How Lifelogging Works

By: Alia Hoyt
The Jawbone UP wristband allows you to measure physical activity, analyze sleep and to keep a record of what you eat -- all activities you can improve on to live a healthier life.

Dear Diary,

Today, Bobby asked me to the prom! I also caught those mean girls gossiping about me again. I took 9,482 steps, consumed 1,470 calories, drank 120 ounces of water, slept for seven hours and 20 minutes and had an average stress level.


More tomorrow!


Now, that's not your Grandma's journal entry! Modern tracking capabilities have totally changed the face of how we can see and recall our day-to-day lives. Known as lifelogging, the practice is trademarked by the use of some type of technology, like a Fitbit, nutrition app or even a wearable camera, to track and record behavioral data, like how much you sleep, eat or exercise. People with health issues, like diabetes or sleep problems, have traditionally used similar devices to help them pinpoint danger zones or figure out corrective actions. Now that the practice has gone mainstream people are collecting all varieties of data, often with the intent of improving health and overall quality of life.

Also known as "self-tracking," lifelogging is picking up speed thanks to how easy it is to use the technology and analyze the resulting data, although it hasn't won everyone over yet. A Pew Research survey of U.S. residents found that 69 percent of adults keep track of at least one health-related metric, such as diet, weight, symptom or exercise. Of that number, 21 percent use some sort of device or app designed for the purpose (8 percent use a medical device like a glucose meter and 7 percent use an app). Another 34 percent use old-fashioned pen and paper while 49 percent reported keeping mental tabs, choosing to rely solely on their own recall and calculation [source: Fox and Duggan].

The problem with keeping track "in your head" is that humans are far more prone to over or underestimating things than modern technology is. I enlisted the help of several friends to prove this point. None had ever tracked calories or steps before. Beth estimated she'd consume about 1,000 calories a day, but wound up with closer to 1,200. Molly was shockingly accurate, with 1,746 calories versus her guess of 1,800. Peri fell just short on her estimated number of steps (15,000) with 13,179, while Jen blew her 1,500 step guesstimate away with 4,836. When I first began using the My Fitness Pal app for nutrition tracking purposes I was stunned by how my perception of my calories/sodium/fat intake was wildly different than reality. Cold, hard data doesn't lie, my friends.


Types of Lifelogging Tools

Lifelogging has been around in some form or fashion for centuries. Back in the 1980s my dad used a notepad and a book containing calorie counts to painstakingly track his intake. Going back even further to 1726, Benjamin Franklin created his own system to track 13 virtues. Each day he noted whether he successfully practiced each one (humility, temperance, sincerity, cleanliness, moderation, etc.), using the findings to do better the next day. Interested in the concept? Put away that pen and paper and download the Ben's Virtues app or track your progress online at Thirteen Virtues. Here are a few others good old Ben might have approved of:

Mood: People who experience regular emotional fluctuations are turning to mood tracking apps to help them identify when and why they're experiencing low points and even turn them around via supportive online communities. Two such sites/apps are Moodpanda and Moodscope [source: Quantified Self]. It might sound silly, but regular collection of this type of data can show a person whether or not they're happy at work, with a particular friend or at a specific time of day, which can inspire someone to take corrective action (read: ditch the terrible job and obnoxious friend who's keeping you down).


Sleep: For something that's so important to overall health and wellness, sleep is often shunned in favor of late-night reality television and other time sucks. Others simply can't settle down, thanks to insomnia, stress or other factors. Wearable sleep technology and smartphone apps are designed to decode your z's, helping people identify how much and the quality of sleep they're getting, as well as possible triggers to avoid. Many sleep experts are skeptical about how reliable these trackers are, and advise users to take the produced data with a grain of salt [source: Pappas]. Examples include Fitbit and Digifit (which have other functions, as well) and the Sleep Cycle app, among many others.

Nutrition: Apps like MyFitnessPal and Calorie Count are user-friendly, but require manual entry. They can be very eye-opening, however (I consume how much sodium?), leading people to make better nutrition choices.

Fitness:RunKeeper and Cyclemeter are two apps designed to motivate and empower users to track activity and progress. Wearable tech like Fitbit and Jawbone are more expensive, but incredibly convenient, since all you typically have to do is wear them to obtain mad data. Old-school clip-on pedometers are also an option ... until they fall off and get lost. Not that I know anything about that.


How to Start Lifelogging

A Wellograph watch and activity tracker is displayed during a CES conference. It's the only watch that can read heart rate variability which helps determine your stress level.
© Yang Lei/Xinhua Press/Corbis

The general point of lifelogging is to provide people with data to make personal improvements. Nothing's going to motivate you to achieve ongoing success quite like making and reaching realistic, serious goals.

First, take off the rose colored glasses and take a long, hard look at yourself. Are you at a decent weight, but feeling sluggish and unhealthy? Look to sleep and nutrition fixes to rev yourself back up. Overweight and unhappy? Tackle diet, fitness and mood tools to lower BMI and elevate your self-esteem! There seems to be an app or device available to quantify literally any health or personal problem you're having, so do a little research and find one (or five) that meet your needs.


Then, identify goals you'd like to achieve in the coming weeks, months and reevaluate them as needed for the long-term. Unless your name is Ryan Reynolds you're not likely to ever achieve total physical perfection, so make your habits and goals realistic, or else you might risk burn-out down the line. For example, if you're focused on sitting less and moving more, use a device or app to log steps in a normal day. Then find out the number of steps you ought to be taking. Break down how you are going to increase your number to get nearer your goal. How many steps can you burn with an aerobics class or taking the stairs rather than the elevator? Small changes add up to big results over time and can be extremely motivating.

"When I first started tracking my nutritional data I was surprised at myself," says Emmett H., of Kennesaw, Georgia, who used the data to create a new nutrition plan. "I made changes like what, how much and when I ate." It also doesn't hurt that he has cultivated a support system to encourage success that includes his wife, Natasha. Both credit the competitive component their Fitbit challenge groups bring to the table with egging them on. "Seriously, when you are getting close to the end of a Fitbit challenge and you are only a couple of hundred steps behind a friend you will push yourself," explains Natasha. "Also, it doesn't hurt that there is trash talking involved," she says, citing one friend who chided the rest of the group at 8 a.m. by messaging, "Wake up and start walking!" as everyone else in the group lagged far behind her 3,000 steps. Most of us have at least a little bit of competitive instinct, and challenges like the one they participate in are specifically designed to awaken the sleeping athlete in all of us.

But are most people so motivated?


Ups and Downs of Lifelogging

My husband's health insurance runs a wellness program that provided us with pedometers to record our daily steps, and in return we get cold hard cash in our health savings account. Until it somehow disappeared, I found wearing it to be tedious, uncomfortable and the syncing process to be "one more thing" to remember to do every day. That's the fundamental downside of tracking -- although it's certainly easier than the days of hand-written data entry, it still requires us to log in, sync devices, remember what we ate that day, and otherwise micromanage ourselves.

Some people see the effort as well worth the reward. "When I first started, I used the data to track progress and try to figure out some medical issues," says Natasha. "I literally walked into my doctor's office, and then a nutritionist with a binder full of history and data. It wowed both of them and helped them tailor their questions and look for issues."


Emmett also successfully turned his effort into tangible benefits. "I am down almost 20 pounds [9 kilograms] from last year at this time," he says. "The weight loss started when I began using MyFitnessPal to track what I was eating and getting the Fitbit to track my activity has only strengthened my resolve to get healthier."

Emmett and Natasha belong to a relatively small group who've managed to turn talk into action. Research indicates that only 46 percent of self-trackers have used their personal data to make health-related changes, leaving more than half of other users with a whole lot of info and nothing to show for it [source: Pew Research Center]. The fact is, it takes time and effort to make sustainable lifestyle changes, which some people aren't willing to commit to. Still, they're paying attention, so there's potential for any necessary improvements down the line. In the meantime, the awareness trend is spreading to people of all ages, all the way down to school-aged children like Emmett and Natasha's two sons. "The boys use the Misfit activity tracker right now and they love keeping track of their steps and just competing with us," Emmett explains. "They complain when they haven't gotten all of their steps!" adds Natasha.

In an age where both childhood and adult obesity are seriously out of control, this trend of lively competition and preventative medicine awareness could definitely be worth the comparatively minor inconveniences associated with lifeloggging. Sure, maybe you lose five minutes a day in logging activities, but the potential trade-off is extra months, or even years on your life – if you make the changes.


Lots More Information

Author's Note: How Lifelogging Works

Lifelogging probably isn't for everyone, but it's at least worth taking for a test drive. Not that I live my life under a microscope, but anytime I stray from a healthy diet and exercise routine for too long I pay the price in terms of energy loss and weight gain, which are two of my least favorite things.

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More Great Links

  • Collins Dictionary. "Life Logging." (March 20, 2015)
  • Fox, Susannah and Maeve Duggan. "Tracking for Health." Pew Research Center. Jan. 28, 2013 (March 20, 2015)
  • H., Emmett and Natasha. Interviews via e-mail. March 28, 2015.
  • Knoblauch, Max. Lifelogging: The Most Miserable, Self-Aware 30 Days I've Ever Spent." Mashable. March 20, 2014 (March 20, 2015)
  • Lewis, Tanya. "Poop Apps: 5 Tools for Tracking Your Stools." Live Science. April 25, 2014 (March 20, 2015)
  • Pappas, Stephanie. "A Good Night's Rest: The Best Sleep Apps." Live Science. Jan. 23, 2015 (March 20, 2015)
  • Pew Research Center. "Health Fact Sheet." 2015 (March 20, 2015)
  • Quantified Self. "505 Tools." 2011 (March 20, 2015)
  • Thirteen Virtues. "Thirteen Virtues." 2015 (March 20, 2015)