Not-so-reckless recordkeeping
July 30, 2010 3:24 PM   Subscribe

What are the most interesting, relevant, and satisfying ways you keep track of your life?

This question is almost hopelessly broad, so I hope to better sum it up below...

As a recent college graduate, I'm finding my life almost panic-inducingly unstructured these days. I have a tedious job (set to end soon) and am in the midst of applying for much better jobs, and while my actual commitments (and desires) are multifarious, I have come to feel like I'm floating in space, unmotivated and too easily pulled in every direction. I really don't like this state of being -- it feels unproductive and unfocused.

I'm interested in ways to change my approach to life, in hopes of engaging more with it, and being more reflective on my actions, what intrigues me and what I've learned each day. I'm specifically interested in forms of documentation that I can turn to daily and in the future to understand where I was and where I'm going. This isn't intended to be only professionally-oriented, although the idea would be gaining more inspiration and a better understanding of my interests from keeping a/several record(s) of some kind.

In the past/currently, I have experimented with the following:
--Journaling with a pen & paper
--Blogging (have blogged for 4 years, and update it sporadically)
--Google Calendar
--Taking one photo every day
--Recording how much I spend
--Recording everything I eat
--Keeping track of new words I've learned through Wordnik lists (really enjoy this one)

So, what are the most rewarding (and creative!) personal records you keep, and, maybe more importantly, how do you keep them? How do they help you think or focus, and how have you adopted them as part of your day? In particular, I am looking for things that provide a positive feedback loop--the documenting is inspiring/thought-provoking, which makes you want to document more, which provides more inspiration...

(Lots of questions--answer one or all.)

...I could use some structure.

(Note: I do know about GTD -- and I do find it semi-useful, though it hasn't entirely taken.)
posted by aintthattheway to Grab Bag (31 answers total) 111 users marked this as a favorite
Here's the best stuff I've done:

1. I keep my old resumes, recommendation letters, greeting cards, etc. folders in my filing cabinets. It is pretty amazing to go back and read what other people who know me well have written to or about me, and to remember where I used to be in terms of my career.

2. Photos. Especially if you organize them into albums or easy to access, intelligently labeled files.

3. Pen and paper journals, in whatever style works. I tend to write on legal pads when I'm at a troublesome point in my life. It helps me work things out, and it is strangely good to read it later when I'm past the trouble.
posted by bearwife at 3:43 PM on July 30, 2010

Keeping track of everything I read. It's interesting to watch my reading patterns, and also if I see I haven't been reading much I take a look at my life because I'm probably prioritizing something wrongly.
posted by gaspode at 3:44 PM on July 30, 2010

This is a bit off the grid.. but the best record keepers are friends. They are the most interesting, relevant and satisfying ways to keep track of ones life. They are a positive feedback loop reminding you of who you are, and who you've professed you want to become. They will remind you of valiant things you have done, stupid mistakes you have made and funny jokes you've either delivered or provoked. I'm not against pen and paper record keeping (although I don't do it myself), but with friends you can make records and keep records at the same time. You think this this is too corny? Well, I don't really have time to think about it anymore, I'm gonna go hang out with my friends.
posted by pwally at 3:58 PM on July 30, 2010 [4 favorites]

I track books read (64 so far this year! Really need to get a life,) miles run, and new recipes made.

Books are tracked on a piece of paper on my desk. Recipes are taped to my fridge. Miles are tracked with tally marks penciled on the door. They're all pretty satisfying to me.
posted by punchtothehead at 4:04 PM on July 30, 2010

Best answer: I've noticed I'm a lot more likely to do something if it contributes to building an online profile or portfolio of some kind.

For instance, I've started reading a lot more since I started a Goodreads account. I like it because you can list all the books you've already read, the books you're reading, and the books you want to read, relatively simply. My favorite part is when you're in the middle of a book, you can enter in which page you're on and it shows you a progress bar and what percent of the way through the book you are. When you read more, you nudge the bar up a little bit; instant feedback! It works for me.

For journaling, if you're okay with letting go of the pen and paper, there is, which has all kinds of cool feedback functions that kept me writing when I was interested in keeping a journal. The interface is very slimmed down and just allows you to get to journaling, but when you finish your entry, the system analyses it for things like your mood, how long it took you to write it, a timeline of words per minute throughout the time you were writing, and so on. It's pretty cool, if a bit meaningless. Also, there's a point system and even badges that encourage you to write more, or at least it did me.

To take one photo a day, it helps to have a cameraphone that you'll have with you wherever you are. I use tumblr to post my photo a day thing, which keeps me pretty accountable.

For a budget, I use an app on my iPhone called "My Budget." It's nothing too special, but helps me keep track of expenses as I go. There are any number of budget/expense-tracking apps if you're in the iUniverse.
posted by malapropist at 4:14 PM on July 30, 2010 [4 favorites]

Wow, gotta say I applaud your introspection at such an early age. Wish my kids had the same sensitivity to their reality. You already are ahead of the game in recognizing that you have the capacity to watch yourself, but you might check out an older book, Berger and Luckman's "Social Construction of Reality", out in the 1970s, that set the standard. As far as how to implement it, it's a matter of building up the muscles of constant awareness, of observing yourself as an observer, in a world that you totally control of how to define it. It really doesn't matter how you do it, simply having a sensitivity and an awareness of what you are doing and that you define your reality, will open up so many doors that few are admitted to. Congratulations, really.
posted by america4 at 4:17 PM on July 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I can't stress this enough: get pictures printed. Do not take digital media seriously as a way to document your life long term. The technology changes, file formats change, things are mislabeled, computers are switched up, you have stuff in email, stuff you shared on Facebook, even folders you've dutifully zipped and put on DVDs and zip drives and USB keys.

There is no format more reliable or more easy to organize over the course of a lifetime than paper.

I will now put on my indoor pants and oversize t-shirt and settle in for my mocking.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 4:44 PM on July 30, 2010 [5 favorites]

Whenever you do/find something or go somewhere you wanna remember just keep a memento of the occasion, which will hopefully have a date on it. Throw it in a manila envelope (or whatever) and write the start date on the front. When it's full enough write an end date and file it away Andy Warhol Time Capsule style. Repeat. I've been doing it for years.
posted by wherever, whatever at 4:49 PM on July 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

31 Days to Fix Your Finances is a poorly titled series that sounds like a bad financial self help program but it has helped me to nail down the things that are important to me and to keep track of how well I am integrating them into my daily life. I use it to help clarify the things that are important to me and then to answer the question "What am I doing today to make those things happen?" I keep track of the goals and finances on a spreadsheet and keep the lists of things that I need to do today, this week, this month, in the next three months . . . on a calendar program that I print out every week. I have been doing it for a little over a year and it has helped to keep me more focused on the things that are important to me as well as provide a record of how those things have changed over the last year.
posted by calumet43 at 4:59 PM on July 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

I write all the yoga classes I take in an appointment-book style calendar, because taking several classes a week, regularly, is one of my goals. The calendar is not used for anything else. Ever. If you have a particular goal you're working towards, or habit you want to establish, tracking it in a dedicated calendar or notebook really helps keep on top of it. And gives you positive feedback of how well you're doing.

Have been meaning for a long time to track books I read, maybe movies too. Think it's time to start that, but wish I had done it years ago. I would love to have a list of everything I've read over the last 30 years, along with a 1 or 2 sentence comment. So if there's something you love that lends itself to this sort of thing, since you're young, consider starting a list(s). You'll enjoy watching the entries grow and looking back on them every now and then.
posted by daikon at 5:28 PM on July 30, 2010

I have tried several things (besides the usual journals and blogs). My motivational challenges are not so much a lack of structure for time, but a lack of focus. I tend to overcommitt myself from having too many interests and not being able to say "no."

The two things I find most helpful are "time budgets + goals" and "high-lights/low-lights"

Time budgets: You have 168 hours available to you each week. You spend, say, 8 hours per day, five days per week working, and about 56 hours sleeping and eating. You also need to spend about 10 hours per week eating, maybe another 2 hours grooming yourself, so that leaves you with about 60 hours, assuming your commute isn't too awful. With this allotment in mind, I

1) Sit down about once a year and list all the things I may possibly want to accomplish (without editing myself)

2) Pick the top 5 or 6 and say, "OK. I will spend 10 hours per week on this goal that's most important to me and 4 hours a week working out"

3) Review the list each year and start back at step 1.

This is great because I know what my priorities are by deciding how I want to spend my time. It makes it easier to let the other things go.

High-lights/Low-Lights: For the last couple years, I've sat down at the end of each month to write two or three things that were the best things and worse things about that month. At the end of each year, I read throught the ones for the past couple years.
posted by rw at 5:40 PM on July 30, 2010 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I like a lot of the ideas proposed above, but here are a few more for you:

- I use the Firefox add-on GMarks as my knowledge assistant. It helps me to keep track of the many useful resources, quotations, blog entries, ask.metafilter threads, reference sources, career sites, etc. You can easily assign one or more tags and the tags are hierarchical. I realize links to sites can die so anything essential I print to PDF and save.

- I track my weight using The Hacker's Diet Spreadsheet which I wish I had found 10 years ago.

- I carve out a half or a full day periodically for a "retreat". I sit alone in a room in a comfortable chair with my notebook PC on my lap and use the Web, books and a variety of organizational tools to address a particular issue. Pretend you are trying to help a friend with a problem (actually you are, it's you). Focus on one issue at a time and come up with concrete steps that you will implement. You should have a folder on your PC devoted to that retreat, in case you have retreats on the same topic later. There is a wealth of resources out there, we are lucky to live in this age. For organization you can consider FreeMind, WriteRoom (or Dark Room for Windows), Zotero, KeyNote, or other PC or Web apps you find/like. The output of the retreat can be a condensed document for your wallet or to sync to your phone/PDA.

- I think it's important to have a way to make quick notes about thoughts that come to your mind during the day (an audio recorder or phone app or paper notebook). Of course you must have the discipline to consolidate them later into your main knowledge base (unless you have some tool that automatically syncs).

- Have multiple concurrent goals and keep track of your progress on them using some of the same tools you might have used during your "retreats". Having a broader focus helps to avoid frustration and make you more engaged. Life's a banquet and most poor suckers are starving.

- You might (?) also want to see this Lifehacker call for personal project management tool recommendations.

- I have an automated nightly backup of my most essential files (not directly on topic but whatever you do electronically will be a waste if you lose it) and I periodically rotate among thumb drive volumes.
posted by forthright at 6:46 PM on July 30, 2010 [4 favorites]

This is a little bit less creative and more pragmatic, but I've been doing it since January and it has dramatically changed the way I deal with money.

I dunno, maybe I just dig pie charts.
posted by Sara C. at 7:05 PM on July 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I couldn't find it on the moleskin website, but this 5-year diary is pretty awesome. Each page is a day/date, divided into 5 sections. That way you can track what you did/felt/read/bought on, let's say, July 30th, for the next five years.
posted by iamkimiam at 7:38 PM on July 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

To be clear, at one point Moleskin made a 5-year diary (which I have, so I know it exists), but I couldn't find it on the site (so I linked to a way you can hack a regular ole Moleskin planner). The only difference is the day-of-the-week heading at the top will be wrong for 4 out of the 5 years I suppose.
posted by iamkimiam at 7:40 PM on July 30, 2010

I use recipe cards / index cards which I carry in a stack in my pocket or my bicycle bag to track otherwise fleeting ideas for later elaboration.

I enter certain items from that to an emacs org mode file for handy editing and todo ordering / tracking etc.

I store digital projects in a tree structure on my computer.

I back up my files weekly and all are in open formats.

Since all my files are in open formats for use by open source programs, I have no fear of losing access to the data (figuring that I can still find Linux 1.0 or a working floppy drive in this day and age I am not so worried about obsolescence of the software or medium as long as I keep up with making sure the data is no a reliable medium in good condition). For my music and video data, backed up hard disk is likely more reliable than magnetic tape at least. Very important things I print on paper (if possible - I am loathe to back up movie footage to paper (perhaps uuencoding the files?), though it could theoretically be done if I paid for hundreds of dollars of printer ink (recovery would require patience with a scanner and OCR)).
posted by idiopath at 8:32 PM on July 30, 2010

I have my ticket stub from every show I have seen in the last 29 years. I have most but not all from the six years before that. Fascinating to watch prices and my taste in music. My Dead show stuns have the song list written on the back. Some are more easily read than others.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:45 PM on July 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

My life is a lot easier to keep track of with a lovely leather monthly planner from Gallery Leather. I just bought my 4th or 5th one and there's plenty of room in the notes section to keep track of my time budget, high-lights and goals. Barnes and Noble has them in a variety of colors and sizes.

Also, several people have mentioned 5-year diaries. I just got one from an Aunt who died, so it's a great keepsake to remember her by. It's from when she was 21 or 22, starting near the end of WWII. It prompted me to ask my spousal unit to put the one from Levenger's on my gift list.
posted by rw at 11:16 PM on July 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm a fan of the Jerry Seinfeld method for productivity. Its more of a motivator but I keep the calendar pages as a record.
posted by ljesse at 12:18 AM on July 31, 2010 [3 favorites]

Some workplaces have you keep a "continuing professional development plan". It records what your longer term career ambitions are with that company, and then what you have been doing towards that. All the training that you receive goes in there, and once a year in your appraisal you fish it out and and review it.

Maybe a kind of "learning journal" along those lines would be good. What have you learnt? What would you like to learn? What could you learn that would help you in the directions you'd like to go in?
posted by emilyw at 1:05 AM on July 31, 2010

I really like foursquare; I can go back and look at where I've been, who else is/was where I am/was. And you get badges for stuff!
posted by alby at 3:01 AM on July 31, 2010

I keep a document on my computer that is just a table with two columns, one for the date and the other for a two-line summary of my day. I have never been able to journal or keep a diary, but because this method is so easy, I've been able to keep a record of the important or interesting things I do each day for about 8 months. If you are always on your computer like me, it may work for you.
posted by afton at 6:23 AM on July 31, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for these suggestions, everyone! I've marked a few that really get at what I'm looking for as "best answers" -- I've added GoodReads and 750 Words and I've been looking at the budgeting apps and options too. I just recently got a Droid so I've been playing around with what it can do and I'm really liking the organizational apps.

Something specific I would love is a way to track articles/links I've read online -- sort of a place to dump them all, organized by date. The other day I read an article on Vitamin D, another one on women in the Catholic Church, and another arguing against air conditioning. I would have loved to be able to save these to a specific location and revisit, sort of a log of my internet exploration/learning. sort of gets at this, but is more value-oriented. If anyone knows a better site for keeping track of stuff you've read online, that would be great too.

But really this is all pretty useful, and I'll go back and read through these several times.
posted by aintthattheway at 10:16 AM on July 31, 2010

Something specific I would love is a way to track articles/links I've read online

For this sort of thing, I use Delicious.
posted by rw at 12:31 PM on July 31, 2010

Regarding tracking articles/links, I think Gmarks and Zotero are in the ballpark. I mentioned them in my earlier reply so I just re-post the links in case you overlooked them. If you looked at them and weren't interested, or if they're not compatible with your browser or Droid then please just ignore this follow-up.
posted by forthright at 12:51 PM on July 31, 2010

P.S. - of course the simplest way to save things you read on-line is printing to a PDF (you could create a new folder once a day in some parent folder). Macs can print to a PDF as easily as a printer. Windows needs some special software. Of course the other hang-up is getting the entire article on screen (unfortunately only some sites have a "Printable Format" option).

By the way, if you are on a Windows box I think Agent Ransack is the kind of file search that Windows should provide out of the box (Vista's Search is IMO particularly awful).
posted by forthright at 1:02 PM on July 31, 2010 [1 favorite] for financial tracking of all accounts.
posted by talldean at 1:33 PM on July 31, 2010

Interesting question. I think one of the biggest mistakes CS students do in life is throw away data. It's only once they get into the workplace, and not even every workplace, that they start to learn the analytical value of recordkeeping.

Things I wish I had kept better track of in college:
* projects and source code.
* email
* IRC chat logs
* game saves
* mail correspondence with my lenders and bank

The benefits of data ownership and control is not just going back and being able to refer to things later ("how long did they say I'd be paying that loan back for?"), but also to easily load data into programs for analysis. like this guy, who charted sleep patterns. If you haven't seen Nick Felton's stuff, take a look. The methodology is a bit different, he surveys his friends (suggested by pwally).

You mention bookmarking things you read on the web. I really like self documenting systems. For example, it's not quite the same, but I use Mozilla Weave to archive my browser history. When I research how to do something for my personal use and then discover I need it at work six months later, that comes in handy.

Other automatic logging: I have a feed reader tied to personal activity RSS feeds, and OFX to track financial transactions that I take care of at the end of the month (speaking of which!). Less healthy is the relationship many people have with Gamerscore, an Xbox 360 feature that tracks various achievements across all games. I sort of fall into the trap of playing games in part to get the achievement points. I'm pretty sure my music player has a record of how often I listen to music (and maybe when?). I set up a database of credit card offers I receive in the mail, which may some day be interesting to compare with credit scoring, but might not be if the rate of arrival is too low.

The most recent thing I've done is set up a calDAV server for tasks, aka a todo item. It strikes me as odd that there's so many todo list websites that don't support calDAV. Todolists primarily function as a log of things I will do rather than have done, but it's also useful for keeping an archive of completed tasks. I find that taking a project and planning it into minor tasks helps me build confidence that a project is doable, and gives me bitesized tasks to work on, small enough that they seem easy to do and yet big enough that they represent some step of progress. The calendar is also a good way to budget time for TV podcasts and the like, and deliberately set aside time for working on projects.

I've been looking at arbtt to track general computer use. But haven't done much with it yet. I'm pretty sure it will show that I waste too much time on metafilter and IRC, which in fact motivates me not to check it.
posted by pwnguin at 7:13 PM on July 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

I was inspired enough by Nick Felton's Annual Reports (as pwnguin mentioned above) to start tracking my own data. I also convinced my wife to join in and we published an annual report last year. (Opens as a PDF.)

We are currently collecting data to put out another this year. I really like the format because it forces you to figure out what is important (at least to us) and then puts some accountability behind it. It pushes us to do something worthwhile, whether that is running, reading, or drinking wine. It also serves as a neat way to look back on the year.

Most of the data collection is done via a big excel file with a bunch of tabs, but we also used Facebook, Pandora, and good old pen and paper to compile the data for the final product.
posted by John Frum at 7:24 PM on August 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

posted by aheckler at 9:45 AM on August 2, 2010

I installed this super simple tool on my office machine that lets me keep a log of what I worked on so I have a history for later (eg. performance reviews, etc). You hit a preset shortcut and a little box appears where you type in whatever you want. You hit Enter and it's gone.

It adds the new line to a txt file with a date and time stamp prepended to your log.
posted by Dragonness at 1:30 PM on August 3, 2010

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