What does it mean to track our own lives? Illustration by Stephen Collins

Steps, sips or spending: does the trend for tracking our habits actually make our lives better?

From counting our steps to tracking our alcohol intake, new technology allows us to quantify our own behaviour. But is the practice as healthy as we'd like to believe?
January 29, 2019

Yesterday, I drank three units of alcohol, walked 10,215 steps, ran for 0km, slept for 6.75 hours, spent £19.20, meditated for five minutes, spent 2 hours and 40 minutes looking at my phone, and had a heart rate of 72 beats per minute at 3.20pm. I could tell you where each of these figures lay compared to my personal average, or my results for the same day last month.

I’m not trying in any concerted way to lose weight, spend less, or drink less. I don’t think of myself as wellness-obsessed, or even perfectionist. I’m not training for a marathon. I merely track everything, in a way that, to someone living even five years ago, would look bizarre and pathologically obsessive at the least.

But it isn’t just me. In 2018, over 120m wearable sensors designed to measure our steps, exercise and heart rates, such as Fitbits and smartwatches, were sold worldwide, up a fifth on the previous year. Data company Flurry Analytics found that health and fitness app usage had grown by 330 per cent in the three years to 2017. The same analysis found that a quarter of active users were using these apps more than 10 times a week. The demographics, meanwhile, are much as you might expect: a US survey found that younger people with higher incomes were the most hooked.

And hooked is the operative word, although many of these devices and apps are about jolting us into better habits and away from addictive ones, such as alcohol. The flagship feature on Apple’s most recent mobile operating system update was “Screen Time,” a feature that logs how much time you spend on your phone and sends you a weekly report on your time-wasting. We have, it seems, collectively reached the head-spinning point where the preferred way to face up to the depths of our smartphone addiction is by using that very device to track how compulsive our use has become.

My “gateway drug” to a serious tracking habit was the Health app on my first iPhone, which automatically counted my steps. It was satisfying to know that they were being logged, and I enjoyed the little graph on which I could see my daily levels of activity bobbing up and down.

Knowledge felt like control, and I craved that feeling in other aspects of my life. And so I branched out. I originally tried out an app by Drinkaware for an article on moderate alcohol consumption, but I’ve entered my drinking religiously every day since; I got a Monzo debit card, which tracks your financial outgoings in real time and spits out charts showing what you’ve been spending. Admittedly, there are some apps I’ve abandoned, like MyFitnessPal (guessing at the size of food portions is a pain) or sleep apps (which I wasn’t convinced were accurate). I also tried out budgeting apps but didn’t get on with any of them. Instead, I started logging my spending in a spreadsheet at the end of every week. (Cards like Monzo track your spending, but not your bills—so they don’t offer a full picture.)

The impetus might be about control, but a moment’s reflection suggests the thing really being controlled is ourselves. We know why companies like collecting our data: so they can sell it to other companies, and more effectively advertise to us. Nike’s running app asks what shoes you’re wearing, and recommends you buy new ones when you’ve run a certain number of miles. Mike Lee, the CEO of MyFitnessPal, once boasted: “We have the largest database that’s ever existed of what people eat.” His company was sold to Under Armour for almost £400m a year later.

Natalia Petrzela, a historian writing a book on the rise of fitness culture, also notes an increase in employers handing out trackers and asking workers to compete for rewards. Sure, she says, it is arguable that the tracking might work to bolster the health of staff. But for many, she explains, this amounts to a 21st-century way for employers to get their staff to acquiesce in an almost 19th-century-style monitoring of employees—“the internalisation of the industrial clock.”

The corporate motivations are varied, but also pretty plain. Why, however, do the rest of us go along with it? We are, says Petrzela, “basically taking all of these measurement metrics which used to be external and embracing them, not just tolerating them.” Why do I care what picture a piece of technology is painting of my life? Forget the usual “Big Data = Big Brother” argument. Even if I’m an extreme case, it seems clear to me that growing numbers of us want to track ourselves to the point where we’re perfectly willing to spend our money and time on doing it. So the question remains: why? And is this helpful or harmful?

The long walk to health

“There really hasn’t been all that much research on the psychology of tracking,” says Kostadin Kushlev, a behavioural scientist and social psychologist at the University of Virginia. Kushlev investigates how technology and smartphone usage intersects with our wellbeing, or lack of it. One of his recent studies found that strangers in a waiting room smiled at each other far less often when they had access to their phones.

While the proper research may not be there yet, he says that basic psychological concepts could help explain tracking’s appeal. One is our urge for comparison with others: “One thing these apps increasingly seem to be touting is the ability to share how many steps you did, for example, and be part of this social network.” Being in a club of any sort can, I suppose, offer a sense of community, but swapping scores with other people sounds simultaneously dull and competitive, and not the kind of club I want to join.

Besides, I don’t go around showing people the data from my tracking apps—if I’m using counting to validate anything, then it’s a kind of validation that goes on inside my head (see Susie Orbach overleaf). I’m more inclined to stick with the semi-conscious goal of control, which Kushlev agrees can be important. In particular, he thinks you can get the sense of that by tracking towards a defined outcome.

“One of the huge successes of Fitbit was the idea of popularising the 10,000 steps,” he says, a goal “which kind of came out of nowhere—it isn’t based on government advice. It’s just that having a number to strive for and then meeting that number is really motivating. It feels good to achieve that goal.”

The 10,000 steps seems to have kicked off the tracking revolution (as well as my own personal tracking quest). It was first touted as part of a 1960s Japanese marketing campaign for a rudimentary step-counter, and was arbitrarily “based” on the fact that most Japanese then tended to walk 5,000 steps or fewer each day. How to make them do more? Easy! Double it. Despite repeated reminders that the figure is meaningless—most recently from Mike Brannan, of Public Health England, who declared last year that “there’s no health guidance that exists to back it”—it’s become lodged in the collective psyche.

Reaching, or at least benchmarking yourself against particular goals feels like a semi-intelligible reason for the tracking boom. But if so, the next question is whether all the electronic tallying actually helps us to reach these objectives?

Maybe. A 2008 study by the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research in the US showed that those who kept daily food records lost twice as much weight as those who kept none. But in my experience, that trend wears off as you gradually become accustomed to “admitting” to the bad things as alongside the initial thrill of logging the good.

Read Susie Orbach on the psychology of tracking your own life Indeed, things can get to a point where tracking backfires—a 2016 study from the University of Pittsburgh put 470 people on a low-calorie diet and asked them to exercise more. After six months, half of them were given fitness trackers. And after two years, it turned out those with the fitness trackers lost less weight. The study’s lead author has speculated that too many in the group with fitness trackers were aware they had achieved their goals, and thus relaxed too much: “People would say, ‘Oh, I exercised a lot today, now I can eat more.’” I recognise the impulse—if I’ve marked a run of no drinking days all week, I’ll eat what I want as a kind of “reward.” The same author also speculated that the prospect of confrontation with a looming goal might have a negative effect on behaviours. Certainly, it’s easy to imagine a “to hell with it” attitude towards a rainy day jog or defiance in the face of a giant bag of Doritos if you already know that this week’s ambitions to be virtuous are already scotched.

Absent any compelling evidence that tracking changes behaviour for the good, there surely are as many good reasons to resist the fad as to succumb to it. In a piece about convincing her partner not to buy an Apple Watch, design anthropologist Dori Tunstall warns: “Our bodies already monitor our heartbeats, tell us when we are not getting enough exercise, remind us when we are getting too much sun… they do so without needing to be plugged into a socket, sell the information to a corporation, or generate more techno-waste in African countries.” She is, of course, right: the human body is an enormous tracking device, packed with sensors Silicon Valley could only dream of replicating. In this context, the compulsive collection of data on gadgets seems unnatural, and a warped substitute for the wholesome alternative of listening to our bodies.

Still, I’m not convinced that this urge was created by Silicon Valley—I’d say a pre-existing human instinct is definitely involved. I confirmed that by asking people about their tracking habits, and found that many use non-digital methods alongside apps: “I track my water intake—I bought a large jug and have to drink two a day. I don’t track it through an app,” Melissa Rye, who is 36 and lives in Hampshire, tells me. Two friends tell me they have running plans up on their walls, and tick off their goals by hand when they’ve completed them.

Dear diary

Leonard Woolf, husband of Virginia, died decades before the birth of the app, yet he wrote down the cumulative mileage of his car, plus the mileage for the past 24 hours, in his diary every single day. Some biographers frown at the fact that he did so as usual on the day of his wife’s suicide (others theorise that a smudge on the page was caused by tears). But—picturing him writing down his bits of useless data in the face of something he could neither control nor understand—I can only empathise.

In my experience, tracking can act as a tether—as proof that you existed that day; that there is some record of yourself that exists in an objective form. I describe to Kushlev the feeling that you somehow outsource a part of yourself to technology through these processes. The tracking becomes a part of your reality: many of us have felt the stab of disappointment at a dead phone battery before a long walk. If I didn’t measure my steps, did they even happen? More generally, if I don’t count something, how can I know that it counts? The great problem here is, in the words of Petrzela, that we are “only as much as the LED display on our treadmill. And that, as much as I get hung up on it too, is something to resist.”

Kushlev says this shows something crucial about the effect of tracking on our minds. Motivations, in psychological terms, are divided into “intrinsic”—I want to do this thing because I will enjoy it—and “extrinsic”—I want to do this thing because I will be rewarded for it. He describes the downsides of using the latter to motivate children: “You tell them that if you do your homework you’ll get 30 minutes of a videogame. While the rewards are there, this is effective in getting them to engage. But studies have shown that doing this decreases [any] intrinsic motivation. Instead of somebody doing their schoolwork because they are actually enjoying it, they start thinking of it as a way to get something else.”

The same is true of tracking in, say, wellness. The fitness movement of the past five years or so is focused not on loving running, but on doing a certain amount of it: reaching a goal, rather than enjoying the journey. But what if the incentives disappear, asks Kushlev? For instance, what if you lose your Fitbit? “All of a sudden it’s like, why do it anymore? Who actually enjoys walking?”

The danger, then, is that by measuring my life through apps I am motivated not by the feeling of an alcohol-free day or a run would give me, but by the feeling I would get by pressing the “drink-free-day” button on my app, or the pop-up telling me I’ve hit my running goal. If so, then the business of tracking something could actually make you get less out of it.

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Aptly, the term “orthosomnia” was coined by a study earlier this year to describe those so obsessed with tracking and improving their sleep that they struggle to fall asleep at all. I found tracking sleep particularly frustrating, as you have so little control over improving it, beyond physically getting into bed earlier. The numbers—only one hour of deep sleep last night—felt like a reproach, and may have made me feel more tired.

There seems, in sum, to be a line that trackers need to be sure to keep the right side of. On the one side, tracking can be a way of monitoring and reaching your goals, or of keeping an eye on your finances or drinking. On the other, it does not merely lapse into being habitual to the point of obsessive, but can become discouraging.

Petrzela warns that the empowering objectives can easily become positively destructive: “Particularly for people who struggle with disordered eating or other forms of compulsivity, this constant quantification of every step you take, every calorie you consume, can quickly veer into something a bit more obsessive and unhealthy,” she says.

It seems like the key is to figure out why you’re tracking, and monitor how seriously you’re taking the numbers. With both my spending and drinking, I don’t beat myself up if the numbers look bad—I might just try to rein it in next month. But when I tracked eating, I could sense myself trying to get the numbers lower every day. The tracking started to control the behaviour, almost certainly because the social messages telling women to eat less, and weigh less, are so strong. So (thank goodness) I stopped.

But perhaps there is another way. Perhaps we can, without taking it too seriously, learn a few interesting things about ourselves through tracking things, and then a few even more interesting things by examining what sort of tracking we go in for and why.

The Quantified Self

A new movement, co-founded by Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly of Wired magazine, frames the whole business another way: as a kind of experiment or -investigation. The Quantified Self holds conferences and meet-ups in cities around the world, and runs a website and forum, around how its members track their lives and bodies.

One member of the QS forum struggles with polydipsia—excessive thirst or drinking—and so tracks his urine output (by weighing himself before and after using the toilet) to help manage it. Another posted a thread called “The headache of tracking headaches.” Others reacted excitedly when Prince Harry was seen wearing an Oura Ring, a new gadget used to track sleep: “Prince Harry is a QSer!” the subject line reads.

Adriana Lukas organises the London Quantified Self meetup group, and tells me Quantified Self is “like personal data on steroids.” It is hard to generalise because the types of tracking are as diverse and many as the quantified selfers: one man continually tracked his blood glucose, despite not having diabetes; another tracked his microbiome (gut bacteria).

Lukas herself, who first became involved in her role as a privacy campaigner, says the appeal of the meetups isn’t necessarily the data or methods presented, but by the discussion it sparks. “It’s like an 18th-century salon—interesting conversation with other intelligent people. These people are pioneers in their areas.”

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I can recognise a happier part of my own motivation here. It really can be fun to analyse your own data, and think about why—for example—you walked so much more in September than June, notice that you felt more energetic during a low-drinking month, or remember why you spent more last August than ever before or since (and why it was worth it).

So while tracking is laced with questions about security, manipulation for profit, and the warping of our minds, there are also more positive ways it can feed into identity. And not only through the joy of the woman who hated school sports, but now feels a jolt of pleasure as her phone buzzes to notch up her 100th kilometre. The wide-eyed and childlike curiosity of the QS movement’s pioneers also qualifies.

In 2016, academics Tamar Sharon and Dorien Zandbergen studied three QS aficionados and rejected the idea that the group’s activities were pure “data fetishism.” Instead, they wrote, “self-tracking [was used] as a practice of mindfulness, as a means of resistance against social norms, and as a communicative and narrative aid.” Which is another way of saying that, when used in the right way, it can help us to understand ourselves.


Listen to Barbara Speed discuss her article further in the Prospect podcast