement and show you how you can use it to start improving your own life today.

Self-Management: Why Measurement Works

The latest obsession with metrics and measurement comes from what I’d call the “self-experimentation movement.” This is the self-improvement style most commonly attributed to Tim Ferriss (of 4-Hour Workweek and 4-Hour Body fame).

(A quick caveat before we continue: I realize that many people despise Tim Ferris. I happen to like him. His blog is required reading if you’re interested in where modern self-improvement is headed, good or bad.)

Ferris has done a lot to popularize the measurement-based approach, but there’s more going on here than just one author’s interests. I think a good deal of the recent interest in measuring ourselves comes from an increasingly-scientific view of what makes us behave the way we do. We’ve all become much more comfortable with the idea that our behavior isn’t entirely self-directed – that outside forces and factors influence what we do.

The main reason I’d suggest incorporating some measurement into your life is that it’s an extremely effective tool for achieving goals and improving performance. Simply measuring an outcome has been shown in multiplie studies to have a positive effect on that outcome: weighing yourself and keeping track of your weight each day, for example, has been shown to lead to weight-loss even without any deliberate modification of diet, exercise, etc.

Peter Drucker, perhaps the most influential management and productivity author of all time, coined the phrase “What gets measured, gets managed.” He was talking about business, but the principle applies just a strongly to our personal lives.

Frankly, we all think we know more about what we do each day than we actually do. Humans have been shown to fundamentally misunderstand all sorts of things about their own behavior: how much they drink on average, how many calories they take in each week, how intelligent they are. We are extremely skilled at rationalization: we explain away our mistakes and keep our successes front and center in our minds. We gloss over all sorts of little things, ignoring the cumulative effects of small behavioral changes. We focus on the now, forgetting even basic facts about our past behavior (what did you have for dinner a week ago?).

We’re a mystery to ourselves.

Measurement helps to eliminate this uncertainty, giving us an accurate picture of our present: just how many calories do you take in, on average? How many drinks do you actually have each week?

Measurement has other benefits, however, especially when we’re considering habit-creation (something I’ve been talking a lot about in the email course I’m currently running.) A record of your successes has a powerful motivating effect: a feeling of accomplishment and a reluctance to “break the streak” can help you stay the course when willpower is low.

All this means that, if you’re trying to change a behavior, build a new habit, or just get better at something, measuring your successes and failures is one of the most important things you can do.

Luckily, it’s never been easier.

Useful Websites For Self-Measurement

There are a lot of websites out there for creating, tracking, and analyzing data. I’ll show you the ones I use, and some suggested applications of these powerful tools.

General Data Tracking – is an API meant to take data from real-world sources. It can be used for everything from tracking geiger-counter readings in Japan to measuring volcanic activity.

Thankfully, it can also be used to measure more mundane things – for example, the number of drinks I have each night.

Yup. That’s how many drinks I had this week (That graph will update each week, by the way.)

Pachube is a complicated application, and it can have a bit of a learning curve. It’s extremely powerful, however, and adaptable to almost any use you can think of. It allows you to create graphs of data in almost any variation you can think up, and observe connections between datasets you might never have expected (you may notice a connection between my mood and the number of drinks I had, for example).

Pachube “feeds” (collections of data) have the added benefit of being editable online or through a handy iPhone app, making data collection simple. The api is also public, meaning that if you’re smarter than I am you could program your scale to update your feed automatically, and so on.

You can check out my public feeds to get an idea of how it all works and see what a mess I’ve become.

Weight Tracking – Hacker’s Diet Online

Screen shot of my Hacker's Diet trends

The Hacker’s Diet is both an online diet guide and a simple web application. The guide is all right, but the web application is pure gold if you’re interested in tracking your weight.

Designed by MIT students, the site is very bare bones – no extraneous graphics, no ad banners. Instead, you’re given very simple tools: pop your weight into the chart that day, add an optional note, and you’re done.

The application takes that data and does a number of useful things with it: it shows you not only a graph showing your weight over time, but provides a “floating average” that helps to take into account things like water weight and daily weight fluctuations. It estimates your daily caloric excess or deficit, and can show you general trends in your weight patterns (as in the chart shown above). You can view customizable graphs that will show you your weight change over specific periods of time, good for isolating periods when you tried new diets or exercise regimes, etc.

I love Hacker’s Diet for tracking weight because it’s minimalist, easy to use, and powerful. There’s even a mobile version of the site; just bookmark the homepage on your smart phone and you’re good to go.

Charting and Visualization – Daytum

Screen shot of part of my page

If you’d like to keep a running tally of something, and don’t need to dig too deeply into the data, is a fun and easy way to track daily activities.

Daytum allows you to create categories and category items that are easily updatable via web or iPhone app. You can then select a display type, and have those datasets displayed dynamically on your Daytum homepage (check out my Daytum page to see an example of how this works).

In effect, this creates a little dashboard for your life. I use Daytum to keep track of more abstract things, things that don’t require a whole lot of analysis: how I felt that day, what I’m stressed about, how many times each week I perform a new behavior I’m trying to turn into a habit.

Tracking Habits – Habit Forge

Screen shot of my page

You may have heard of the “21 Day Rule” for habit creation – “21 days of consecutive successes before a habit become fully ingrained.”

That’s a nice rule of thumb, though it doesn’t apply to all situations. It’s a good way to measure your progress on a goal – how long have you gone without breaking your streak?

HabitForge is a simple way to track this. Each morning, HabitForge will send you an email, asking if you were successful in observing your habit. Click “yes,” or “no,” and you’re done. HabitForge will track your successes, and start your 21-day timer over if you fail. It also tells you your success percentages, good for boosting confidence when you mess up.

HabitForge is pretty bare bones, and they’d like you to upgrade to get more functionality (the free version tracks only one habit). The simple features of the free version, however, are more than enough, and great for keeping track of the one big habit you’re working on.

You can check out my HabitForge goal to get an idea of what the site looks like.

How Do I Eat? – The Eatery

Screen shot of the Eatery iphone app

This iPhone app is simply the best way I’ve found to track what I eat each day.

The problem with food tracking has always been difficulty – I never know how many calories are in what I eat, I never want to weigh or measure my food, and the existing calorie-counting apps are too complicated and slow to make me really want to pull out my phone at the dinner table.

The Eatery is a great way around all these problems: simply pull out your phone, snap an image of what you ate, and you’re done. The app allows other users who eat like you do to anonymously rate your food on a sliding scale of “healthy” to “unhealthy.” No complicated measurements, no quibbling about calories – just eyeball it.

The average of all these ratings is usually fairly accurate, and The Eatery uses this information to provide a general picture of how you eat – how healthy were you this week? How does that compare to last week, or to the average user? It shows your healthiest and unhealthiest meals, and even pulls together insights like your healthiest and unhealthiest times of day, and where you tend to eat your best.

This is a great solution for those of us who want an idea of how we’re eating, but don’t care enough to spend hours each week counting calories and weighing carrots. Use the data in the app to optimize your existing diet (just eat more of your best meal each week) and gain insights into your own behavior (I, for example, eat the worst when I skip breakfast and drive by fast food on the way to work).

Making Measuring Part Of Your Day

If you’re interested in measuring your own life, you’ll need to remember to actually input the data (not as easy as it seems).

There are two important things to keep in mind when trying to work this powerful habit into your life: regularity and simplicity.

You’re going to need regular points in your day when you input data if you want to be consistent. My two points are in the morning (when I answer my HabitForge email, and when I weigh myself while waiting for the coffee to be done) and in the evening (after dinner each day, when I input data into my Daytum and Pachube accounts).

I find this time enjoyable: I get to sit back and really think about how the day went. I might feel fine right now, but I felt crappy this morning; how does that average out? I can also look back on past data and see how I’m doing. Was today better or worse than average? How am I doing overall?

Your input methods also need to be simple and fast. If it takes too long to get your data down, the likelihood of you skipping it altogether increases. We want our data to be as complete as possible, so try to find a method of measurement that fits into your life as painlessly as possible.

For me, that means almost all of my data goes into my phone. I always have it, and it’s fast and easy. Even pen and paper can be simple: set it up beforehand, have the pen right there on the pad, and put the pad somewhere you can’t miss it.

Measuring your life leads to managing your life, and managing your life leads to improved performance, better habits, and less of what holds you back. If nothing else, it provides insight into your own behavior.

It isn’t always easy to hold the mirror up to ourselves, but it’s always worthwhile.