Recently, this blog shared a link on Facebook to an article about why pursuing joy is never a waste of time, and this line, near the very end, really stuck out to me:
“Remember to pursue more than success or accomplishment. Those are important, but so are the things that bring you meaning, connection, and engagement in your life.”
A few years ago, I realized that when I was using any kind of fitness equipment with a digital display (you know the kind: treadmills, ellipticals, rowing machines, stationary bikes, etc.), I became obsessed with the numbers on it. I was always pushing to burn a certain number of calories (are those even accurate, anyway?), go a certain distance, hit this or that resistance level. I stopped enjoying what I was doing and got lost in whether I was doing it well enough, whether I was worthy, whether others would approve of me.
Once I realized I didn’t actually owe achievement to anyone, it was like a light had dawned on me: I didn’t need the validation of the numbers to justify liking what I was doing, or tell me whether I had been successful. I didn’t need the end-of-workout stats to tell me whether I had gone far enough, hard enough, fast enough. I love swimming, for instance. It’s my favourite kind of exercise, no contest. I swam competitively for some years as a teenager, and while I’ve retained good technique, I’m not very fast in comparison to most former competitive swimmers. I’m probably slightly faster than your average lane swimmer, and can pass all the fitness requirements for lifeguarding certification without any trouble, but that’s about it. Once I stopped worrying about my times, though, I was able to reconnect with my love of swimming.
Abandoning quantification has done a lot to liberate me from my own obsessions with being good enough (in an exercise context, at least). Pushing yourself can be a good thing, but for me, exercise is a way of escaping from all the other things that I feel I’m not doing well enough. So I started turning off the display, covering it with a magazine or towel, or entering wildly inaccurate numbers about my weight and age. Counting, tracking, and monitoring just took the joy out of it for me, because I was always worried about disappointing myself. So I stopped counting, and started enjoying.
But far be it from me to fall into the all-or-nothing camp. Sometimes quantifying things is necessary or useful. If you’re training for a long-distance race, for instance, you need to know how far you’ve gone so you can build up to the final distance in time for the race. And other people certainly seem to benefit from quantifying either to beat a personal best or compete with friends. If you’re one of them, good for you! I do go through tracking phases occasionally, but on the whole, it’s just not for me. I prefer to turn up the music and do some ugly, mindless lip-syncing while I do my thing, although I still keep track of how long I’ve been exercising, and I track my progress when it comes to strength training. And it doesn’t mean that I don’t push myself on the elliptical! But letting go of my obsession with some numbers has helped me let go of my obsession with all of them. It’s reframed my relationship to the numbers, allowed me to retain a healthy relationship to some numbers without assigning huge value to them, or hinging my self-worth on what they say. It doesn’t take stats to tell me whether I’ve had a successful workout. I already know the answer to that without the numbers. The joy is the success.