Why I’m Not Buying Quantified Self (Yet)

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Quantified self, the desire to boil our every move down into measurable numbers, is becoming increasingly popular. Gadgets are tracking our steps, heart rate, water consumption, sleep pattens, and hundreds of other metrics in our daily lives.

About a month or so ago, I was really excited to give some sort of tracking device a test run. Then, a few weeks back, I realized I really didn’t care to get a JawBone UP or any other fitness tracker for that matter simply because I had no idea what I would do with the data. From my point of view, not many people do.


One of the main reasons that I’m resisting hopping on the quantifiable self train is that I’m not convinced the data is all that usable (yet). We’re in a race to put everything we know into trackable numbers that can appear on colorful graphs and spreadsheets.

One project that I’m excited for is Exist, a program designed to help you compile all of this data into one dashboard. Hopefully, it will help with the current usability problem.

If you were to track all of the available health metrics you would drive yourself insane. Plus, you would need a professional coach to help you digest it all (or a really smart program) and identify patterns that actually mean something.

To avoid insanity, you have to focus your effort on the most important aspects of changing your health and fitness. In my mind, steps taken during the day is pretty far down the list.

Can’t See the Forest for the Trees

When I was younger, I was obsessed with data, specifically as it related to my health and fitness. Every morning when I woke up, I would reach down beside my bed and pull out a blood pressure cuff. I’d strap it on my arm and lay still in bed until it spit out my heart rate. I’d write that down in a notebook alongside my running mileage for the week. I did that for a few months after hearing that Lance Armstrong’s resting heart rate was well below 40 beats per minute.

Jonah Berger touched on many of these topics here. “But just because a metric is easy to capture doesnโ€™t mean itโ€™s the right metric to use.

One day, it finally dawned on me that I was a teenager, not a professional athlete. I figured there were a lot of things more important in life (like trying to get a date or something) than recording my heart rate every morning.

With all of the numbers, we forget what healthy is meant to be. It’s not supposed to be a forced scenario where you drag your butt to the gym early in the morning to slog away a few miles on the treadmill before moving through a weight circuit. “Healthy” also doesn’t mean walking laps in your parking lot until you hit your goal number of steps for the day. The term “healthy” is going to mean many different things to many different individuals. For some, it may mean moving more. For others, it may mean moving less. With all of the trackers and logs, we boil the concept of “fitness” down to numbers, which just isn’t possible.

I’ve had to talk numerous clients off of the ledge because they only lost a half a pound one week rather than the two to three they were hoping for. Yet, despite a small weight loss, they came to the gym five times that week and met their goal of eating five vegetables each day. Their importance placed on the number on the scale outweighed all of the other successes they had that week, although, in the long-term, those successful habits would lead to greater success down the road.

Knowledge Isn’t Always Power

Chances are, you know a smoker. You’ve probably thought about asking them to quit. Perhaps you actually took the step and brought it up in conversation. If you’re like me, you started in with scary facts that you’ve heard through Truth commercials.

Somewhere along the way, you probably realized that your cigarette-smoking compatriot had probably heard the same messages. They know the same facts. The knowledge argument works in very few cases when trying to change behavior. As Chip and Dan Heath explain in Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard, facts motivate the rational part of our brain (referred to as the Rider). Unfortunately, it’s the emotional part of our brain (referred to as the elephant) that controls many of our big decisions. Data (like steps and activity levels) motivates the Rider. You don’t need a Jawbone UP to tell you to move more. If your sole purpose in getting a fitness tracker is to inspire you to move more in the new year, I would advise against it. Instead, spend some time figuring out why you want to be healthier in the first place and set some meaningful objectives that matter to you rather than hitting some activity number.

Dick Talens had a great piece on Pando Daily covering many of the same ideas I mentioned above.

All of this isn’t to say that these gadgets and devices are worthless. I’ve invested far more than I would like to admit in the past on trackers and monitors. The key is obviously not to get too caught up in the numbers. Quantified self isn’t a magic bullet for the health and fitness industry. Knowing how many steps you take during the day isn’t going to transform your health and fitness. The gadgets are tools, much like the right cooking equipment to prepare a decent meal.

Photo Credit: DigitalTrends.com

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