How tracking changed my life

Guest Post by Avani Misra

I am honored to have Avani Misra as a guest blogger today.

Avani Misra is - for the most part - a writer. In the smaller parts, she tends to engage in code, business, life hacks, and design. She writes at her blog.

I met Avani over 3 years ago in Dennis Becker's Earn1kADay Insider's Club.

She has helped me in the past with several projects, and is fantastic to work with. She understands the power of networking and is one of the most intelligent people I know, as well as one of the most generous.

Fortunately for us, she also has a deep understanding of measuring and tracking. Read on for some of her great insights on that topic.

We welcome you to leave your questions and comments below in the comments section​. Be sure to check out Avani's blog also. You will want to bookmark it.

​How tracking changed my life

You can't manage what you can't measure.

This is apparently a misquote, according to Wikipedia. Edwards Deming, to whom the quote is usually attributed, actually recognized that a lot of important things cannot be measured.

So let me get this out of the way: of course, not everything is tangible, in life, health, business, or management. Although folks are pushing the bar everyday, with a Kickstarter project going as far as a device that can tell you how many calories you're eating by looking at your food. Anyway, today's post isn't about things that are hard or impossible to measure. It's about things that are easily or do-ably measurable.

Even among things that can be measured, there are roughly two kinds. The first, things that can be monitored on autopilot. Think about the analytics code on your webpage, or your Fitbit/Jawbone/Fuel wristband. The others are those that need to be manually tracked. Like maintaining a personal timelog, a Seinfeld calendar, or tracking your expenses.

The five examples that I just mentioned: website traffic, daily steps, time, habits and money, are the things I track the most, and this post is going to be about them.

Before getting into specifics, let me address the merit of tracking certain things manually. Expenses, for instance. There are websites like Mint that can automatically pull out your bank and credit card transactions. However, I use YNAB (short for "You Need a Budget") for tracking my expenses. They don't do the automated stuff. They don't recommend it. The reason is simple -- the goal of YNAB is to help you keep an eye on your expenses. If the logging happens in the background, you lose out on an important aspect of tracking: mindfulness.

In a helpful comparison with Mint, YNAB explains that tracking your expenses on autopilot kills awareness. Indeed, every single time I make a transaction, I have to enter it manually in YNAB. This has two after-effects. First, there is a small pang of guilt if I overshoot my monthly budget. Second, I see my balances and numbers so often that they are committed to my mental RAM. I know my exact financial situation to the rupee, and having that mental snapshot feels great. It helps me stay in control.

Now I am going to drill down into each of the specific categories and ramble a bit, and hope that the information may be useful to some of you.

Website Traffic

If you have any serious number of visitors hitting your website, you need to be tracking your website activity. Here, the easy part is getting the tracking setup - for most analytics companies, it's a couple of lines of code. The tricky bit here is knowing what to measure. The default metrics spewed out by most companies are often referred to as "vanity metrics". Usually, you are tracking the number of visitors to your page, you might know where they are coming from (both by location, and the referring website). If you are running a business, tracking is not just a curiosity, or a feel-good moment at the end of a long day. It's also a tool to help you with deciding on your next course of action, and learning more about your consumers.

If you have a membership area, chances are that tools like Intercom will help you come up with innovative ways of keeping up with, and retaining your consumer base. If you have a complex funnel, you want to identify conversion rates, or equivalently, points where people appear to drop out. If you run a continuity/SAAS program, your product probably has a lifecycle, and you want to see your users move through various parts of that lifecycle in a reasonably sustained way. These are captured by the now-famous AARRR metrics (aka Startup Metrics for Pirates).

Depending on your scenario, tracking traffic or events live may also make sense. This is especially true when you are pulling off a big product launch, it's good to be looking at your data in real-time. There are a number of services that do this very well, most notably Heat and Gosquared. You might even want to use, in conjunction, a service like Olark to address issues on the fly.

Daily Steps

This one is on the personal front. There is tremendous research backing up the goodness of the walking habit. Either 10,000 steps everyday or a brisk walk for half an hour has enormous health benefits. The great thing about walking is that you can do it anywhere, without too much gear, and there aren't serious precautions to take (unlike with, say, running).

The Fitbit Zip is my favorite gadget. One of the reviews of the Zip on Amazon sums up why I like it so much: it doesn't need recharging (the battery usually lasts six months), it's simple and accurate, and syncs with the mobile apps. It's perfect! I initially thought I'd rely on the motion tracker in the iPhone 5S, but I realized that I don't carry my phone around as much as I thought. The Zip works out perfectly.

Personal trackers are all the rage right now - I think the earliest contenders in the market were Fitbit, Jawbone and Nike; and now there are countless others, including the upcoming Apple Watch. I'd recommend getting a low-maintenance pedometer like the Zip that counts steps accurately irrespective of what else you invest in. I'm not sure if the technology for the other metrics (like quality of sleep or steps climbed) is completely reliable, I've only seen mixed reviews at best. The step trackers are pretty mature though, so I'd heartily recommend those.

If you can set aside twenty or thirty minutes everyday, and you have a weight loss goal in particular, I'd also go with Walk Away the Pounds, which is a straightforward and fun in-place walking program. If you can put up with some potentially weird looks from your family, this program is very easy to do while watching television. Better yet, get your family to join you!

With a desk job, and desk hobbies (sigh), I've unfortunately been a generally inactive person. Within three months of starting to track my walking habit, I've gotten to a consistent 8000 daily average, and I hit the 10K mark quite regularly. While the prospect of 10K steps a day was scary when I started, I'm now quite sure I'll get there in a matter of a few weeks now.

Here's a little trick that's helped me a lot with this goal: I pile up my to-watch videos on my iPad mini and walk around the house while watching them. I generally don't like video material, but I finish off a lot of online courses, TED talks, interviews, and even TV episodes this way. A pair of bluetooth headphones is nice to have, but not essential. I also get a fair amount of my reading on the Kindle done while I'm walking. If I am playing games, it's when I am walking. Now that's a serious win-win! Please do this only at home, though... I do not recommend multi-tasking with anything (not even music) when on the streets! Incidentally, even if your home or room is quite small, it is interesting how you can get used to this once you do it often enough. Try it out -- you might surprise yourself!

Timelog

How often have you wondered about the day whooshing past before you knew it? I'm amazed at how regularly a day, or even a week, goes by and I don't know where all that time went.

All of us have our own time sinks, little blackholes that the hours pour into. Some of them are somewhat universal -- many of us are distracted by social media, email, and other forms of instant communication. Often, time flies by because of our serious inadequacy when it comes to making reasonable estimates of how long something will take. Every "two minutes, Mom!" or "I'll be done in half an hour" can stretch to several multiples of the initial estimate.

Here's a couple of things I did, inspired by several recommendations on the internet.

First, have regular conversations with yourself about what you are doing right now, where you are with respect to your daily to-do list. This is inspired by the SCRUM management style. The idea here, again, is to have a heightened sense of awareness. Every couple of hours, check in with yourself on what exactly you are up to.

Second, track your time. You can do this by using a software that tracks your time on the computer automatically, or you can track things manually (either in a physical journal or on an app). While I have RescueTime installed, I don't check on it as often as I probably should. I mostly rely on ATimeLogger on my iPhone to track practically every minute of my life. ATimeLogger lets you group activities into categories and sub-categories, my main categories are:

  1. Work (Stuff related to my day job)
  2. Business (Learning, reading, product creation, networking, writing, and so on)
  3. Me-Time (Meditating, reading, hobbies, deliberate time offs, and so forth)
  4. Time-Sinks (Facebook, mindless surfing, and so on)
  5. Life (Commutes, sleep, phone calls, lunch-breaks and the like)

ATimeLogger lets me set minimum or maximum goals, which is also handy. Incidentally, I think breaks are really important, but I distinguish between the pseudo-breaks (the time sinks) and the really refreshing breaks (me-time). I try to encourage the latter over the former.

You might be surprised at where you are actually spending most of your time. It can be a bit of a pain to track every second (I find it helps to have a bucket miscellaneous category for when you are unsure about where to bill yourself for the present time). The trickiest bit is that it can be hard to categorize some activities -- you might start on FB to do some necessary networking, but you spiral into checking out gossip and random cat videos. But here's the thing - if you are going to be truthful about your timelogs, for the sake of simplicity, you will try to consciously stay on track! It's very amusing, and also fantastic when you watch yourself evolve. The statistics are great fun once they accumulate... so despite the inconvenience, it might just turn out to be one of your most worthwhile habits. You're learning about yourself, after all!

Habits

This now brings me to habits. I've tried time and again to get my life into a routine, but there seems to be way too much randomness for that to happen. However, what I have found to be a good compromise is the notion of tracking habits -- things I do every day without being rigid about when I do them.

I typically have a list of habits that am currently trying to build. For each habit, I have a calendar, and I mark off the days that I actually stick to the habit. It's motivating to see days being ticked off in a row: when that does happen, you want to keep that chain going. This is also popularly called Seinfeld's Method, and it's incredibly empowering. There are any number of apps that help you maintain these calendars, but some people prefer using a physical calendar instead. I do both - for my most crucial, long-term habits, I work with a couple of calendars in my face, stuck to a wall. For the relatively smaller habits, I track them with Goal Streaks on iOS (although there are a slew of mobile apps, so I encourage you to poke around to find something that you like).

Although I don't hold myself to a routine, there are two things that I try to with some regularity: a before-sleep ritual and a wake-up ritual.

Before sleeping, I reply to my iDoneThis email to list out everything that I did. I also make a note in an actual diary (there's something satisfying about writing, even now). I also plan the next day out, and tick off the calendars for which I did make the habit. Incidentally, an incredibly useful mindset for forming habits is Mini Habits - it's a brilliant little strategy, and I encourage you to read the book or check out the website.

When I wake up, I try to get a little exercise right out of the way. And I actively avoid checking my phone or email. While not perfect, I do my best to follow the "Eat the Frog" strategy: I get one important task done. Usually I try to write, but it could be accounting for any looming, impending disaster of choice :) Bottom line - get something under your belt early in the day. Like they say in music, it is good to start off on the right note!

Expenses

Presumably all of us implicitly track our expenses anyway. But I'd encourage you to do it explicitly. As I have said before, my absolute favorite tool for this is YNAB. I split my expenses into several categories:

  1. Daily Expenditures (Bunch of subcategories here)
  2. Travel (Daily, airfare, etc.)
  3. Biz Stuff (Hosting, autoresponders, dropbox, memberships etc.)
  4. Learning (Books, online training, etc.)
  5. InfoProducts (PLR, Reports, etc.)
  6. Indulgences (Gadgets, Stationary, Music, Movies, etc.)

YNAB has some default categories that you might find useful as well. There's a companion iOS app that is very handy for recording cash transactions on the go. Whatever app you choose to use, do watch out for having a portable variant. This could even be pen and paper!

The great thing about YNAB is that it's more than just software, it's also training. This training helps you come up with a budget plan and stick to it. So even if you aren't sold on the software, do check out their blog. There's usually some great advice in there.

There are other things that you can track too, like the number of words you write every day, or the number of prospects you called today. Depending on your situation, you can get creative about what you want to track. If you are not tracking your life, do get started - the difference can be incredible. Do get in touch with your ideas or things you are already doing, we'd love to hear more!

Many thanks to our guest, Avani Misra, for this great info. Please visit her blog and we'd love to hear your comments and questions below.​

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6 Comments

  1. Excellent post – I have bookmarked it for future reference!

    Reply
  2. Great guest post Ed! Love the idea of listening to webinars while walking around the house! I have a pedometer and aim to hit 10k steps a day, I am totally going to do this! I’ve just recently downloaded YNAB and trying to get my head around it but hearing lots of great things about it. Thanks for sharing some great metrics, I’ve been looking for something like this for a while. I know I need metrics, but don’t always know what to measure :)

    Reply
    • “I know I need metrics, but don’t always know what to measure” – well said, Ruby, and therein lies the issue for many of us. Glad you found this helpful. Avani is awesome. Good luck with your 10k steps a day – that sounds like an awesome goal!

      Reply
    • Hey Ruby – glad you liked this :) 10K steps turned out to be surprisingly doable for me with just one long-ish walk while reading or watching something. YNAB is great, too – I use it in a very simplistic way and it’s still extremely useful.

      Again, delighted to hear that you found this useful – that made my day!

      Reply

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