Turning Off the Quantified Self

In the end, I just got tired of being a slave.

For the past couple of years (I could go back, review data, and give you the exact date/time it all began) I have been paying closer attention to myself than at any other time in my life. Thanks to a new generation of devices and apps, I was able to jump headlong into the ‘quantified self’ movement; tracking everything from heart rate, to sleep, to mileage, to calorie burn to steps…you get the picture.


This week, I finally turned everything off.

I’d like to tell you that the whole  “freedom is liberating” cliche applies now, but the truth is that every flight of stairs I take – every morning at first light- I’m still haunted by the impulse to “quantify my self”.

Why would someone pursue this level of detail about one’s life? For me, it was a mix of curiosity and an actual need for data to improve performance.

While training for ultra-marathons, I used a Timex Ironman Run Trainer with heart rate monitor, in combination with Training Peaks software, to get a solid picture of my physical condition, training progress, and race-readiness. I was new to running, and certainly new to racing. Having “objective” data about performance was critical for me to evaluate whether I was going to meet my goals.

So far so good. I had a goal. It was limited in time (I knew I wasn’t going to run ultras forever), and the tools were focused in helping me to achieve that goal.

But I noticed as I began this quantification that the level of detail and information available to me was seductive. I could literally see how various types of activity affected performance. intensity and recovery. I wanted more.

Late last year, I got my hands on the v2 version of Jawbone UP. The “stylish” wristband uses accelerometers, software (and user input) to track sleep, activity, food – and with integration with other software, many other parts of your “self.”


Although I had stopped running ultras by that point, I was hooked on knowing what was going on with my body. I had never been a great sleeper, and was curious about what the sleep sensor would reveal. As a vegan who eats mostly gluten-free, I was already pretty tuned-in to all of the various macro/micro nutritional metrics associated with my diet. But I figured there was always more to learn. So when I received the UP, I made a commitment to dutifully enter, track, and monitor  UP data for 6 months.

One specific differentiation of the UP is that you have to physically insert the device into your iPhone every day to download data (other similar devices use Bluetooth). The plus side to this is that battery life is about a week between charges. But over time, that morning and evening ritual turned out to have an outsized role in my life (more to come).

The truth is that I learned a lot. I learned that:

  • In general, I was one of the more consistent users of UP (it’s a social network as well – if you wish – and you can see what your friends metrics are as well). I used it every day, and that seemed to be rare (among the network I was in).
  • I generally ended up eating about 1600-1800 calories per day. No matter what.
  • I averaged about 70-80K steps in a week, exclusive of exercise – which is not bad, but not great.
  • I was a light sleeper – particularly compared to other UP users. I averaged 6.5 hours/night and only about 2-2.5 hours of that was ‘deep’ sleep (restorative, good for longevity, etc)
  • Despite always believing that I was impervious to the effects of evening coffee, the negative impact on sleep was obvious.
  • My belief that wine + Benadryl was a good sleep aid was disproven :^)
  • Despite thinking that I ate a reasonably low-carb diet, I actually was eating around 125-150g of carbs/day.

Most of this information was synthesized within the first month of wearing the device. But after a few months, I found that I wasn’t really learning anything new – and the device became more of an enforcer.

The first thing to go for me was food entry. That was natural, considering that I had always kept a close eye on food. But because we generally eat the same types of foods, I wasn’t seeing any utility in continually entering the data. So I stopped that after 4-5 months.

Then, I started to become psychic. Well, not really, but I began to be so attuned to tracking that I could predict within 5% my sleep and step count before plugging the device in. Over time, that became a perverse game – how close could I get?

This was a bad sign.  Or maybe not. I actually see this as a success of the quantified self concept. If you pay attention to yourself sufficiently well, over time you should actually begin to develop a habitual understanding of yourself.

After weeks and weeks of this, however, I began to wonder what the value of physically wearing the device nonstop actually was.

So this past weekend, I shut it all down. I moved the app into an archive folder, and I only use the UP one day a week for its silent, vibrating alarm on a day that I have a particularly early appointment (that silent alarm feature was almost worth the price of the device).

I should feel liberated, but nearly a week on, I’m not quite there. I’m sure this will pass, but I find it fascinating how tenacious this quasi-OCD aspect is. I still constantly think about step counts and sleep metrics.

That being said, I can report that I certainly feel less encumbered by not wearing the bracelet every day. I don’t wear watches or jewelry – so having something on my wrist nonstop for more than 8 months never felt natural.

Overall, I’m happy I traveled this path. I know more about myself. But I see the pitfalls as well. I wonder if those of us who quantified ourselves were living in the ‘now’ or were living for the number. I’m sure everyone is different, but I could imagine that my experience of fatigue isn’t singular.

I look forward to a time when the quantified self movement becomes integrated almost natively into our human “operating system.” I think some sort of automatic, non-intrusive sensor scheme with gentle notifications of macro trends would be much more effective and enjoyable (think skin patch + Google Glass). I would love to see primary health metrics tracked (blood pressure, inflammation, temperature, etc) instead of steps, as well.

The future will be fun, and informative…and hopefully a little less OCD.

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