Learn to Read the Story of Your Data

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When it comes to understanding ourselves—our bodies, our health, our moods, and our actions—memory alone isn't the most reliable source. We are better, but not great, at remembering what occurred recently than at thinking back on what happened a few weeks or years ago. We confuse days, events, people, what was said, and what wasn't said. But there are triggers that can help us remember. It might be a complementary memory from someone who experienced something with you, or a photograph, or a ticket stub. Little things can trigger our memories and bring focus to an otherwise fuzzy picture. Technology gives us access to huge amounts of data that can help supplement these unreliable memories. The trick is learning how to interpret it, turning the vast number of facts into a narrative that can help you understand—and maybe even improve—your life.

I interviewed Dr. Paul Abramson, MD, last year while working on a story about wearable technologies and why they matter. Abramson explained how he uses fitness tracker data to help his patients. They each meet with a health coach go over their data once a week. They spend a good 30 to 60 minutes wading through it and talking about it. He told me:

"What we learned through the practice was that the data were interesting, but actually the story around the data is more interesting. Using the data to trigger someone's memory in a recent time frame, like within a week, was very accurate in getting information about what was going on when they collected data, what that data meant, and also what was going on in periods when they weren't collecting data."

That's interesting, but what does it mean in real life? Here's a series of examples from my own life. I recently left India, where I live, to visit the US for about a month. In the days leading up to the trip home, I was excited to return to my old lifestyle. I looked forward to simple pleasures that are hard to come by here, like walking along sidewalks, jogging in a park, and eating a huge salad for lunch.

But the trip had some unexpected surprises in store for me. I ended up sleeping on couches for a week when the apartment I had rented turned out to be well below the cleanliness level I can tolerate. Sometime around week two, my sick and very old grandfather went into hospice in upstate New York, so I traveled to see him. He died soon after, adding another unexpected trip out of town. On the way back to India, I took a stopover in London, landing the day the Brexit polls closed. I spent the following two days talking to a few of my London-based friends who work in international policy and whose jobs were all suddenly much less secure. By the time I touched down in Chennai again, all I wanted to do was sleep the whole thing off.

With the trip behind me, I started looking at all the data I had collected from the month of hell. I am always testing and therefore wearing various fitness and sleep trackers; during that trip it was the Garmin Vivoactive and Misfit Ray. I take my resting heart rate every couple of days with the Runtastic Heart Rate app. I log my mood and any general aches and pains in a period- and sex-tracking app called Eve by Glow. And I have a consolidated record of all the money I spend in the personal finance app Mint.

There were a lot of data, and I wondered if they told the story of what happened during this month. In addition to all the data-tracking I do with devices and apps, I keep my calendar up to date and write a daily journal, which could help me fact-check what had happened and when.

Stress
My resting heart rate is generally around 50 to 55 beats per minute. A few days before my first flight, my heart rate was slightly higher than normal, according to the data in my Runtastic Heart Rate app. A week into the trip, it was above 60bpm. The day after I learned I wouldn't be staying in the apartment where I had planned to stay and that I'd have to crash on couches for a while until I figured out where to go, my resting heart rate was 70bpm.

I actually noticed my rising heart rate as it was happening and acknowledged that it was probably stress-induced. I made an effort to take a few deep breathes any time I caught myself worrying about how my sleeping on their couches was inconveniencing my sisters. A couple of afternoon jogs helped, too. After two days, my heart rate was back to normal.

Steps Annotated

Inactivity
My outdoor activity is limited when I'm in India, and I was looking forward to walking outdoors more during my time in the US. Looking back on my fitness tracker data from the Garmin Vivoactive, I noticed huge differences in my daily step counts during my visit. Sure enough, when I compared them to my calendar, the days of inactivity all mapped to unusual circumstances: flights, an eight-hour drive upstate and back, a jet-lagged day made shorter by a change in time zones, and so forth.

But I also noticed how much more activity overall I got during the month, which made it easier to excuse myself for the days when I was less active. It's important to look at fitness tracker data in the aggregate because it's the bigger picture that matters more than a single day. Still, I was relieved to see that the bad days weren't multiplying, as they sometimes do during stressful or painful events.

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