3 Smartphone Apps to Live an "Examined" Life

"The unexamined life is not worth living." -- Socrates

Eat better, exercise more, save money. Those are the classic New Year's resolutions that many people come up with in January, only to abandon them in February defeat. I wrote at the turn of the year about the strategic, actionable approach I use to articulate and accomplish my resolutions.

My approach was based on resolve, public accountability, and PowerPoint. I had no way of easily tracking my progress. And then I unleashed the power of my iPhone. Since January, on my quest for self-improvement, I have been using three apps to eat better, exercise more, and save money.

Using iPhone apps to track one's activities is a hallmark of the "quantified self" movement. The movement aims to use self-tracking data to understand one's self better and, where possible, make improvements. One could easily get carried away and track every little thing. I don't have the time or patience for that. I was instead on the lookout for apps that record my activities with no effort on my part. Download the app, set it, and forget it. Self-improvement through passive data collection. Sign me up!

#1 The Personal Capital App - Improving My Diet Through My Finances

I recently had a work dinner with a colleague in which I ordered four desserts for the table. There were two of us. Needless to say, I have a sweet tooth. My mother likes to say that I would kick her while I was in the womb if she hadn't eaten chocolate that day. My sweet tooth gets hangry.

As an employee at Personal Capital, I spend a lot of time looking at my finances using our free financial tools. As I thought about New Year's resolutions in January, I couldn't ignore the pesky charges at the bakery or the ice cream shop by my house. Not only do I know that sugar is bad for me, but I also know that I'm spending money on this bad habit.

I resolved to stop eating dessert until March. Anything that looked like dessert (other than fruit) was forbidden. Add to the cookies, ice cream, and cake all those "breakfast foods" like muffins, donuts, and pancakes. I wanted to see if I truly could pull out my sweet tooth.

I knew that any trip to the bakery or the ice cream shop would be recorded in my financial history. I'd have to part with my hard-earned cash and confront the fact that I didn't reach my goal every time I logged into the Personal Capital app. That was motivation enough, and I didn't eat any of those foods.

I didn't completely knock out my sweet tooth. I still want dessert. But to my surprise, I didn't want as much of it after the first 6 weeks. I don't want to eat a whole cookie or a whole piece of cake. A small piece of chocolate or a scoop of ice cream is good enough.

#2 The Health App - Laziness in the Cloud

When I finally updated my iPhone's software in December, I was most excited about the Health app. It came pre-installed with the new iOS operating system. This one app records how many steps I take and how many miles I run or walk. Or, on the flip side, it records my laziness.

At any moment I can open the app and see my activity, or lack thereof, for the day. Each day I drive to work, sit at my desk, and then go home to my couch, a low number of steps is recorded in the Health app. Each day I go on a long run, walk to meet my friends for dinner, and forego the cab ride home, a higher number of steps is recorded. The rolling average quietly bullies me - like a silent drill sergeant.

It'd be one thing if a day of laziness were acknowledged and then discarded - as has always been the case. What's one day on the couch if no one knows? Well, now the cloud knows. If I am below my average of 10,000 steps and 4 miles of walking/running, that laziness is stored in the cloud - forever. It's just enough to scare me into putting on my gym shorts and hitting the track. You'll see me after work going on those runs in the park and taking those long walks home.

#3 The Metromile App - Making Each Mile Count

Looking at my financial statements on the Personal Capital app, I see the monthly charge for my car insurance. I paid a lot to that cute GEICO gecko since I bought my car. I recently decided to take the plunge and sign up for Metromile, a pay-by-the-mile car insurance company.

Metromile gave me a little device to install in my car, so the company knows how many miles I drive. I'm billed a base monthly fee plus a few cents for every mile I drive. I ran the numbers every which way, and even with a long weekend road-trip or two, given the fact that I don't drive to work everyday, I'm saving money with this new service. I expect the savings to be roughly $25 a month, and in some months, I think I'll save up to $50.

But the real joy of switching my car insurance is the Metromile iPhone app. It provides detailed analytics around the miles per gallon my car is getting, the fuel cost for the trips I'm taking, and the health of my vehicle. I can even use their GPS feature to know where I parked my car. The future has arrived!

Live Your Well-Examined Life

I'm saving money, eating better, and discovering insights about my driving patterns and daily physical activities. I am making each mile count. Every day seems to matter just a little bit more.

How are you tracking your progress toward your goals? Make it easy on yourself by using passive data collection. Look at that data regularly, holding yourself accountable to the metrics. Then you'll be living the Socratic dream - a well-examined life.