I remember looking at the number and thinking I must have misplaced a zero somewhere.
I cleared my calculator and tried again. Same result. 26,000. Twenty-six thousand dollars to be exact, the amount of debt my wife and I had racked up over the previous two years.
My heart sank. How the hell are we going to pay all of this off?
I obsessed over this number. I tracked the individual interest rates of our credit cards and personal loans. I ran payoff simulations to figure out the best repayment strategy. This one number became my life.
Every two weeks after my wife’s paycheck hit our bank account we paid off a little bit more. I’d update our spreadsheets and budget and continue to dream of the day that number was back to $0.
And then it hit me.
Tracking things that make you feel bad about yourself is a sh*tty way to live. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve paid off nearly half of our debt because of our intense focus, but it got me thinking: Were there other things in my life I should pay more attention to?
As it turns out, yes. Whether it’s the number of likes on social media posts or how full your inbox is, there are always other healthier metrics to track and improve upon.
As they say, what gets measured gets managed.
This year alone I’ve actively tracked 11 metrics besides my bank account, here they are in no specific order.
Tool: Phone or small notebook
Metric: A nugget of an idea
Goal: 3 ideas a day
Start tracking the ideas that pop up into your head, even if they seem simple or stupid. Write them down.
It’s important to have a digital and analog tool for capturing ideas. Sometimes I pull out my phone, open up the Bear notes app, and use the voice to text feature to record some rambling thoughts. Other times I use the small black notebook and pencil to jot a simple sentence or make a list.
This entire article was born in my notebook:
Both my digital and analog systems for capturing ideas are called “The Scrap Heap” taken from author Neil Gaiman.
These ideas are the seeds that will eventually become something bigger. Not all of them grow, most will “rot” away. However, tracking ideas is one way to be more intentional about not wasting those precious idea nuggets.
Tool: Simple list or notes app
Metric: Number of books read
Goal: 12–24 per year
Tracking the number of books I read makes me read more books. There’s something really satisfying about looking back at a list of books I read over the past year and remembering all that I learned and experienced from those words.
I use my Bear notes app (which I use for everything) and have a pinned note called “Yearly Reading List.” When I finish a book, I jot down the title and author and move onto the next one.
You don’t need to build a database, although that would be pretty slick. A simple list will suffice and help encourage you to read more.
3. Daily chores/responsibilities/tasks
Tool: Todoist or task manager app
Metric: Completed activities per day
Goal: 5 per day
Admit it. Sometimes when you create a to-do list you’ll put tasks that are already done onto it just so you can tick them off. I do it. It feels good.
Ticking things off a daily to-do list feels good because:
- It reaffirms we can be intentional with our actions
- It proves we can follow through on life’s responsibilities
- It’s just super fun to make any kind of progress in this world
It’s recommended that before bed, you should dump all of your anxieties and tasks for the next day onto paper or a to-do list. Offloading this information helps your brain to settle down for a better night’s sleep.
I’ve experimented recently with Todoist (and wrote more extensively about my experience on Substack ).
I’ve been looking for a tool that was both easily accessible and could integrate into my professional and personal workflows. In other words, I wanted to make to-do lists and keep them organized.
So far, I’ve found that completing just 5 tasks a day makes me feel really productive. I end up enjoying my evenings more because I’m not constantly thinking, ”Was there something else I needed to get done today?”
Tool: A drinking container
Metric: Liters of water consumed
Goal: 3.7 liters for men, 2.7 liters for women ( Mayo Clinic )
I drink a lot of water throughout the day. Other than coffee, I don’t drink pop or energy drinks or anything flavored in liquid form. Just water.
Recently, I was curious as to how much water I was drinking so I set up a Shortcut on my iPhone to quickly log my water intake.
graphic by author
Turns out I was drinking 5 liters per day. Granted, because I was tracking my water intake, I might have skewed my data (a classic Hawthorne effect ).
Nevertheless, this is exactly the point I am trying to make: if you struggle to drink the recommended amount of water, maybe it’s time to track your consumption as well.
Use the same reusable water bottle throughout the day and keep a tally near your fridge every time you fill it up. Or, you can use iPhone shortcuts or one of the many health apps available on Android and Apple.
5. Daily Steps
Tool: Smart watch or phone
Metric: Number of steps
Goal: Read the CDC’s recommendations - How much physical activity do adults need?
Walking is the simplest form of physical exercise. A majority of us do it every day and with the popularity of smartwatches on the rise, many of us are already aware of how many steps we’re taking.
Frequent walking has been correlated to better health, so why not begin tracking your steps as a way to burn off those extra calories?
Now that I’ve been tracking my steps I’ve noticed slight behavioral changes such as parking my car farther away from a store entrance to get a few extra steps in. It adds up.
Move around. Your body is built for it.
6. Calorie and Nutrient Consumption
Metric: Calories and grams of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins
Goal: Varies per person
Tracking calories might make you think about that obnoxious person at the party who asks, “What’s in this dip?”
Before modern technology, humans didn’t track their calorie consumption. They just ate. It seems so unnecessary to pull out your phone before every bite and record what and who much you are eating.
I agree. But then again, understanding what you are putting into your body quickly changes how you make decisions around food.
Before tracking calories and more specifically my macros (carbs, fats, proteins) I ate a lot of unnecessary calories and wondered why I wasn’t building muscle nor losing fat (more on this later).
After tracking, I’m eating properly portioned sized meals and consuming a healthy balance of carbs, fats, and proteins. It may sound cumbersome at first and it is. However, the more you track your food the more you understand your food.
Eventually, I won’t need a tracking app. I’ll be able to intuitively eat what I need. Until then, I’ve found this practice to be extremely beneficial to my well-being.
7. Words written
Metric: Number of words written
Goal: Personal preference
You might be thinking “I’m not a writer, why would I want to track how many words I write a day?”
Valid question. And my answer depends on the type of person you are.
For me, I am a writer, words are my currency. The more words I write the more likely I’ll get a paycheck.
However, words for non-writers are information. And since we are in the information age, words are the transports.
So, tracking words is tracking the flow of information such as:
- Writing emails
- Keeping a digital journal of ideas
- Writing notes on things you’ve learned
Even if you aren’t a capital-W “Writer” you still write. Again, we’re living through a time when ideas run the economy, not physical gadgets. So the more you write, the more you make the world go around.
Tool: Ironically, your phone
Metric: Hours spent on your phone
Goal: Under 3 hours
Smartphones are essential to day to day life. I’m not going to pretend otherwise. However, it’s mind-boggling to me that on average we all spend around 3.25 hours a day on our phone.
That’s 3 hours and 15 minutes looking at a tiny little rectangle.
It’s also been scientifically proven that keeping your phone out of arms reach makes you happier .
Again, I need my phone to get through the day. I text my wife when she’s at work, I track my calories and steps. I jot ideas down for articles. And yes, occasionally I scroll through Twitter.
However, what is the ideal amount of time we should spend looking at our phone?
That depends. I believe it’s not so much the time but the intentionality of using our phone. If you grab your phone instinctively when you’re bored and look for the quick dopamine hit, chances are your screentime goes up.
However, tracking your screentime once again offers you a way to manage your intentionality. For example, I noticed I spent way too much time on Instagram. So I deleted the app. I did the same with Twitter. Instead, I access them through the mobile web browsers which are cumbersome and not ascetically pleasing.
As I anticipated, my screentime dropped because I trained myself to no longer reach for my phone for mindless scrolling.
Tool: App or an online course
Metric: Minutes per day
Goal: 10-30 minutes per day
This one is going to look different for everyone so I’m going to use an example that has worked well for me over the past year and a half.
Ever since my aunt announced she was going to get married in Italy, I wanted to learn as much Italian as I could before the trip. I downloaded Duolingo, signed up for the Italian course, and was off and running.
After a few days, I realized how powerful “The Streak” was to entice me to learn a little bit more each day. The Streak is pretty straight forward, every day you complete a lesson, your Streak goes up. Miss a day and you have to start back at zero.
I’m on day 493. Something about that number compels me to show up, even after my aunt had to postpone her destination wedding thanks to what’s going on in the world.
Now, is learning something new as simple as showing up everyday and adding another day to your Streak? Probably not. But I argue it’s better than doing nothing at all.
Find a learning app or download MasterClass and spend a few minutes each day learning something new.
Tool: Sleep Cycle App
Metric: Quality of Sleep
Goal: 7-8 hours of sleep
Sleep is a bit more ambiguous to measure. On one hand, you could measure the number of hours you sleep, but not all sleep is of the same quality. On the other, you could measure your regularity, but you might not be getting enough hours of rest.
That’s why I like using the Sleep Cycle App . It measures everything:
- Sleep quality
- Went to bed
- Woke up
- Time in bed
Has tracking my sleep influenced any behavioral changes? Yes it has. Before tracking I’d stay up late every night and wake up to the sound of two kids bounding up the stairs.
Now I consistently go to bed around the same time each night (10:30 PM) and wake up (6:15 AM) a good two hours before my kids do. I’m way more energized and ready for the day when I stick to this routine.
11. Weight/Body Composition
Tool: Body composition scale
Metric: Consult your doctor
Goal: Consult your doctor
Of all the things to track, this one needs some explaining.
First of all, you are not a number. Second of all, there is no perfect number.
The problem with tracking your weight is that it can easily become an obsession and create unhealthy habits instead.
However, with honest intentions, tracking your weight and body composition can lead to healthier decision making around:
- Types of food you eat
- Quantities of food
- Amount of exercise
- Lifestyle choices
I’m a 6’2” 30-year-old male. Before tracking I was at a healthy ~170 lbs and 13% body fat. Perfectly normal for someone my height and age. However, I love playing soccer and would like to continue to play soccer well into my 40s.
For that to happen I wanted to begin building a body capable of that goal which means: higher muscle mass, lower body fat.
I bought a body composition scale that measures my weight, body fat, muscle mass, bone mass, and body water. The goal isn’t to hit a number but rather make sure my actions from tracking calories and exercising regularly contribute to a growth in muscle and loss in fat.
Since I started tracking my body fat is trending down and my muscle mass is holding consistent. More importantly, I feel stronger and more energized.
Be sure to consult your doctor before attempting any of this.
Life isn’t about the numbers
I’m a numbers guy, I always have been, always will be. In high school, I used my math notebook to track how many consecutive days of school I attended without an absence (I made it to 989 days in a row).
But life isn’t about the numbers, is it?
Life is not enjoyable if you’re constantly tracking every aspect of your life. Pick a few, track your behaviors, and see if you can shift them in positive directions.
Then, move on. Live your life and let your newly established habits take over.
And stop refreshing that bank account. It won’t make you happier.