It is human to want to improve at what we do, not only at work but also in life.
- How do I know I’m improving compared to last month?
- I feel like I’ve improved in a certain area, but how much?
- How much time am I spending on things that are not central to my goals?
- Are my actions truly aligned with my priorities?
I began my journey of self-monitoring and continuous improvement in early 2023 to answer these questions and more.
I knew it would be too difficult to track everything manually, and the amount of time spent generating metrics compared to actual improvement worried me. With that in mind, I’ve been looking for apps and tools to help make my “self-quantification” more efficient.
The result is a portfolio of tracking apps that largely work in the background of my life or at this point through habit, collecting data to create a fairly comprehensive view of how I actually spend my time, not how I think I spend my time.
This article describes all the apps I used to track my metrics and how you can use each one to get insights that can really help you optimize and improve. Experiment with the ones that resonate most with your lifestyle, gadgets and goals.
Important side notes: One of my criteria was to only use free apps, but you should keep in mind that when you use something for free, you are the product (although this often happens when you pay). Before signing up for these apps, make sure you agree to their data sharing and privacy policies. I have decided that I am comfortable providing data to these particular companies, but it is a personal choice.
In the past few years, I’ve discovered actual audiobooks and have drastically increased the number of books I read each year. I use Goodreads to keep track of which books I’ve read and when. It encourages me to take notes as I read so I can write a decent review when I’m done. It’s also a great way to find new books to read.
The annual report will help you understand whether you are choosing the right books. If your ratings aren’t consistently high, you may want to change how you search for your next book.
I can also go back and read my reviews to remember what I took away. What good is reading if you don’t remember what you learned?
If you look at the Goodreads report by year, you may notice that I read far fewer books before 2022. Why haven’t I improved? I knew I read a lot, just not books, so I decided to keep track of how many articles I read each month.
My first idea was to use Journy App — my task manager of choice — to track my reading list. I tried something like this:
I’ve been trying to keep track of the articles I’ve read in the Journy project.
It worked fine, but I had three problems with my method:
- The data acquisition process was too manual.
- I don’t consider reading an article a task, and I like to use Journy App exclusively for tasks.
- Some sites have good content but poor design/readability.
I usually listen to music when I work. Sometimes I use it to give me energy and sometimes to help me focus. I use last.FM which gives me news about what I’m listening to and when. It’s even possible to match songs to your most productive time. You can do this manually or use a custom data aggregation tool like Exist.io.
I listen to podcasts (or audiobooks) whenever I’m commuting or doing something that doesn’t require high cognitive effort (washing dishes, walking the dog, etc.). I’ve been using the Podcast Addict app for Android for years. It’s free, but I contribute to removing ads and contributing to a better app. If you don’t have an Android device, you can try Pocket Casts, but you’ll have to pay $9 one time.
I try to avoid watching TV randomly (by which I loosely mean aimlessly: sitting on the couch flipping through the channels looking for something), but I do watch a lot of TV shows. I usually find a TV show I like in advance and set aside time to watch it with my family. Since it takes some time, of course, I want to track it (you can see the pattern here).
I use TV Time to watch all the shows I watch. It’s still manual input — I have to remember to go into the app and mark it as watched — but it became a habit very quickly. Every time I watch a great episode, I see funny memes in the app, so the reward is instant.
It would be nice to have some kind of integration between trakt.tv and TV Time, but unfortunately, it doesn’t exist. TV Time has a great app for Android, but it doesn’t support movies. Trakt.tv supports movies, but you have to use other community-developed apps to watch and post stats there. So for now I use both.
Time Tracking: Automatic
With auto-tracking apps, you can easily set them and forget them. The app runs in the background and tracks what you do and how much time you spend doing it. For this category, I use Rescue Time configured to my own needs.
You can customize the times of day the app records your computer and/or the apps it will monitor. For example, you can tell RescueTime to only track how much time you spend in Excel and ignore all other applications if you choose.
Time Tracking: Manual
Unfortunately, auto-tracking can only take you so far. Knowing the total time spent replying to emails is great, but which client were they intended for? Were they work emails or personal emails? The same goes for almost any app you can track. Manual time trackers require action from you — like starting a timer and selecting a category — but once you get into the habit of it, it takes minimal extra time.
Where Did You Go
I’ve been tracking my location for a while now. I was a Google Latitude user until it was discontinued and now I use Google Timeline. I don’t usually share much about my location on social media or other places, but I like the benefits of tracking the places I’ve visited.
Body and Health
There are many trackers for this category. Most of them are wearable devices that you can pay some money (sometimes a lot) for and they will track different things throughout the day. You can buy them, but you can also keep it simple and make part of it free or spend just the bare minimum.