Why I Stopped Tracking

stoptracking.jpgYes, I did it.
On a crisp Tuesday morning
After 40 measurements a day for 1.5 years
I. Stopped. Tracking.


When I first wrote about my tracking
People thought I was narcissistic

What they didn’t see
The self-punishment
The fear
The hatred behind the tracking

I had stopped trusting myself
Letting the numbers drown out
My intuition
My instincts
I was afraid
Of not being in control                            
Of becoming obese like my genetic predecessors                          
I was addicted
To my iPhone apps
To getting the right numbers
To beating myself up

Each day
My self-worth was tied to the data
One pound heavier this morning?
You’re fat.
2 g too much fat ingested?
You’re out of control.
Skipped a day of running?
You’re lazy.
Didn’t help 10 people today?
You’re selfish.

It felt like being back in school
Less than 100% on an exam?
You’re dumb.

I’m starting to realize
That I need to
Accept myself
That I’m more than the numbers
That I’m beautiful, strong, and super smart

I don’t need data to tell me that
And I don’t need to punish myself anymore

Will I ever track again?

Yes, probably
For a specific goal or experiment
Or to observe a pattern
I’ll try to keep an objective, non-judging eye
But then I’ll stop
When I’ve seen what I needed to see
And learned what I wanted to learn

Like any tool
Self-tracking can be used for benefit or harm

I won’t let it
Be an instrument of self-torture
Any. More.

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22 Responses to Why I Stopped Tracking

  1. Kristi says:

    Wow. I appreciate what a thoughtful and heart felt decision you’ve made. You’ve brought a transparency to a very personal matter and given us all tremendous insights as to the complexity of this issue and the human side of technology.
    All the best in your journey.

  2. Rajiv Mehta says:

    Alex — I’m very glad to see this.
    I hope more and more people will put more faith in their own senses, and rely less on the false precision of bio-metric measurements. We’re smart sentient beings, not machines.
    Recently a senior doctor noted to me how medicine has done a lot to position itself as a science but at best it is an inexact one. That technology is allowing us to see and measure things in our bodies in ever increasing detail, but this science has far outstripped our ability to understand the significance of these new observations. Social epidemiologists have shown that the best predictor of future health is the person’s subjective sense of his/her own health, not some fancy biometric.
    One of our Zume Life pilot users talked, very movingly, about how she had come to better understand what living with a chronic illness meant, and key to that was to not dwell too much on “the number” (in her case her glucose reading). She’s one of the people we featured in the “Everyday Illness” video (bit.ly/zlxiz).
    The QS talks I’ve found most interesting have been those where people have observed themselves in rich, qualitative ways rather than simple measures (e.g. the videos of sleeping and the impact of having someone else in bed rather than simply Zeo/FitBit/etc. sleeping data).
    “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted” — Einstein

  3. Don Sakers says:

    It’s nice to have the option to stop.
    I, like millions of other diabetics, have been self-tracking for a long time. Blood glucose levels. Carbs. Calories. Grams of fat. Units of insulin. Three, four, five, six times a day. Looking for patterns. Beating ourselves up when the numbers don’t come out right. Turning in the raw data, charts, graphs to our doctors, endocrinologists, nurses. Feeling all the self-doubt, self-punishment, everything.
    Who among us hasn’t toyed with the idea of stopping? But the consequences are too dire. I’ve lost one toe, and I’ve been very lucky. All that self-tracking, all the bother, all those hateful numbers – that’s keeping us alive, keeping us healthy.
    It’s nice when self-tracking is a choice, something you’re doing to get some self-knowledge or improve your memory or just have fun. When it’s not a matter of life or death, health or illness.
    It’s nice to have the option to stop.

  4. Robin Barooah says:

    Bravo, Alex! What a courageous posting – and a great realization!
    I have only every tracked two or three variables about myself, and I have come to a similar point to you more than once. There’s something about the feedback loop of focussing on a numerical picture of oneself that can feel strenuous and constricting.
    I am reminded of Bill Jarrold’s talk at one of the earlier QS Show and Tell’s where he talked about how analysis of language patterns shows people who have, or are vulnerable to depression use more self focussed language – ‘I’ statements – than those who are not or never have been depressed.
    At certain points in my self-monitoring experiments (not all of which are rigorously quantified), I’ve found myself thinking a lot of these “Perhaps I am like this…”, “I seem to be that…” thoughts, as I try to formulate hypotheses out of my observations.
    After hearing Bill’s talk, I started to realize that this self-hypothesizing was a painful experience. I found myself wondering whether, rather than learning more about myself, I had simply become a “digital hypochondriac.
    In hindsight, I realize that the self-hypothesizing is a thought pattern that pre-dated my quantified self experiments, and that through this process I’d gained a meta benefit of being able to consciously regulate it.
    I second (or third?) yours and Rajiv’s points about the value of self-tracking as a way of gaining qualitative insights about specific aspects of our lives. I think the value of these tools is that they can be transformative, and that once a transformation has taken place we can let go of them.
    As Alan Watts said: “When you’ve got the message, hang up the phone!”.

  5. Markus Fromherz says:

    Tracking can be
    crucial to survive,
    key to getting to know oneself, or
    a chore that’s more damaging than useful.
    Tracking can become addictive.
    It’s good to know when to keep going
    and when to stop.

  6. Seth Roberts says:

    Tracking stuff I could control, such as fat g ingested, never appealed to me, I suppose because it didn’t work very well. You lasted 1.5 years; I might last 10 days doing something like that. What I have enjoyed tracking is stuff that I cannot control but that’s important, such as how well my brain is working. I hope that the tracking will shed some light on how to control it. The only discipline involved is that the test, the measurement, might take a few minutes to do.

  7. Gary Wolf says:

    Thank you Alex for this important post. The comments are also helpful. I will add my own 2 cents. At various times I’ve had as many as 20 active columns in my tracking database. Like you, I found this both a chore to complete and a source of psychological discouragement. I have thought a lot about why, and will try to sum up my own lessons, inspired by your post, when I can formulate them concisely.
    Right now, I track only a few things daily or multiple times each day: my meditation practice (using Robin’s app, “equanimity;” my “focused work time,” in 25 minute increments, and a few basic personal observations (time I start work, time spent exercising) inspired by Jake Lodwick’s “We Have Standards” project.
    In all these cases, the relationship between the numbers and my state of mind is not very complex. I would describe it as “quantified self awareness” rather than the kind of experimental baseline that Seth uses figure out the effects of conscious or accidental changes.
    For me, this low level, very simple, quantified “check-in” has had some powerful positive effects. But the more elaborate, “many things every day” tracking I used to do produced some of the same negative feedback loops you describe.
    Thanks again for this post. I look forward to hearing/learning from the responses.

  8. Alexandra Carmichael says:

    Thank you for the insightful comments, everyone!
    Yes, Don, your point is well felt – I do have the luxury to stop tracking or choose tracking that is more geared to awareness, as Gary suggests. For people who don’t have the choice, or who are crushingly self-critical like me, it would be great to have psychological boosts along the way, like a therapy app that helps me process the judgment and meaning I ascribe to the numbers.
    I also appreciate Robin’s point about focusing outside myself – as long as I don’t try to quantify how much I’m focusing outside myself – and Seth’s point about measuring things I can’t control – I think the only time I successfully did this was tracking pain levels, which did help me find a solution to my chronic pain odyssey.
    This is such a fascinating topic – I almost called it The Dark Side of Tracking. Thanks for exploring it with me and helping me find my space to live intuitively for a time. (Can you track intuition? Hmmm…)

  9. Robin Barooah says:

    I love the term Gary just used- “Quantified self awareness”, and the idea of providing space for intuition.
    To me, that’s the essential value of QS (although I realize that for some it’s a much more critical issue) – the idea that we can use these methods to increase our self-awareness so that our well-being is improved even when we are focussed on tracking.
    I.e. we can use QS methods to *develop* our intuition so that we can live better without thinking about it.

  10. Gary Wolf says:

    To continue the line of thought Robin is exploring: I’m reminded of the QS talk from last year about sensory substitution. We don’t consciously process all (or most) of our sense data. Instead, perception triggers complex patterns of response that we experience as natural and intuitive. Can certain streams of personal data become new “perceptions” in this sense?

  11. JB says:

    Good for you, Alex! When we look at things by numbers, while there can be much self discovery, likewise many other things get lost. I work as a health coach and so I’ve dealt with people who faced similar issues you seem to have tackled based on a whole host of reasons. There’s a great book you should really read called “Inegrative Nutrition” which was written by Joshua Rosenthal (http://www.amazon.com/o/asin/097952640X/3–20/). It is by far the best book I’ve read in regards to health and nutrition and what I love is that the author talks about more than just healthy eating. Rosenthal formulated something called “Primary Food”, which is composed of – basically – the things that make us happy. There must be this balance of the things that make us happy and our diet (which we must also be satisfied with), or there is imbalance and one will screw up the other. I believe you will find it to be a breath of fresh air, much as others who have read the book have found.

  12. fran melmed says:

    this is terrific. just this morning i read an online article about maintaining your weight through the weekend and cringed when i saw their recommendation to weighing yourself on friday and again on monday.(http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/35710230/ns/health-diet_and_nutrition/)
    like with your experience, alex, i’ve found that this type of endless monitoring can drive fear and self-recrimination for small missteps. it often knocks people off their path of small steps to big change, they’re so deflated by a single bad number.
    i’m trying tracking of my fitness efforts to see if that feels different – and results in my amping up my workouts. remains to be seen.
    thanks for the candid – and beautiful – poem.

  13. Greg Matthews says:

    Alex, you’re truly a pioneer … and because you share your experiences so willingly, the rest of us get to learn from them.
    As most of us are just beginning to consider the advantages to tracking – quantifying ourselves – you’ve already finished the marathon and are pointing out the pitfalls and detours to us.
    I hope that some of us may be able to get the benefits of tracking, as you have, but avoid the pitfalls … maybe even coming up with new methods in doing so. I only hope that those who do will share as willingly as you have.

  14. JC says:

    Please could you tell us what has happened since you posted this? Thanks

  15. haig says:

    I’m interested to know how fine grained people’s tracking are and if that contributes to the feeling of being overwhelmed. With the dearth of detailed information self-tracking provides, one must develop a new type of data literacy, to pay attention to what matters, but IMO more importantly, to dismiss the things that don’t offer insight or actionable information.

  16. Ellie Harrison says:

    Hi Alexandra,
    I know your pain! I too am a ‘recovering data collector’. My story is published here:
    I hope you are still on the wagon.
    Ellie x

  17. Alexandra Carmichael says:

    Thanks Greg and Fran – your encouragement and support makes sharing my story feel worthwhile. :)
    As for an update, the only thing I’m sort of tracking now is mindfulness – but it’s not in a meaningfully quantified way. I do use the Equanimity iPhone app for formal sitting meditation, but I mostly remind myself throughout the day with little notes to be present, watch my posture, and really be where I am instead of off in the future or the past.
    Haig, I agree – we need to figure out what the minimally relevant set of things to track is for each kind of question we want to ask. The rest is overkill.
    Ellie – thank you so much for sharing your experience! I’m definitely still on the bandwagon, just taking a break from active tracking until I can understand better what kinds of tracking will most help me.

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  20. Leo says:

    Thanks for sharing.

    Somewhere, I thiink, there’s a balance.

    They say it is counterproductive to look at your stock portfolio more than every 3-6 months.

    When you’re quantifying a partially stochastic phenomenon, the day to day fluctuations will drive you mad.

    I think the same is true with quantified self. Measure once a week. Measure for the long-term. Try not to pay attention to the day to day minutia. Set long-term goals. Walk more. Don’t take any of it too seriously. We’re only human.

  21. Good for you, Alexandra! Even Weight Watchers warns its members of the “tyranny of the scale” in which we give numbers on an inanimate object the power to influence us as you have so exquisitely described.

    I’ve often wondered if dedicated Quantified Selfers out there, while keeping busy, head down, tracking everything from mood to food or their movie-going patterns, actually have time to stop, look up and wave at real life as it’s passing them by. You know, LIFE: away from the keyboard or the tablet or the iPhone app or the digital wrist band or the frickety-frackin’ NUMBERS they track all day, every day.

    Or, is it true, as Massachusetts physician Dr. Marya Zilberberg was written: “The self-monitoring movement is just another manifestation of our profound self-absorption”?

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