Checklists: a nice alternative to tracking

checkmarkI laughed when I read Sam’s post about her FitBit yesterday because of how funny she thought it was that I felt relieved for her when she lost it. Yes, I hate tracking. Yes, it reminds me of the panopticon. And the panopticon is a prison design. And I had a not so great experience with the GCC — a step counting challenge last summer that lasted 100 days  (!!) and ended about four days early for me when I flushed my step counter down the toilet at the doctor’s office (totally by mistake, I assure you).

The most intriguing part of Sam’s post and the comments that followed was how many women think of FitBit tracking as part of their self-care. Others fessed up that they use their trackers diligently but they feed into their obsessions.  I got a sense of that rush of more more more when I used the step counter in the summer. I’m very much an addict and this type of thing feeds my addictive tendencies.

And so that makes it really hard for me to wrap my head around tracking anything as a form of self-care. I have tracked many things in detail in my life — calories, points, portions, weight, measurements, body fat, run pace, sets/reps/weights (on a chart for quick and easy reference), word counts, hours worked, sleep (hours and “quality of”), spending (briefly).

But these days I’m tracking almost nothing. My Garmin Forerunner froze up the other day because I hadn’t downloaded its data in ages. Why hadn’t I? Because I really don’t care. I like using it while I’m running, mostly because it tells me when to take walk breaks. But the other day, after a couple of hours on our Sunday long run, when Anita and I were saying how good we felt, it occurred to us that we hadn’t actually looked at the Garmin to check our pace at all during those past two hours. And that contributed to the enjoyment of it.

Here’s the thing. All these tracking devices we use to tell us “how we’re doing” are not much different to me from using the scale to tell me how I’m doing. It’s all so external. Instead of turning inward for a check-in, these devices give us a count that is supposed to be either reassuring or alarming, depending whether it exceeds or falls short of the goal we’ve set ourselves. I don’t know a single person who engages in that sort of self-monitoring without any kind of affect or self-judgment when they fall short, or surge of “yay for me!” when they do well. If that’s you, please step forward.

Maybe I sound grumpy. Why would anyone object to something (if it’s objecting — I’m not actually objecting, just saying) that people can use for a boost? I mean, if the fitbit is what gets you out the door (it sure did get me out to door in my 100 day challenge, when I was doing the 10K round trip walk to work most days), who am I to have an opinion on that? And if you feel good when you see those numbers at the end of the day, great. But as I said, it feels very close to letting the number on the scale tell you whether you’re okay or not. Only now it’s the step count, or the sleep hours, or what have you.

I have a different, much less all-consuming, approach these days. Instead of tracking in painstaking, panopticon-esque detail, I have a checklist. That checklist is in my “simple habits” app that I talked about the other day. If I did a thing, I give myself a check mark. If I didn’t, I don’t give myself a check mark and then my “current streak” resets to zero.

Now, it’s true that not earning my check mark can make me feel sort of down for a moment, and also that the prospect of earning my check mark can motivate me out the door. In that respect it’s got some of the same features (for good or ill) as a fitness tracker. But in general I prefer it precisely because it’s not about constant monitoring and externalizing data to tell me “how I’m doing.” But it nevertheless helps to instill healthy habits. [I use the Simple Habits app]

When I did my GCC reflection after the 100-day challenge, one thing I talked about were the hidden gems that I found in the “balance” part of the challenge. This feature of it was not about steps or physical activity at all. It was about meditation and gratitude. I’m not sure how or if the fitbit can measure these more “spiritual” dimensions of health, but I have added meditation and gratitude to my checklist of things that I like to pay attention to daily, along with something physical each day and some other stuff that matters to me.

I understand that there are different sensibilities. After many years of looking outside of myself for external signs that reassure me that I’m doing okay, I’ve re-oriented myself to focus more on internal signs and signals, awareness, and a more direct sense of how I’m feeling (energized, sluggish, light of spirit, burdened by life, rested, tired, strong, weak, supported, alone, relaxed, stressed out, available to the people in my life, closed off from my relationships, grounded, unhinged…).

I don’t think there is any gadget that can give me this information. More than that, from where I sit, the more reliance I have on gadgets and numbers and externalized signs that it’s all good, the less actual awareness I experience. This too is why I gravitate towards intuitive eating and away from dieting or any approach to eating that requires tracking, counting, or monitoring. I would like a more direct relationship with the food I eat.

This is not to say that I can’t get as distracted as the next person and forget about “self-care” (I have a whole other rant about the rhetoric of “self-care” and all that it stands for, but I’ll save it for another day). But the idea of having a fitness tracker beep every hour to tell me to get moving — no thanks. Whatever happened to the good old-fashioned approach of putting a thing in the schedule, doing it as scheduled, and then checking it off your daily list?

So if you’re not into detailed tracking and being monitored by your device but still like the idea of keeping track of what’s going on and find it motivating, I recommend the much less invasive “check list” approach.

What about you? Are you a tracker, check lister, or do you just do it without keeping any kind of record?


14 thoughts on “Checklists: a nice alternative to tracking

  1. I think I’ve said my piece earlier in last post. Only thing to add here is: whenever I give this metric if people who know me why I don’t have a car.. that not having a car for over 30 years…means enough walking, transit use, and cycling. It sounds too much, daunting and weird.

    It isn’t. It’s like breathing. And does anyone count their “breaths”? An active lifestyle needs to become so integrated into one’s life..that “movement” beyond lying in bed or sitting at a table / on sofa, doesn’t need to be counted. So a checkbox could be: did I get out of bed, etc. to do some chores, go out of the house to do xxxxx to enjoy fresh air, nature and my neighbourhood at street level for an hr. in total?

    1. Er… Just a random thought, not really relevant to much… But I do. I do this all the time. I love to count while I’m moving. I counts beats int he music I listen to when I’m on a walk. (One of my favorite exercise songs is the opening to a Japanese cartoon that counts to 100 rapidly with the beats of the music.) I count my steps without a tracker. I count the stairs as I go up and down, I count my breaths, I count the seconds it takes me to breathe in and out. Counting breathing in seconds is a very common form of meditation. It’s very soothing to me and lets me get lost in what I’m doing more easily. I often find that if I’m not counting I move slower and worry more and work less. I do a lot of stuff outside, so that sort of counting is essential to getting jobs done. I’ve done this ever since I was a little girl just walking around the block with my mom. And I like it. It never gets in the way of my life, it doesn’t make me down on myself when I’m not counting. I just enjoy it. I think I’d probably adore a step counter.
      But I’m, admittedly, a little odd.

  2. Thanks a lot for continuing this conversation. I actually talked with my therapist yesterday about tracking (food, activity, etc). I really hate FitBit for privacy reasons (I just don’t want companies using and making money off my data– I know this is crabby, but so be it). Also, the constant monitoring feels bad for me. But we agreed that me having access to how active I am and (roughly) what I’m eating would be helpful for my current health goals. So I am going to a) find my old-school pedometer; or b) get a new one. And I love love love the checklist app! Thanks so much for bringing it to our attention.

    Philosopher geek tangent: throughout my career I’ve been interested in the following question: at which levels of granularity are epistemic processes are optimally efficient or successful? Think levels or types of representation in mathematical proofs (visual, graphic, symbolic, etc.) Moving on to (in many ways) more complex processes of habit formation/maintenance, at what levels of granularity is information useful/optimal for us (this needs LOADS of unpacking, which I know, but bear with me)? For me right now, I like the idea of the task-level description (took a walk, took a bike ride, cooked meal, slept well, went to yoga class). Where I am in my own process, more detail would not be helpful; in fact I think it would be disheartening (e.g. OMG– my HR was that? I’m in terrible shape! or wow, I ate that much chicken?) Even for those with more detailed goals, too much and too fine-grained information could swamp us, leaving us unable to find the patterns we are looking for.

    Yeah, I need to write a paper about this. Enough for now. But let’s all keep talking. This is a huuuuge help, having y’all out there, talking about these issues!

    1. I love this question of what level of granularity is optimal. I think in all things these days we are on information overload and that it works against us rather than for us. I love the fitness/health info application though. I mean, this stuff all used to be filtered through experts. The only readings we could take on our own was body weight because we had a bathroom scale. But now everyone has trackers for all sorts of things. I was at my mother-in-law’s the other day and she takes her own blood pressure daily with a wrist gadget that she has. Useful or not? I don’t know. I can’t wait to see your paper. Thanks for your input!

      1. Ditto for diabetics. Puts information and problem solving in the patient’s hand. Mostly good I think. There are interesting issues here around personalized medicine and data ownership though. Big changes in the world of health.

  3. OK, let me say that I love that the posts here read almost like a debate and that you and Sam don’t mind taking a stance “against” each other views. I have to say that I’m absolutely on “your side” here! I think nowadays’ situation with fitbits and other trackers have gotten out of hand. People track things that should come to them naturally. OK, I understand if you track calories TEMPORARILY for some reason (because you restricted in the past or the opposite, or you are an athlete who has to make sure to fuel themselves correctly etc.) and want to make an idea what a normal day of looking should look like, but for many it has become a lifestyle. Similarly with fitness trackers – do we really need to know whether we have made 9898 steps today or 10002 (yesss, a goal of 10k+ steps reached!)? I really think they promote obsessive and unnatural behaviours. Calorie/macro tracking is especially problematic – I think many (most?) people (especially women) are lying to themselves about why they’re doing it. Yes, you might be tracking to make sure you eat enough to “fuel your workouts”, but in reality you’re also making sure not to eat TOO MUCH. Or you might be tracking to eat enough protein, but on the other hand you’re mindful of not eating TOO MANY carbs. Etc etc.
    I know I’m getting on a high horse here and it’s not right to be presumptious about knowing better than other people what’s good for them. I don’t want to do that. However, in the fitness community such behaviours are especially present in women who used to suffer from an eating disorder and have in reality just moved to another obsessive behaviour (from anorexia and hours of cardio to iifym or paleo and chasing “glutes”, in most cases).

    Anyway, personally I don’t track my food intake or my steps. I do have Endomondo app on my phone which I use when rollerblading, but I don’t really look at the data except at the end of the year for some fun statistics. I also don’t use it for walking, even though I walk a lot every day. I haven’t tried checklists as I don’t find it necessary, but I might in the future when I’m busier or more forgetful. 🙂

    1. Yep, Jessy: we are on the same page! Isn’t it interesting how divergent the views on this are. It’s very nice not to be alone on this one! Thanks for your comment.

  4. “Instead of turning inward for a check-in, these devices give us a count that is supposed to be either reassuring or alarming, depending whether it exceeds or falls short of the goal we’ve set ourselves.”

    Holy smokes, Tracy, this line really struck a chord with me. I have a love/hate relationship with my Fitbit, that has come to a head when a friend gave me their unused Surge. The wrist-based tracker seems to be counting far fewers steps than the One I wear on my bra strap – like, 3,000 less or so per 10,000! So my daily and weekly totals were lower, despite moving the same amount. Anyway, I already knew the fitbit drove me around the bend sometimes, but this compounded it.

    I think many people don’t have a real good idea of internally how things are going. We are so disconnected to how we feel, how we’re eating, sleeping, etc. I made some habit changes years ago that I think have caused me to have a closer idea of how my body is feeling, and how what I do or don’t do impacts on how I feel physically. I think it probably DID take some close monitoring for me to get there, and I suspect I could disconnect somewhat and still keep those same habits.

    I don’t know that I will, just thinking out loud. I think I definitely ought to get more of my feedback internally rather than from external devices, so thanks for saying that.

    1. Thanks, Stephanie. I can just imagine what it felt like to have a different reading on the other tracker. It’s like a different scale that’s not calibrated the same or when a certain brand of clothing fits “small” and forces a person to go up a size even when they’re no bigger (ugh!) or fits “large” and so they have to go down a size (woo hoo!). Numbers, numbers! I agree that tracking can be helpful for a short term thing. Even I enjoyed the tracking challenge for the first month or so because of the info it gave me about my activity level. But for life? No thanks. Good luck reconnecting! And thanks again for your comment.

  5. So I have an experience with this. I got really into tracking about a year or so ago under the “what gets measured gets managed” philosophy. But you know what, it really took the natural enjoyment and pleasure out of my health and fitness lifestyle and started to feel like a job… a really demanding one at that!

    I’ve since stopped measuring everything, including calories and rather started to listen to my body and enjoy my healthy lifestyle… instead of demanding it, tediously logging numbers and draining the life out of life.

  6. I totally agree with you! I used a FitBit for years and just recently gave it up. It was starting to drive me nuts! I have pretty healthy habits but just knowing the numbers at all times became too much! I would really freak out on those few days I might not get enough sleep or walk enough or I ate more calories than I burned. I feel much better now that I stopped being so in the know!

Comments are closed.