A very good guest post by Matt Mazur - if you enjoy this (and I think you will), then you can find his blog at mattmazur.com. He currently runs two business apps: Preceden.com, a tool for making timelines, and jMockups, a high fidelity web design tool. Here's Matt -
Nine Tips for Getting Started with Life Tracking
Inspired by Sebastian’s posts about the benefits of life tracking, I decided to try it for myself. After several false starts, I’ve now been doing it for almost two months straight and have had some great results. In this post I’ll explain how my current tracking system works and I’ll share some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way.
How it Works
Every Sunday morning I print an eight page document that I use throughout the week to track various aspects of my life. The first page is an overview, which I will fill out at the end of the week to summarize my results. The remaining seven pages are devoted to each day of the week.
Here’s what the summary page looks like:
And here’s what the daily tracking pages look like:
I added notes at the bottom of each screenshot where I thought things might need additional explanation.
At the end of each day I fill out the tracking page for that day. When Sunday rolls around, I flip through the pages and aggregate the results on the summary page. Summarizing the results at the end of the week is a good idea because it lets you quickly gauge how you’ve done and it provides a quick reference so you can compare your progress with previous weeks.
This system works well for me and it might for you too. But getting to this point was not without its challenges.
Here’s a few key lessons I’ve learned along the way, a few of which echo some of Sebastian's advice.
1) Start small
If you decide to make a big change in your life, like starting a daily life tracking routine, your best chance of success is to start with a small change and slowly expand it into something bigger. If you disrupt the status quo too much too quickly, you probably won’t stick with it. When you begin, life tracking should barely have an impact on your current routine which means it should take as little time as possible to complete.
My first attempt at tracking was in November 2010. I typed up a daily tracking sheet in Pages, Mac’s equivalent to Word, which I envisioned myself filling out daily. The problem was that it was way too long: one page, including lots of opened ended questions (“What are your goals for tomorrow?”) and fill in the blanks that required me to do research like “How many sign ups on Preceden and jMockups today?”. It took me about twenty minutes to fill out. I stuck with it for about two days before quitting, justifying it by saying that I didn’t have enough time to do this type of tracking. And I was right.
When I started up again at the beginning of the year, I started with a much, much simpler version that took about 30 seconds to fill out. As time went by, I slowly expanded it by adding new items. Even now, after nearly two months of adding to it, it only takes me about three minutes to fill out. You might decide that you want to track a lot more than I am and that’s fine, but make sure you start with something that’s quick and grow it from there.
2) Never skip a day
If you miss a day or two during the week, you’re going to have a hard time going back at the end of the week and summarizing your results. How, for example, do you calculate the average numbers of hours you’ve slept if you didn’t record it one day? You won’t be able to without either guessing at the hours you slept that night or by qualifying your answer with “On the days I kept track…” which is next to useless. If you’re want to compare your results week to week, there’s nothing more frustrating than not being able to compare a week with another because you missed a day somewhere in there.
And along with the previous point, a short tracking sheet takes less time to fill out, which means you’ll be less likely to miss a day.
3) If you absolutely have to miss a day, fill it out as soon as possible
I try to mark things on the tracking sheet throughout the day as I complete them and finish the rest right before I head to sleep. If I can’t fill it out for whatever reason, I make sure to complete it at my first available opportunity the next day.
Do not wait more than a day to complete it. What time did you go to bed the night before last? What did you have for dinner the day before yesterday? Chances are it will take you a minute to remember, if you can remember at all. For accurate results, complete your tracking sheet as soon as possible.
4) The type of questions you ask are important
Yes/no questions are the simplest type of responses by far. If you’re just getting started, I’d recommend starting with a few yes/no questions to cover a few key areas of your life. Answering a yes/no question takes about half a second. For my tracking, I don’t even have to write a “Y” or an “N” because I include a “Y / N” next to the question so I can quickly circle the answer.
The easiest type of questions to answer next to yes/no are quantitative: How many blog posts? How far did you run? How many times did you eat that thing you’re trying to stop eating? These could also be worded as yes/no questions, but for anything with a quantitative answer you should write the number, not just yes/no, because you get a higher fidelity when you analyze it later down the road.
Following quantitative answers, you’ve got fill in the blank: what time did you go to bed? What did you eat for breakfast? Etc. Because these are usually objective questions (ie. there is a concrete answer), filling them out should not take very long.
At the other end of the spectrum are open ended questions: What are you goals for tomorrow? What mistakes did you make today? These require you to sit back and really think about the answer. These pay a lot of dividends, but are also the most time consuming to answer. You should avoid these until you’ve settled into a tracking routine.
5) Make changes weekly, not daily
During the first two or three weeks of tracking, I wanted to make changes to my tracking sheet almost daily. "Include this… don’t include that." Resist the temptation to change it daily. It makes aggregating your results at the end of the week difficult and you’ll also change your mind a lot a day or two after you originally decide to make the change.
If you want to change your tracking sheet, make a note of it and then on Sunday when you’re preparing for the next week make the edits.
6) Track what you want to change
How do you decide what to track? Write down all the areas of your life where you want to improve and come up with questions that serve that end. Whether it’s exercising more often, eating healthier, or writing more often, tracking how often you do it will help you gauge your progress and, magically, do it more often.
After you’ve met your goal for a specific area, continue tracking it for a few weeks until you’re confident that you’ve made it a long term habit. For example, if your goal is to floss every day and you’ve been successfully tracking and doing it for several months, you can be pretty confident that its part of your routine and that you’ll continue doing it when you stop tracking it.
7) You should not be able to do everything all the time
Marking "No" for an item when it should be "Yes" is a bit unnerving at first, but don't feel like you have to do everything every day. In fact, if you are accomplishing everything you want to do, chances are you're not challenging yourself enough.
Sebastian says aim for a 70% success rate -- that sounds about right.
8) Focus on one big change per month
This one’s inspired by Sebastian’s New Years Resolution post in Get Some Victory: rather than make a whole bunch of sweeping changes to your life on New Years Day, split them up and try to accomplish one per month. A good tracking system should help you achieve these goals.
In January, for example, my goal was to cut out coffee and juice from my diet. This month I’m focusing on eating a healthier breakfast (oatmeal and fruit vs. Frosted Mini Wheats). Had I tried cutting out coffee, juice, and Frosted Mini Wheats on January 1, I’d have had a lot lower chance of succeeding than by breaking it up over the course of the few months.
The great thing about this is that you could conceivable go forever doing this: identify one area per month that you want to improve, focus on it for that month so you make it a habit, and repeat for the rest of your life. With a little bit of discipline, you can become the best possible version of yourself that you can be.
9) For best results, develop your own system
This system works well for me because I started with something simple and then developed it based on my own lifestyle and goals. By all means, gain inspirations from this system and from Sebastian’s, but if you really want to get the most out of life tracking then you should develop your own over time. Experiment with different types of questions, figure out what you like and don’t like, and discover what works best for you.
And once you’ve got something that works well for you, make sure you share your experiences with others via a guest post on Sebastian’s blog :)
That was really good. And yes, please do reach out and share your own experiences with tracking, dear reader.
Ivan Ilic, a professional pianist, just reached out with a guestpost and reaction after reading "I think the biggest barrier for me to overcome was myself." Some really fantastic observations on breaking through in here -
Sebastian’s last post was inspirational to me, but not because of the story itself, poignant though it was. Although I would love to read a more detailed account of R’s unusually successful turnaround, there was a turn of phrase in Sebastian’s response that really resonated with me.
“The good news and bad news is that there’s almost never a silver bullet. So, you can safely stop looking for [it] and start picking up 1% edges, 2% edges here and there. Trend upwards and establish little good habits, a better environment around you, and so on. R covers this when he says, “Make sure that all the small steps you take are taking you in the right direction. A little bit at a time, over a long period, and you’ll always win.”
The only way to realize the power of incremental positive changes over time is by experiencing it yourself. Although self-discipline has not been my biggest problem, I had a serious slump in the second half of last year. When I needed to move my most important projects forward, I seemed paralyzed. Does that sound familiar?
The past six months have been the first time I have orchestrated my own turnaround, without external factors to motivate me. “Picking up 1% edges, 2% edges here and there” and establishing modest good habits has been so effective that looking back over the past six months, I’m still shocked.
I am writing this 8-week guide in conjunction with my "Ask an Expert" LifeHacker Q&A. I will be linking to the Q&A as soon as it is up. I am happy to answer questions if you have your own plan, but I highly suggest that you use this one and stick to it!