The Unquantified Self

I seem to be an early adopter, and by extension, an early un-adopter. I started using a high-end pedometer every single day about 10 years ago, long before the current activity tracker craze. I started off with fancy Omron USB pedometers and wore 2 Fitbits to shreds before losing the third one.

I responded incredibly well to tracking and monitoring. Too well, in fact.

For me, activity trackers prompted obsessive behavior, especially the Fitbit, since it permitted editing data for better accuracy. For awhile, I also (manually) tracked several other health-related covariates until I realized how much of an unnecessary, emotionally unhealthy, and ultimately useless data-generation burden I was putting on myself. It had become yet another stressor and told me nothing new. When I switched to the Withings Pulse, I couldn’t edit my data, so I had to stop taking it so seriously. That was a real relief.

I kept using the Pulse for a couple years but eventually it was solely because I got into birding and I’m extremely anal about data quality (it runs in the family, seriously).

But after 8+ years of wearing an activity tracker, the extent of my use case had shriveled to wearing it a wristwatch and recording distances traveled while birding.

Soon that stopped being adequate reason for constant self-surveillance. The privacy issues were not the main reason I stopped wearing my activity tracker last year.

I came to the conclusion that quantifying myself was unkind to myself. I am a whole person, not a bag of numbers, and boiling my day down to a couple of statistics fooled me into thinking that they were somehow meaningful or important. Not to mention promoting even more self-centered attitudes that weren’t socially productive.

For me, the gamified interfaces were a further insult to my sense of agency. They didn’t empower me; they enslaved me. I told myself otherwise for years, but the reality is that I was willing to use that data as warrant to treat myself more harshly and judgmentally than I would treat any other human being. That’s a no-win situation.

Initially, it seemed useful, but after a few years, the data stopped telling me anything new and I stopped trying to use it for self-improvement. A few years later, I no longer even paid attention to the data because when I did, it made me feel bad. I just wore the device out of habit, and then out of my devotion to generating top-quality bird data.

I stopped wearing it overnight. There was zero value to the sleep data andI rediscovered a strong preference to sleep unencumbered without a digital device on my wrist; I also kicked my phone out of bed. I found delicious contentment in settling into an electronics-free bed. All I was doing was starting to draw boundaries: no more technology in bed because that’s not what a bed is for. I don’t even take my phone into the bedroom at all anymore, because that’s not what the bedroom is for. This is a basic principle of good sleep hygiene: reserve the bedroom for its limited intended uses. When I was a kid, no one ever would have imagined having a phone in the bed.

Then I stopped putting the activity tracker back on in the morning. My life didn’t change at all, except I no longer had an ugly, uncomfortable lump of black silicone and plastic strapped to my wrist. I forgot I even had the silly thing lying around.

Months later, I don’t miss it. Not even a tiny bit.

Instead, I feel like I’ve regained a speck of privacy and humanity. The more that my life is distilled into numbers like H-indexes and citation counts, the more value I place on the freedom to be unquantified.