My So-Quantified Life, Part 1: Collecting Data

I lost 15 pounds and 3% body fat in 3 months. How did I do it? Quantification and slow but steady habit change.

A graph of my weight over the past year.

I’m a software engineer and tech leader. That’s fancy LinkedIn-speak for saying that I make computers do things and I keep other engineers happy in their careers. I like to collapse that down into the term Maker/Manager.

In my line of work, I’ve found the most successful software to be built using data-driven techniques. You generate lots of data, conduct lots of experiments, conduct retros and iterate. Why don’t we apply that to our personal lives if we want to be our best selves?

I applied these concepts to my own life to lose those 15 pounds. I’ve maintained this new weight now for 2 months. There are 4 main components to this quantification / data-driven technique:

  1. Collect Data
  2. Change Your Habits and Thinking
  3. Do the Work
  4. Reflect and Iterate

Collecting Data

Back in 2013, I bought myself a Fitbit as a birthday present so I could quantify my own health data. (Or perhaps it was because I’m an early adopter and I love gadgets.) You could do this with a variety of other devices like the Apple Watch, but I’ve found the sweet spot of data collection, features, and importantly battery life in Fitbit devices. I started with a Flex and I currently rock a Versa 2.

What kind of data is important for weight loss and improving your health?

  • Steps
  • Resting Heart Rate
  • Weight
  • Body Fat Percentage
  • Sleep
  • Additional Exercise
  • Calories Eaten
  • Calories Burned

The good news is that modern wearables (including my Fitbit Versa 2) can track all of the above automatically, with the exception of Calories Eaten, Weight and Body Fat Percentage.

Why are these data elements important?

  • Steps: This is your base exercise and you already know how to do it.
  • Resting Heart Rate: This helps you tell your overall fitness. If this goes down, you’re doing well. If it spikes up, you may be sick.
  • Weight: This is the main metric people use. Note that it tends to vary normally for whatever reason. It can also go up when you build muscle.
  • Body Fat Percentage: Another way to think about this is the inverse of your muscle and bone percentage. Since your bones don’t really change much that I know of, seeing this go down even if your weight doesn’t change is nice. Note that it can go up as well so don’t be discouraged if that happens and your other metrics are good.
  • Sleep: The more I read about sleep, the more I’m convinced that it is critical to our overall health. Studies show that if you don’t get enough sleep, it will lead to weight gain.
  • Additional Exercise: There are a lot of benefits, but basically you want to get 15-60 minutes of exercise daily if you want to get and stay healthy. There are a lot of different ways to exercise but you should get a mix of strength training which builds muscles, cardio which builds heart health and stretching which makes sure your muscles, ligaments and tendons stay in good shape.
  • Calories Burned is a nice calculated metric based on the above data. It helps to visualize your weight loss since this should be significantly greater than your Calories Eaten over a sustained period of time.

For Calories Eaten, which you should definitely track if you’re starting to get healthier or wanting to lose weight, the best I’ve found is using a mobile app, eating foods with barcodes and scanning them. If you want to eat fresh foods (which you do) and other food that doesn’t have bar codes, get a weight scale and enter it in. This part is a hassle but once you’ve learned how much you should normally eat, then you don’t have to measure anymore.

For Weight and Body Fat Percentage, get a smart scale. I use the Fitbit Aria. I weigh myself daily after waking up and using the bathroom. This helps eliminates variables such as hydration and food that you may have eaten. I do try to get down to the same amount of clothes every time as well. This syncs over WiFi with Fitbit.

Next blog post, I’ll cover Changing Your Habits and Thinking. For me, that was the hardest part of this whole process.

Changes I’ve made to help heal my carpal tunnel problem

Vik asked about my carpal tunnel problem:

Just curious if you’re going to make any changes now. As in, mouse to touchpad/trackball, some special keyboard, some software aimed at CTS sufferers, etc. I’ve been forcing myself to use the touchpad more (less mouse) because I’m concerned about CTS, after having using computers heavily for about 14 yrs.

Yes, obviously, if it’s broke, then fix it. And my hands were REALLY broken. I would come home from work and they would be swollen, my palm would be throbbing and my forearm would be in a sort of spasm. It got so bad, I actually LOOKED FORWARD to meetings (so I could rest my hands). Hehehe my doctor said that you know its bad when it gets to that point.

So first off, go see a doctor if you feel pain. Or maybe even beforehand, to head off anything that is lurking under the covers but hasn’t manifested itself yet. I really like Dr Perron. I’ve seen a few doctors about this and they usually didn’t know much about it or seemed to be set on surgery. I don’t know about you, but I like my ligaments to be intact whenever possible.

Secondly, you have to really question your work habits / setup. Here’s what I’ve implemented:

  • I take breaks about once an hour for just a few minutes. I used to just sit for hours on end, coding away, hands on keyboard and mouse. At first I used a program called TimeOut on the Mac to help, but now I just am in the habit of doing this.
  • During my break, I get up and walk around a bit to get my circulation going. I also do some specific wrist stretches to help regain the range of motion and flexibility in my hands.
  • I use a single button Apple Mouse with my LEFT hand. I’m right handed and I think the two biggest actions that damaged my hand were using the scroll wheel and right clicking. Sounds crazy, but my pointer and middle fingers on my right hand are the ones that still act up.
  • I bought another Pil-O-Splint so that I sleep with one on each hand. It helps ensure that your wrist stays straight during the night.
  • I try to make sure that my hands stay warm, so I’m usually wearing a sweatshirt or fleece or jacket. The heat helps heal your hands.
  • In the evening, I take a hot shower or apply a heat pad/hot water bottle to my shoulders. Again, its the heat that helps.

Hope this helps people out there who rely on their hands.

I’m feeling MUCH better

I’m back! Thanks for all your thoughts and prayers. My hands are feeling great. I’d say about 70%. So I’m not going to be arm wrestling Sylvester Stallone anytime soon. But I am able to type and program and do all the everyday things that I used to do.

It turns out that I had carpal tunnel AND ulnar tunnel. The strange thing was that this occurred because I was TOO good at what I do. All that typing, especially at high typing speed, results in a lot of code in a short amount of time. And for all the budding programmers out there, I’d still recommend learning how to type as fast as possible. The downside is that I basically trained my fingers to be really strong and quick, but only in this small range of motion, which is about the depth of a key press.

The solution? Well, if you live in the Northern Virginia/DC, I’d recommend booking an appointment with Dr. Perron of Reston Chiropractic. He uses some pretty advanced techniques that are unlike any chiropractor I’ve ever heard of. It’s called the Activator Method and here’s how it can relieve repetitive stress / carpal tunnel syndrome. There’s other doctors around the world that use the same method.