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?


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