Self-Quantification Explained: Tons of Ways Start Measuring Your Performance and Progress

By on July 18, 2014

Self-quantification, self tracking, or ‘life logging’, is the process of recording data about yourself in order to track progress or measure your current stats. This is nothing new – you started self-quantifying the moment you first stepped onto a set of scales – but it’s nevertheless become something of a ‘fad’ in recent years thanks to the ubiquity of things like smartphones and pedometers.


What’s the purpose of self-quantification? Well I like it because it makes me feel a bit like I’m in Dragon Ball Z (‘his power levels are off the chart!’) and it can be quite satisfying and addictive to see yourself becoming stronger, thinner, smarter or faster. For most people though, the appeal lies in its ability to motivate and to hone their training methods.

If you’re dieting for instance and you don’t have any method of checking how much weight you’re losing, then you won’t know whether it’s working or not. On the other hand if you can precisely check how much weight you’ve lost every day and compare this against your diet, you’ll be able to perform ‘split tests’ to improve efficiency. The same goes for the amount you can lift in the gym, the size of your biceps and your IQ score.

This is also great for ‘gamification‘ – setting yourself targets and rewards and turning the dull act of ‘not eating cake’ into a game a bit like Pokemon. It’s a great motivational technique, and some people even claim that the simple act of weighing themselves every day is enough to cause them to lose weight.

What is Biofeedback?

Using self-quantification in this way makes it into a form of ‘biofeedback’ – which involves using (often immediate) feedback in order to learn to precisely control your body. If you want to learn to control your stress levels for instance, you can use a heartrate monitor and then try to reduce your heartrate through meditation or other means. By getting the immediate feedback you’ll know what’s working, and you’ll also learn to better tell when you’re feeling stressed and when you aren’t. This is a necessity for the Incredible Hulk. Some people even use biofeedback with EEGs (electroencephalographs) in order to achieve Zen-like states with perfect precision.

You can also use biofeedback in order to get warnings and in order to know the precise state of your body. A great example of this might be a blood sugar monitor which you can use in order to test your blood sugar and to see for yourself how different foods cause different spikes leading to insulin release and lipogenesis.

A List of Ways You Can Start Self-Quantifying

So that’s the idea behind self-quantifying. To really appreciate it though you’re going to have to jump in and give it a go yourself, so let’s take a look at some of the basic methods you can use…

Pedometer, Activity

A pedometer counts the number of steps you take in any given day. This is a useful little tool to measure just how active you have been and this in turn allows you to try and ‘beat’ your score as you make the conscious effort to walk more and more.

You can buy pedometers built into watches etc. (like Fitbit
or Pebble) on Amazon which are generally quite accurate (here’s one that looks good) or you can install a number of apps like ‘Move‘ that do the same job on Androids or iPhones. Do bear in mind that you often get what you pay for, and that some apps can read false positives when you swing your phone around etc.

You could also just count your steps… but that would be quite heavy going…

Fitness, Heart Rate, VO2 Max

You all know what a heart rate monitor is, but perhaps you haven’t thought of just what a wide range of uses they have. Not only can you use a heart rate monitor to measure your fitness for instance, but you can use it to measure mood, excitement/anxiety and CV performance.

Of course it’s possible to check your own pulse to measure heart rate, and this can even be a good indicator of testosterone levels (best measured first thing in the morning (grip strength is also a good indicator)). You can also use your heart rate to estimate your VO2 max, which describes your efficiency in taking in oxygen when you run etc. and is reflective of overall aerobic fitness.

VO2 Max = 15.3 x (MHR/RHR)

Here MHR = Maximum Heart Rate and RHR = Resting Heart Rate. Your RHR is the number of beats in one minute. Your maximum heartrate is 208 – (0.7 x your age).

You can also measure your performance on various challenges. What’s your quickest mile? What’s the furthest you can run in X amount of time? How much does your heart rate increase when running on a treadmill?

Sleep Quality and Quantity

Sleep is critical to your optimal health and performance, make no mistake. I’ve recommended trying to improve sleep through things like honey before bed on this site before, but you aren’t really going to know if it’s working unless you have some way to actually measure how refreshed you feel when you wake up.

One of the most popular ways to measure sleep is to use an app such as ‘Sleep Analyzer‘ for Android. These work by picking up movements in the bed in order to try and ascertain what sleep state you’re in. The downside is that they often have to go under your pillow (which is where my arm goes) and that a lot of people are likely to share a bed with a partner. FitBit is meant to be quite a good one – it’s a small wristband which you can use as a pedometer as well as to record sleep quality, and I’ll be reviewing it here soon. You can find it here.

You can also use EEGs (below) which are far more accurate, but also somewhat expensive and uncomfortable. Another option then is to just see how good you feel in the morning and how sharp you are. You could try testing yourself with a maths quiz every morning, or you could rate your mood, brain fog, time taken to get to sleep, back pain, number of toilet trips etc. on a scale. For guys, morning wood is actually a sign of a good night’s sleep!

EEG, Concentration, Relaxation

An EEG is an ‘electroencephalograph’ which you can use to measure electrical activity in your brain. This is actually device they use in lie detector tests (called ‘polygraphs’) which don’t actually detect lies but rather look for stress. This is not very accurate at all, but it can be useful when combined with other techniques such as looking for micro-expressions.

Other than using the EEG to get better at lying, you can also use it to measure sleep, and even to track your progress when trying to meditate. NeuroSky is an affordable, commercial EEG headset that some people seem to like… I haven’t tried it myself, but it comes with apps that challenge you to try and calm your mind or improve focus etc. You can get it here on Amazon if you’re interested.

Technique and Form

If you are practicing technique – say trying to improve your running technique – how do you go about measuring that? A good method is to film yourself and then slow it down. You can actually get this done professionally at some trainer shops for running technique and it’s free as long as you don’t feel obligated to buy anything.

Alternatively you can film yourself doing a bench press in order to analyse whether one hand lifts before another, or whether perhaps you’re arching your back more or less than you should/want to. This can also work for other things like giving a speech. For golfers there are apps specifically for this purpose such as ‘iSwing – Golf Swing Analyzer’.

Just being consciously aware makes a big difference here. Next time you go running, try just looking at your legs, and read this article I wrote.

IQ, Memory, Productivity

Measuring IQ can be done with an IQ test that you like and trust. Even if the IQ test isn’t perfect, as long as you’re constant with it, it can measure an increase in performance on certain tasks. But then IQ probably isn’t all that helpful anyway…

More useful then is to break your smarts down into more useful components. For instance you could measure your working memory with something like the N-Back Test (one of the best tools for brain training). The interesting thing about the N-Back Test is that it can be used to measure and to train – in that sense it will be measuring its own effectiveness.

Better yet is to measure your performance in the different tasks that actually matter to you. For instance, if you’re trying to increase your efficiency at work, then simply rate your performance every day. For me this is particularly convenient as I’m a writer who writes thousands of words a day. When I’m testing a new nootropic or trying to improve sleep, I can then measure how this impacts on productivity by simply looking at my word count.

Weight Loss/Body Composition

Weight loss is one of the things that people are most interested in measuring and monitoring and the obvious way to measure this is by standing on a set of scales. This does have a few problems though which Tim Ferriss goes into in great detail in his book The Four Hour Body.

The problem is that muscle weighs more than fat does. This means you can lose fat and still gain weight. This is also why measuring your ‘BMI‘ (body mass index) happens to be completely useless. Body fat percentage is more useful.

self tracking

If you’re interested in getting slimmer, then really a much better method would be to use a pinch test (measure in centimetres how much flab you can pull away from your stomach) or to just measure your waist circumference. There are other things you can do that involve floating in water and all sorts, but most people probably won’t have the time or inclination for that. I’m currently trying to make my abs more awesome for YouTube, so the best cheap technique for me is the pinch test. Lately I’ve seen good improvements here.

General Health, Mood

It’s also well worth measuring your general health and well-being. Here a simple rating of how good you feel today can be very telling of how well everything is currently working. Don’t overlook mood either! And if you can’t be bothered, try using an app like ‘TrackYourHappiness‘ or ‘MercuryApp‘ which will ask you to report on how good you’re feeling. If you’re changing your diet I’d recommend doing this, as some diets leave you lethargic and miserable…

Also useful is to make a note of how often you get ill, and to see if changing your diet could help, or if improving your sleep. This is also a useful one to measure when increasing your workout intensity or frequency, in case you’re over-training or in case you aren’t getting enough protein to aid recovery.

And mood is also a good one to look at if you’re using nootropics or bodybuilding supplements that effect hormones. To be honest I don’t feel comfortable with any supplementation that has an effect on mood, but that’s your call.

What’s improved my mood? Stomach breathing and more sunlight! Though luckily I was born with a chronic inability to stop smiling anyway…

And you can get all sorts of blood marker tests to check your cholesterol, your glucose (for this one you can get glucose tests from Amazon, like this one here) etc. You can get these markers tested by WellnessFX if you’re in the US.

Diet, Calories and Macronutrients

Measuring weight gain/loss will be most useful if you can also measure your diet and what you’re eating. There are right ways and wrong ways to go about this…

The wrong is calorie counting. This is time consuming, incredibly inaccurate (you think your BMR is a perfect representation of your calorie burning when you rest? Have you factored in the calories you burn shivering on a cold day? Or the thermic effect of protein? You think all apples have the same calories?) and pretty joy-less. Yes, maintaining a calorie deficit will definitely lead to weight loss, but it’s horrible and can lead to poor nutrition if that’s all you care about. You can make life easier for yourself by understanding the different effects of different macronutrients etc.

In case you’re getting angry with me right now saying ‘a calorie is a calorie’. Consider the following studies showing that choice of macronutrients and other factors all have a BIG influence:

I also don’t really recommend keeping a detailed food log. Again this is just too time consuming and gives you too much data to really work with. If you must do it then you can use something like MyFitnessPal. But don’t.

A better method would be to try adding and removing things from your diet and seeing how that effects your health and well-being/weight over a long enough period. Read first, then test. Many people for instance think they have tiredness disorders like ME, and then discover it was actually an intolerance to wheat or gluten or dairy. Likewise if you’re constantly getting ill, you might try adding a little more vitamin C to your diet for a bit to see if that has an effect.

Using this adding/removing technique. I’ve found that breakfast oats keep me satiated throughout the day than anything else, and that coconut oil is the dog’s bollocks. Cutting back on bread (considerably) seems to have helped me reduce my body fat percentage. I’m testing chia seeds next…

Other than this, the only counting I’m doing currently is my protein intake. I’m aiming for my 1 gram of protein for 1 pound of bodyweight and I’m looking into the cheapest ways to accomplish this. Eating more protein has helped me lose weight and build muscle. You can similarly try altering your ratios of macronutrients to see what effect it has for you.

Here’s a study showing how postprandial thermogenesis can increase by 100% in high protein diets. This is a cool study showing how protein can be super effective at preventing snacking. Anyway… this is a subject for another time.

Everyone is different though, so that’s why you should test these things for yourself. Don’t take my word for it!

Muscle Gain/Strength

This one is easy and it’s something that bodybuilders have been using for yonks. Want to improve your biceps? Then just measure the circumference of your arm while tensing and while slack. Note of course that you also need to take into account the size of your triceps.

Likewise measuring strength in a particular area is often just a matter of testing your 1RPM (1 rep max) on a particular exercise. Testing 1RPM without a spotter is a good way to crush yourself to death, so see how much you can lift for eight reps then add 20% for a rough estimate.

Note that muscle endurance is a separate thing from muscle strength. Likewise it’s sometimes useful to identify the specific muscles that are letting you down in particular movements. And note that the best way to train for muscle size is not necessarily the best way to train for muscle power.

One really cool thing I’ve seen is called ‘Radiate Athletics’ – it’s a t-shirt that lights up to show which muscles you’re using (based on heat) so you can better target the correct muscles with your exercises. The Kickstarter was here. It’s also well worth recording your actual training program of course! This could be interesting…

I’m also regularly testing myself with two moves: one arm pull ups and handstands. You know though, for both muscle gain and weight loss, you can actually get a pretty good idea by just looking in the mirror (and keeping a photo log to see how far you’ve come).

bodyfat percentage

Tips – How to Do Self Tracking Right

To get the most from your self-tracking you need to ensure a few things. Firstly, you need to make sure you’re tracking yourself for long enough before you draw any conclusions. Say you’re trying to see if you sleep better with the window open or closed; it’s not enough to try it once then make up your mind as it might be that you had a big mug of coffee right before bed that day.

Instead, you should try the new method for a few days while scoring your sleep each night (factors like how long it took you to get to sleep, or how many times you woke up in the night perhaps), before deciding whether this was a good move or not. Once you’ve made up your mind, you try the next thing: say the teaspoon of honey.

Also useful is to look for interactions between the stats as you find them. If X improves your sleep, does it also improve productivity? And it doesn’t necessarily follow that just because X and Y work on their own, that they will work well when used together. And just because X is good for Y, doesn’t mean it’s also good for Z. Drinking lots of water is handy before bed if you often wake up with a sore throat and halitosis, but not if you’re prone to going to the toilet all the time.

Getting Started With Self Tracking

So there’s a ton of information for you to start digesting. If you’re a bit baffled about where to start, pick something in your life that you’re trying to improve and then start measuring it and carefully altering the variables.

Or you could try answering some of these questions to get a better picture of your own health/what works for you…

  • What is the optimal amount of time for you to sleep at night?
  • What is the optimal time for you to hit the sack?
  • Does sleeping with the window open help you to sleep better?
  • How many steps do you take on an average day?
  • Will you gain muscle using your current training program if you get an extra 20 grams of protein?
  • What is your current IQ?
  • Can coconut oil improve your productivity at work?
  • Will you improve your mood if you go for a walk outside every day?
  • What is your bench press 1RPM?

In the future I’ll be reviewing some of the products I’ve discussed in this post as well as some of the apps. I’ll also be developing my own self tracking app and creating a spreadsheet for you to use. Stay tuned!


About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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