This story is part of a 10-piece series for which HuffPost staffers agreed to experiment with improving their health and decreasing their stress on the job. It’s also part of our monthlong “Work Well” initiative focusing on thriving in the workplace.
There are a range of new apps and devices that will help you easily quantify your life. The implication is that by tracking what you eat, how long you sleep, and how many steps you take, you’ll be motivated to become a better version of yourself: a person who eats healthier, exercises more and gets more sleep.
There's some scientific backing for this: A 2008 study in the American Journal for Preventive Medicine showed that keeping a food diary does help people lose weight. But does tracking everything really help, or is it just overwhelming? Can you become a better person just by knowing your own data better?
For a week, I set out to discover whether tracking my every movement and meal would leave me enlightened, or simply exhausted.
I decided before I began that I would log all of the food I ate. I would track my steps. I would periodically check in on my heart rate. I would continue logging my exercise (I already do this for the cycling I do) and keep track of the Apple Watch’s functions to track steps, movement and activity.
I am not exactly new to the quantified life. Ninety percent of the work I produce for my job is public. I’ve tweeted more than 40,000 times. I am an avid cyclist, and upload all of my rides to the social ride- and run-sharing site Strava.
But I wanted to challenge myself to quantify everything, not just the things I was proud of.
I’ve always had a hard time keeping up with tracking myself. I am a perfectionist, so for me there is nothing worse than confronting my own failures. My lunch wasn’t the healthiest? Ugh, that’s so awful I might as well quit now. I only got eight hours of sleep? I’m basically not going to be able to function today!!! I’ve only done 7,000 steps today? Better pace around my living room for a half-hour.
I also feel like my eating habits have become rather lackluster of late. There was once a time when I really cared how many vegetables were in each meal, and went out of my way to eat very healthy. I haven’t done as much of that lately, and I’d like to see if tracking what I eat helps to get me back on track.
I put the Apple Watch on. It looks good next to my normal everyday watch. The first thing I noticed after I charged it, turned it on, paired it with my phone, and spent almost an hour figuring out how to work it, is that my phone was already tracking me. I don't know why I didn't know that. But when I opened the Health app, I found that tracking features like steps per day and sleep hours per night were already populated, going back to when I got my phone last May. (Update: After discussing with many other people, it seems like the iPhone automatically populates activity data, but does not auto populate sleep data -- I must have accidentally turned this on at some point.)
I've come across a dilemma using the app Lark to track my meals. It is pitched as a life coach in an app, so it talks to you in text conversations, asking questions and making suggestions throughout the day. It's sort of like talking to a person, but its functionality is very limited. For example, it asks me to track all of my meals. It will tell me if I ate a good amount of vegetables, or too much sugar. But it's pretty limited. For example:
Logging meals is really getting to me. I don't really have any particular goals, so the only thing I'm really doing is attempting to eat "healthy" for the app. It tells me I eat too much sugar, but it doesn't take into account how much activity I'm doing. Avoiding sugar turns out to be pretty hard on days that I do a lot of exercise.
For example, on Wednesdays I have a bike skills practice out on Randall's Island with some friends. Randall's Island is about 13 miles from my apartment, and my office is between the two. So I ride about 45 minutes to work, work all day, ride up to Randall's Island, ride around in circles for an hour and a half or so, and then ride home.
Days like this are a nutritional nightmare. The app I'm using has three blank spaces per day: breakfast, lunch and dinner. On a day like this, though, I generally have breakfast, lunch and about six or seven different snacks. I often get home after 10:30 p.m. and don't feel like eating much. Lark says I'm eating too much sugar. But I'm mostly just trying to replace a few hundred of the extra calories I'm burning while quite literally on the go (with everything I need for the day on my back).
Here of the details of my bike riding activity that day, from Strava:
The biggest thing I learned here is just how easy it is to quantify almost everything you do without thinking too much about it. Your activity and sleep? Your iPhone is already doing that, whether or not you choose to look at it. Your food? Easy enough, if there is an app nagging you about it every six hours.
But what do you do with that information? Over the course of the week I used the Apple Watch to log my life, I learned very few new things about myself. I was slightly more aware of the fact that I eat too much sugar. I now can tell you off the top of my head that I average about 8,000 steps per day, I average seven hours and 45 minutes of sleep per night, and that I've ridden my bike for nearly 300 hours this year.
If I wanted to change those numbers, it would be helpful to know them. But because I'm pretty happy with my habits (and at peace with my faults), constantly looking at my data is simply an extra stressor in my life.
I gave up on the Apple Watch as soon as I could. Keeping it on any longer was going to cause me to need to talk to my therapist.
I have come to believe that there is real value in tracking yourself if you have a stated goal and a stated timespan. You can't do it forever. It becomes an albatross around the neck that you then resent.
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