Inspired by an episode from the 99% Invisible podcast.
I have been a big podcast listener since at least 2009. Back then there were far fewer podcasts, but there were some goodies. I’ve long held an interest and casually learning about a variety of things, so when I discovered the podcast 99% Invisible, it was pretty exciting.
One episode in particular helped inspire me to start my own project that has actually showed multiple benefits to me over the years. That episode was about the Feltron Annual Report.
The podcast interviewed Nicholas Felton, an information designer, who began tracking an arguably absurd amount of aspects of his life.
Since 2005, he has tabulated thousands upon thousands of tiny measurements in his life and designed stunning graphs and maps and created concise infographics that detail that year’s activities. The results were originally intended for his friends and family, but the “personal annual reports” have found an audience with fellow designers and people that really geek out on nicely presented data.
This idea intrigued me, but I also knew that tracking that much about myself was neither practical, nor feasible.
But there were some things worth tracking, and eventually I began to do so. Each of the things I started tracking were to answer a specific question, or solve a specific problem.
Headaches / Migraines
In 2010 I began having a lot of headaches and “low level” migraines — ie I had light and sound sensitivity, but they were rarely so severe as to many me vomit or make my head spin as I have heard is common for migraines for many people.
I began tracking these, and did so for 3 years before finally seeking a referral from my doctor to see a neurologist about it.
Below is a screen capture of 2 of the worst months (Jul and Aug 2012), as well as my total tracking graph for all months of each year so far at the top. I was basically eating advil like candy at this point.
I brought this graph as well as each month of data to the neurologist, and he was overwhelmed and pushed my records aside. I was not pleased, considering doctors often have to work with very little (or unreliable) data from a patient’s memory. He preferred to try and solve the problem his own way without using any of the data I brought. He prescribed B vitamins and a “wait and see” approach.
Eventually I kind of figured out that the primary culprit behind the headaches and migraines was stress. I figured this out not by specifically testing for it, but because I noticed that when my stress had reduced for a prolonged period of time after I’d begun seeing him, the headaches also reduced.
Several months of reduced headaches later, I simply reported to him that the headaches had decreased and was happy to be “discharged”. I was tired of dealing with a doctor who seemed to be ignoring my personal testimonies and insisted the B vitamins were the best answer. I stopped taking them and my symptoms didn’t worsen again.
In 2015 I experienced a major depression. I’d been swimming in the kiddie pool of depression for years — like many adults — perpetually in jobs that left me unfulfilled and with little energy by the time I got home to engage in things that did make me happy.
Long story short, I had a couple of side gigs going and decided to quit my day job that I was absolutely miserable at, and try to replace it with freelance income and maybe one more side job. I figured at least freelancing I’d get to do what I enjoyed, even if it paid less.
I picked a bad way to learn a painful lesson. Freelancing requires much more direct energy investment than having a stable day job where you know exactly what to do and the paychecks just keep rolling in. So my little experiment failed pretty hard and 6 months later I found myself in a world of hurt with mounting debt and mounting depression. Depression is exhausting.
Prior to my own severe depression, I had heard severe depression talked about as being technically alive, but more realistically like a zombie. Sleeping all day but still always being tired and shuffling around. Often lacking enough energy or motivation to even maintain basic personal hygiene. Until I experienced that personally, I had not been able to fathom it.
Fortunately for me, the worst of my depression only lasted about 12–18 months. I still struggle with running out of energy before I’d like to, but have learned some ways to mitigate this somewhat.
We think of naps as something only toddlers or very young children do, but myself and quite a few other adults I know take naps often. We couldn’t get through a day without them.
In February of 2017, around 4 months past my “turning point” out of the darkness, I had the idea to start tracking my mental energy on a daily basis — once in the morning and once before bed. At that time I assumed I’d eventually get fully “back to normal” (never quite did), and I wanted the data to show as much of that rise as I could get.
The first month and a half of data (starting mid-Feb) ended up being the “calibration period”, so they’ve been omitted, but I have now about 2 and a half years of average monthly energy data, so now patterns can be identified.
In the images above, you can see the side by side comparisons of monthly data from 2017 to 2018 to 2019. For most months, the trend has been down year over year, though not super significantly. Of course, it’s possible that my sense of calibration has also changed slightly.
The highlighted months are to denote months where exceptional circumstances altered the data. Such as getting a nasty bug that had me sick for 2 weeks, or a significant injury that meant a lot of downtime.
Here is what an individual month looks like that goes into those averages. Left column is my self-check in within usually 30 mins of getting out of bed, the middle is the evening score (which is factored), done usually within an hour of going to bed. The right column is the average of the two.
Before my depression, I rarely ever drank coffee or tea. Since my depression, it has become a much more common thing (mostly tea).
Recently I started taking a doctor prescribed anti-depressant (which also treats ADD/ADHD), and for the first few weeks of taking it, it made a HUGE difference. And you can see that reflected in the jump between July and Aug 2019 above. For a couple of weeks I wasn’t limited to a maximum of 2–3 peak hours of productive mental energy, that pretty much doubled.
I had been struggling for months, and for a short time it felt as though I was given my full life back and was able to get caught up on many things. Of course because your body gets used to drugs over time, their efficacy diminishes. Now over half way through Sept, my averages have dropped about 2% again.
Of course various life events can boost or drop these numbers, so a 1% or 2% drop isn’t a disaster. This mental energy number definitely does relate to my overall happiness and mental health, in that I believe there is a base number within the captured number, plus either a booster for good day/good mood, or a penalty for a bad day/bad mood.
For example — June 2019 is my worst month since I started tracking reliably, and I know exactly why. I had a very noisy neighbour who was awake overnight every night, and was not especially considerate despite knowing I work a day job. I got woken up frequently and either couldn’t get back to sleep, or had broken, less restful sleep. This compounded over several months and June was the very worst of it. Thankfully that neighbour is now gone, replaced by a much quieter one.
My daily morning average of roughly 7.5 out of 10 mental energy (without caffeine) is decent, but pre-depression I think my average was likely more like 8–8.5. And I suppose as long as mine doesn’t drop below 7 on average, I’m at least maintaining. It’s on mornings when I wake up less than 7/10 that I know I need to either resort to stimulants, or have lots of mental autopilot activities for that day, or both.
I really wish I had started doing this before my severe depression, because I have theories about what the numbers would look like, but can’t know for sure. If I had to guess, at the worst of it my morning scores likely would have been 3–5, and my evening scores likely would not have been over 2.
I also own a fitbit, and have for at least a couple of years now. Yes, I know, technically that is an instance of “Big Data”, but it is very helpful for tracking exercise/heart rate, and sleep. Here’s some recent data:
They recently “upgraded” their mobile app to give a sleep quality score, which is also interesting to factor into this analysis.
It has shown that longer duration of sleep does not mean better quality sleep. One night I slept 9 hrs and my sleep quality was 70, yet I’ve had nights with less than 6 hrs sleep get a 75 sleep score. But even when my sleep score is above 80, I don’t always necessarily feel super refreshed.
So that’s why it’s actually helpful to have this long term manual data to refer to, I can track my trends better over time.
Yes, I started tracking that too!
The main quirk I have found with tracking this is that since I do it right before bed, if I am suddenly a lot more tired, or if something negative happened to me shortly before doing this, then that can “taint” the result. But I do make an effort to remember as much of the good parts of the day as I can.
As you can see the number has for the most part been trending upwards. That obviously reflects that circumstances in my life have generally been trending in the right direction.
Here’s what an individual month looks like:
You’ll notice that the highest score on any day here is an 8.9. I have on a few more rare occasions given myself a 9+, but it has to be a REALLY good day. On the flipside, my lowest scores tend not to be lower than 6.5, which is still pretty decent.
It would certainly be illuminating to see this data going back through my depression, but alas.
I also have a food diary, but it’s also in excel, and I don’t track actual quantities consumed, just whether I ate it that day or not. Apologies that the below screen capture is quite small, but all you really need to know is that the left column lists a bunch of fruits and vegetables, the top is each day of the month, and there are x’s in each column if I ate that thing on that day.
I don’t only track fruit and vegetables, that’s just what I’ve chosen to include here.
I began tracking my food for two main reasons — one was to see if there was any distinctive correlation/causation between what I was eating and how much energy I had (sleep definitely affects my energy more, but diet matters too), and the other reason was the health aspect — trying to eat less fast food, processed sugar, and red meat, and more “whole foods”.
I’ve been slowly making progress on these goals, but it has taken years of falling off the horse and getting back on again. It really is true that if you try to make too many (or too large of) changes all at once, you’re much more likely to fail. But at the same time, when you know you have 10 things you want to change for health reasons, you don’t want to only change one, you want to change all 10 as soon as possible.
At the same time though, sometimes these changes can make each other easier, or can cascade together. When it comes to doing things that are more healthy for you I’ve noticed that the more you do them, the more your body can start to crave more of that. And conversely, that you can then begin to “lose your stomach” for unhealthy things.
Here is another snapshot at some other things that I track. Some things have been omitted from this screenshot for various reasons.
You will notice that headaches are included on here, but I did stop tracking those for several years. I still get them (but they seem more manageable now), and similarly to before they seem largely caused by a mixture of stress and fatigue. The “th” on the chart above stands for “tired headache”.
The “cardio” column is fairly self explanatory, but specifically refers to “did I ride my bike that day, more than just around the corner for some quick groceries”. The two Ws represent days that I did a much higher than normal amount of walking, so I counted that. “Stretch” means did I do any stretching that day.
“Sick” and “fatigue” are both straight forward. The differentiation being, some days I just feel physically worn out, but not sick. Some days I feel both.
And “med” is short for “medication”, but is actually tracking days when I take a stimulant. I usually do so only on days when I haven’t slept well and feel I really need the extra boost to function to the level needed. If I can get away with just tea, I’ll do that.
The “Happy Memory Log”
I have one more tracking file, called “The Happy Memory Log”, which is more accurately the “productive tasks log”. ie, I only document things I did each day that were either productive, or made me happy. This is largely outside of work, but sometimes a really good day at work will make it on here as well.
Here is what that looks like, but almost entirely redacted:
It’s been nice to have because I can go back and look at any day over the last 3 years since I started it, and remind myself of a lot of really nice things. Since I don’t track anything negative for the most part, it’s not like I have to worry about making myself sad or angry reading it. As you can see, it’s usually just a word or two per thing, so basically point form but horizontal instead of vertical.
You might think to yourself “wow, it seems like it takes a lot of extra time to track this stuff, is it worth it?”
I’m pleased to report that I don’t spend more than 10–15 minutes at very most each day on this.
There have been things that I’ve tracked before, and stopped investing the energy into tracking them because I decided they weren’t worth it. The things I keep tracking have been worthwhile. That’s why I have done it and continue to. It’s mostly health and happiness related.
It’s also been in part because it helps to be able to separate out the effects of things you have control over from the things that you don’t, so if issues arise, it’s easier to try and zero in on the true cause.
I’m not saying you should absolutely do this for yourself, I’m just trying to provide some examples of what and how you can do it if it’s something you think your life would benefit from.
I know a lot of apps exist these days which can help track some of these things, but I grew up on the internet before everything was tracked and privacy was a distant memory. I have a pre-facebook level of paranoia about corporations knowing too much about me. There have been enough news stories about server hackings or data breaches or even just the companies privately selling your data to other companies. For 15 minutes a day of effort, I can track my own data, be healthier, and feel safer.
I hope you’ve found this interesting or enlightening, and if you also track some personal things, feel free to let me know. Maybe you’ll give me a new idea!