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My So-Called Quantified Life

After tracking my walking, biking, drinking, and stress levels for weeks, I’ve learned I’m more a creature of habit than I thought.

Until recently, I didn’t pay much attention to the data that makes up my life—how many steps I take each day or miles I bike each week, how often I update my Facebook status, feel stressed out, or have a drink.

A growing group of people do track this sort of data as part of the “quantified self” movement—everything from mood ratings to exercise routines to sleeping and eating habits. The idea is that this kind of tracking can teach us valuable things about ourselves and help us make better choices. Even if we think we know ourselves, the theory goes, tracking can yield surprises.

Self-tracking has gotten much easier in the past few years, with the explosion of smart-phone apps like RunKeeper, Foursquare, and Daytum, and wearable devices like the activity-monitoring Fitbit and sleep-monitoring Zeo. A number of apps and websites have popped up promising to collect and process this data to make self-tracking simpler.

Still, I was skeptical that it would be useful for a creature of habit like me. I ride my bike along pretty much the same route to and from work each day, order the same dishes at the same restaurants, and stick to a reliable eight-hours-a-night sleep schedule. I wasn’t sure what the point would be of charting this stuff.

Regardless, I decided to quantify much of my own data for a few weeks. I signed up for the private beta of a London-based startup called Tictrac, which aims to make it easier to monitor all sorts of activities on and off the Web by integrating with websites like Facebook and LinkedIn, apps like Foursquare and Runkeeper, and gadgets such as Fitbit and the Withings Wi-Fi Body Scale. Tictrac users choose a number of “trackers” for collecting and organizing behavior—some automatically import data from connected services, while others, like one that notes your appetite, require input from the user.

The Tictrac website is still quite rough around the edges (it often seized up on me when I was trying to input information), but it does let you see all your data at a glance, and you can set up projects that group together preselected trackers (the time-management project, for example, can track your activity on Google Calendar, in e-mail, and at the gym). CEO Martin Blinder expects to roll out Tictrac publicly in three to six months.

I set up a mix of trackers that automatically counted things like the frequency with which I updated Twitter and uploaded photos to Facebook, and manual ones where I entered the distance I biked, my stress level, alcohol consumption, and more.

The first thing I learned? I hate manually tracking things. I started the project using my laptop to type in data on Tictrac’s site (you can also use the mobile site to input data; apps are forthcoming). I planned to use the RunKeeper app on my iPhone to track my walking and biking. I could never remember to actually use RunKeeper, though.

It got a lot easier once I started using a Fitbit to automatically track the number of steps I took each day. The counts were off somewhat, since I also wore it while I was biking, and it doesn’t do a great job of tracking distance if you’re not literally pounding the pavement. But it gave me a decent idea of my daily activity level, which, as I suspected, was generally pretty high: During the week of May 14, I traveled between 1.6 and 7.8 miles on foot each day, and this didn’t include much of the mileage I pedaled to and from the office. And the little device, which clips easily to a pocket or waistband, also served as a visual reminder to log the things it couldn’t, such as the frequency and strength of headaches and my stress level.

Tictrac helps you compare the data collected by different trackers for insights, so at the end of my collecting, I tried comparing my stress levels to my frequency of tweets and more. Probably due to the short time-frame, I didn’t get much out of this except that I occasionally tweet more when I’m under greater stress. I found the process of comparing multiple trackers confusing.

But I did enjoy having some analytical tools to see various data points over time on one chart. I suspect that over a longer period of time I’d find this useful. I might be able to determine how factors like what I eat or the music I listen to influences my performance on long bike rides, or how the weather affects my mood. Blinder says the service is working on making the analysis tools more streamlined and simpler. Eventually, you’ll be able to save these comparison charts, and Tictrac will implement some social features as well. “We are very much in learning mode at this stage,” he says.

Me, too. As it turns out, I did learn a few things about myself. Apparently, I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Twitter—I vacillate between rapid-fire tweeting and emitting barely a peep on the social network. I also realized I’m generally less stressed out than I would have guessed. Tictrac gives users a five-point scale, and I usually marked myself a two (“busy”) or three (“anxious”). I never hit the high or low end of the scale.

But frankly, the main thing I realized was that I need to be more spontaneous. So many of my entries were the same: I bike an average of 7.7 miles each weekday (my commute to and from work), and go on a much longer ride on Saturday or Sunday. I tend to drink white wine or a dark and stormy, whether I’m at home or at a bar. This was something I was aware of before I started tracking my habits, but having it laid out in front of me on charts and graphs really made it clear. So while I’m not going to keep logging my life, I will make more of an effort to change up my schedule, mix it up at brunch, or even take a new route home once in a while.

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