Fitbitten – Places and Practices for Life-Tracking

Lifetracking, in the use of devices to measure and record data about one’s life, has been on the rise for a while, certainly in terms of media reports and sales numbers.

Considering how easily we cheat ourselves into thinking that we are living better or worse than we really are, it seems a great idea to get some concrete numbers.
In all the promise of what it will do for us to measure our everyday activity levels and, if we want to also do that, get support from – or get in competition with – others, though, a lot of the focus is on either marketing-speak or crazy personal stories.

The Craziness of (Writing about) Life-Trackers

Withings Body Scale Dashboard
Weight tracking, just slightly modernized (and improved well)

Sometimes there are statistics, but as such numbers show, a lot of things now classified as life-tracking are actually nothing new and high-tech, but rather such simple practices as stepping on the scale and worrying that one’s weight hasn’t gone down, or writing down one’s blood pressure or glucose levels.
In that area of life-tracking where it is actually needed the most, for people who have to track a chronic concern or run the risk of getting worse, however, new tools are not usually being made…

Craziness and compulsion, instead, seem to be what those life-trackers who get the most play for their writing have come to.

David Sedaris, for example, wrote on the ways his FitBit made him throw the weight of his usual wacky personality behind every step he took, just to have one more step in the machine memory of another day.
A writer and runner for Outside magazine / Outside Online had also gone that route, finding in Nike Fuel an addictive non-substance that seemed to give substance to her life, even as it took control over routines – until it broke and she went from withdrawal to a re-discovery of the joy in running, just for the joy.

Personally, even as someone who runs to run and very much avoids letting measurements dominate the training, I can attest to the same influence: I have used a FitBit off and on for years now, and sometimes I do catch myself wanting to carry it around with me while headed into the shower, for example, for fear of not getting these steps recorded.

It’s the same routine that so many a report on ultramarathoners and fitness enthusiasts gets around to: Focus on the most peculiar outgrowths of such practices, rally the supporters to come to the defense, get the critics to pile on, garner attention.

Meanwhile, a person who is more relaxed in his/her use of life-tracking devices is just too quiet on that front to be of note – but there’s something to learn about the potential of fitness and life-tracking technology in it:

One of the big drivers in the growth of such devices’ adoption is the promise that seeing your daily activity levels will make you move more, thus leading a healthier life. If it’s not enough by itself, use social sharing capabilities to get one or the other kind of feedback.
Promise you’ll be more active and get support and encouragement to reach your goal from others, plus the pressure to reach it because others are watching/checking.
Challenge yourself and others to reach your goals and/or be better – more active – than others in your social circle.

The idea is not bad, and it can work.

Character and Good Technology

We don’t want to overlook that people have different characters, however.

Some are competitive and will be motivated by the competitive aspects. Some of those will go overboard with it and end up the subjects of stories like the above, discussing their ‘addiction’ to ever-higher activity numbers.

Some won’t like that aspect, won’t want to so much as feel slightly pushed around by a device on their wrist or in their pockets and just stop using it. (Or fall into the grip of a gimmick like the Pavlok that promises punishment for failure, going even deeper into the “tough” approach to life we seem to be increasingly in love with – to our detriment, but that’s for another story.)

Some will find a middle way. Or simply a way that works for them. – And that’s the path to look for.

Good technology, by which I mean a technology that works well and fulfills its purpose, has to be noticeable enough to fulfill its purpose, but also invisible enough to disappear and not be a bother. That, I think, is the big challenge for the makers of life-tracking (and other) devices.

It’s the overlooked problem that can be seen with smartphones. They are so noticeable in their over-use because they are communication devices, thus need to send notifications and make themselves, or really, the info, noticeable. At the same time, the more visible they thus make themselves, the more of a burden they can be. Another notification asks for attention, another period of work or relaxation or social time is interrupted and made to lose much of its value.

Interrupted work means that attention went somewhere else, making it take longer to finish the work.
Interrupted relaxation isn’t relaxation at all.
Interrupted time in general means not being truly in the moment, together with others, experiencing something deeply, but getting lost in the maze of virtual and actual contacts, between attention and flow in the experience and attention being given to the technology, neither here nor there.

But then, the technology can be made to be less obtrusive, better at filtering the important from the inessential. And we ourselves can work with it differently.

There is no real need for the vast majority of notifications, and there is little need for an activity tracker to give constant reminders.

The Place for Life-Tracking Devices

All the recent migration they have made, out of the pockets and onto the wrists, is just the wrong step, then. Rather, tracking devices (and notifications) need to disappear, only to be checked at the end of the day to see how things went.

A daily review is a much-recommended step towards a responsible attitude towards your life, anyways – not just for activity levels.
Constant checking and control, however, are the dream of an autocratic regime of social control, but neither the good habits nor the good (flexible and resilient, but not unstructured) freedom of a better life.

Activity Today
Between the Amibit3’s ‘active recovery’/’activity today’ and the FitBit, there are now two devices telling me how active I’ve been… (in somewhat different contexts)

The way activity tracking seems to be moving onto the wrist by disappearing into watches is a very interesting step, in that regard.

Suunto’s Ambit3 line has gone that way, adding activity monitoring to these devices’ stable of tricks. However, their use of it is really for a better recommendation of recovery times, not (yet?) for life tracking – but that may come, and the watches offer greater benefits in the tracking of sports/training activities than lifetracking gadgets.

Withing’s Activité follows a similar notion, and a very different one at the same time, in integrating activity tracking (and further benefits of having app integration via BTLE) into what looks and is for most purposes a nice-looking timepiece, not a gadget.

Apple’s watch will also, of course, offer activity and/or sports tracking capabilities.

FitBit in Pocket
Still the best place for an activity tracker, if not in a watch: Disappearing into a pocket. (And yes, part of the clip has broken off.)

As for my FitBit, that’s in my pocket.

I still like it to get an impression, if and when I want to, of the activity levels (or lack thereof) I have been at, besides dedicated training sessions.
Two of my current Fitbit’s predecessors broke, but the company always replaced it, which was nice.

The iPod touch I got, among other things, for testing the Movescount app that works with the Ambit3 has also proven a good choice for the FitBit, as it allows for direct syncing between the FitBit and its app via BTLE.

That way, it is possible to monitor activity levels easily, as well as quickly adjust the alarm, for example – and the vibration alarm, given that the Ambits don’t have vibration alarms (but rather, alarms for waking one up in the middle of a snowstorm to get out in time for a sunrise on a mountain peak), is a nice thing to have in everday life with a partner who likes to get up later.

Having a look at the statistics, sometimes, is good for realizing that I’ve been moving way too little in my daily life now, thus would do well to move more in my daily routines – but I also know that Beijing, where I am now, is not the ideal city for outdoor sports (given air pollution).

A day like yesterday, on the other hand, I wanted to go out for a run after I had been walking around in town, and it was good to see that my running around on that “little walk” had actually covered a distance akin to a half-marathon, making further training a not-so-great idea. This time.

Life needs a balance like that; having numbers on life be measured is a good antidote to cheating oneself – but learning how to act on them and using them well is another balancing act to decide on and integrate well into a life. Preferably, before you get fed up with the gadget that promised so much and just end up putting it into the next drawer.


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