Three Essential Things to Track in Your Life

A few months ago I wrote a post on personal analytics. There I discussed how more and more people make their life decisions based on numbers. They don’t make their decisions based on what they feel but based on facts. This way their decisions are well-informed and based on strong foundations.
How can we apply personal analytics to our lives? The key is to track your life metrics. Only by tracking them can you get the numbers upon which to make informed decisions.
Unfortunately, the tracking process is still mostly manual these days (with a few exceptions like Nike+ that can automatically track your running speed and distance). Because of that, if you track too many metrics you risk spending too much time on the tracking process at the expense of doing real work.
So the best thing to do is to track just a few important metrics. This way you can get the benefits without spending too much time on the tracking process. Here are three essential things you should track:

1. Income and expenses
You should know how much money you make and how much money you spend on different things. Many people aren’t aware that they have financial problems until everything is too late. Or perhaps they’re aware, but they don’t know how it happened. Consequently, they have no idea how to solve it.
That’s why it’s important that you take note of your income and expenses. Doing that helps you spot the weak areas in your personal finance so that you can take the necessary actions.
To track your income and expenses, you can use a spreadsheet or a personal finance application. Here are a few personal finance applications you can use:

One simple rule on money management that I find useful is to spend your money to buy assets whenever possible.
2. Time
Have you ever had days where you wondered why you’ve accomplished so little? That’s one reason why you need to track your time. You need to know where your time went.
There are many ways to do this. You can create a time log where you record all your activities during the day along with the time and duration. This could be burdensome though. A simpler way is to just track how many productive sessions you have in a day. The Now Habit (here is my review) suggests a session to be thirty minutes long but it’s up to you. The important thing is to make sure that the productive session is indeed productive. Reading e-mails and random browsing don’t count. Alternatively, you can track your time indirectly by tracking your goals for the day or week. If you achieve your desired goals then you know that you’ve used your time productively.
To track your time, you can use a timer and spreadsheet or use a dedicated time tracking application like Klok and RescueTime. If you choose to track your goals, you can use a to-do list application like Remember the Milk or even just a text file.
3. Habits
Do you have a good habit that you want to build or a bad habit that you want to break? As Peter Drucker said, what get measured get managed. So tracking it is a good way to reach your goal.
You can do it simply by taking notes of how many times you do the habit in a certain period of time. You can then see how your score is for that period of time. With good habit, the goal is to maximize the score while with bad habit the goal is to minimize it. If you want to, you can reward yourself whenever you make an improvement. A spreadsheet or a text file is enough for tracking your habits.
The first and second metrics deal with your personal resources: money and time. They are limited so you must make sure that you use them wisely. There’s still one more important resource actually, which is your energy, but I don’t know how to track it (any idea?). The third metric deals with your habits which, of course, are essential for an effective life.
By tracking your personal finance, time, and habits, you increase your awareness of your life. This helps you not only to figure out what problems you might have but also to take the necessary actions to solve them.
Photo by Pink Sherbet Photography


  1. I like it. It’s clean and logical. Money and time are the 2 basic resources, and habits are the core of personal development.

  2. This is a really great concept!
    I think it’s also important to track health (that might be the “energy” factor you’re looking for). A lot of people ignore health issues until there is a dramatic shift. But if you’re actively monitoring how you feel and how you’re doing (by journaling, weighing yourself regularly, getting physicals, and participating in physical activities that push your limits) you’ll be in a better position to gauge your progress. As we age, it become more and more important to actively monitor these things.

  3. Hey Donald,
    I could not agree more with tracking your time. To me that’s the most important one of all.
    The very first time i used RescueTime it was pretty sobering – I suddenly got a good look at how much time I was spending answering email all day 😉
    Even now it’s running in my taskbar, and every time I see it there, I try to make sure I quickly process any email I’m trying to deal with 😉

  4. I definitely need to learn hw to use money more wisely. Thanks for resources!

  5. Thanks for the great post. I read your prior post on personal analytics, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m looking forward to the time tracker tools you listed here. Particularly for me, the challenge is to decrease the time I spend in watching unplanned TV programs; I want to record the ones I really value, and watch them during specific scheduled down times, versus indiscriminately.

  6. Hi Donald,
    Since Energy is an impulse that makes you get things done, I think you can measure it by tracking the small and big goals you achieve. If you keep a record of what you actually get done in a period of time, you can get an idea about your level of energy.
    I think this is a great resource to measure, because by doing it you are able to know how hard you are working to achieve your goals, and if you need to push harder or keep the rhythm. This would help you a lot to find success!
    I like to track my income and expenses with a spreadsheet. I think this is something everybody should do.
    I also like to track time. What I do is defining a limited period of time to complete important tasks. For example, I give myself 1 hour a day to read interesting blogs. 😉
    I hadn’t thought about tracking habits. It sounds good.

  7. Nice post. Straight forward and to the point. Too bad Mint is America only, I would really like to use it here in the UK. 🙂

  8. Great post Donald! I have to admit have a challenge in the area of time management. What has helped me over the last few months, especially in my area of work, is to make a spreadsheet as you’ve mentioned and mark my daily tasks on there. It has been very helpful the only thing for me is staying consistent at it.

  9. Eduard,
    Yes. Together these three things can make or break your life.
    I like your idea of tracking health. I’ll think more about it.
    That reminds me of the Hawthorne effect. Just knowing that somebody (or something) is watching can improve your productivity. Quite effective, isn’t it? 🙂
    Glad you like them.
    For me the challenge is random browsing. I sometimes spend a lot of time reading random articles at Wikipedia.
    So you measure energy indirectly through the outcomes it produces. That makes sense. I’ll think about it.
    I can’t use it either (I live in Indonesia). What I use is a discontinued application called Microsoft Money 🙂
    Staying consistent is always a challenge. But I think it will get easier as you’ve felt the benefits.

  10. I totally agree. I just got back from vacation and was tired the first day back and so I really messed with my daily schedule. Now after three days back I find that the stupid things that I just did daily, get up and wander for a while in the morning, watch tv in the evening, now I quest for knowlege and post more and comment more instead.
    I am really finding that the most important stuff is just making sure I am giving and serving instead of reading and taking in info that I will not use

  11. I have a basic dislike of all things structured. Call it claustrophobia – but that’s what I get reading this post.
    Don’t get me wrong I agree with the ideas of managing your money and time well – but I don’t think I could ever “tie myself” to these aids, no matter how great they seem.
    For me it’s about being a minimalist in all I do. Especially in my lifestyle choices.
    I could live in a big house, but choose to live in a lovely 700 sq ft loft instead. Bigger is not better. I waste less time on cleaning, maintenance and all the other things that go into this obsession with the big house, dog and picket fence.
    I could have hundreds of friends but choose to have a select meaningful ones instead.
    I could take on more projects – but choose to focus on no more than 3 at a time.
    I could have more blogs – but only have 2.
    I could be on facebook (time killer!) and twitter (ditto) but will not.
    I could eat a lot more but eat what I need and only fresh, never pre made.
    I have a tv but don’t have cable.
    I have only one car but walk, bike or bus more often than not. Forced downtime.
    I can easily afford more clothing and “stuff” but will not buy what I don’t need. But when I do – it’s high end, well made and beautiful. Not made in China. Quality not Quantity.
    The list goes on.
    All these choices are about learning to live in moderation. If you do that – I really do believe you don’t need all this other “stuff” to keep you “on top of things”.
    I have a years worth in my savings account
    I have a pension plan
    I have no debt at all – not even a credit card debt
    I often have time to spare
    I have time to be bored
    I am not rushed through my days and have time to see my life
    I am naturaly in a good mood and relaxed
    I am healthy and fit (but not a granola type!)
    I do many activities (rock climbing, theater etc)
    My life is full yet not rushed.
    I believe my approach works as well. Slow down people and you will not need to “manage” everything.

  12. I’ve had great success with Nike plus in the past just because it’s mainly automated. Habits are great things. I’ve successfully started the habit of doing 4-5 life changing things this year that I’ve blogged about including regularly blogging, daily exercise, going raw vegan etc.

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