To move forward, try going off-track: Life Hacks with Charles Assisi
Step counters, sleep aids, oximeters, heart-rate sensors and fitness metrics will only take you so far. The human body isn’t a machine. So aim for pleasure, not a perfect score.
There is no other way to say this: a lifestyle I had embraced some years ago was off the mark. As we head into a new year, this is as good a time as any to acknowledge that.
The Quantified Self movement is deservedly dead. And with it, I have laid to rest my efforts to track my heart rate, body temperature, lung capacity, hours slept, calories consumed, screen time, mood changes, gait, water intake and who knows what else.
Years before the smartwatches and smartphone apps, I had invested money, time and attention in devices such as heart-rate sensors and health trackers. Anyone who saw my gadgets then might have assumed I was an elite athlete. (Or a nutjob.) At one point, I could no longer enjoy my daily walks, because I was so conscious of what my gait tracker would have to say later.
In this fortnight of app wraps and annual activity reports, I’d like to dwell a bit on why I tuned out if it all.
I’ve always been a technophile. Flirting with long-distance running, I heard experienced runners talk about metrics such as cadence and stride length. This piqued my interest. Then, as I began to train for my first long-distance run, an American coach I connected with online urged me to plot a range of metrics on a spreadsheet each week. He needed all this data, he said, to create a personalised training plan. That’s when the investments in gadgets began.
It wasn’t long before I arrived at all kinds of metrics of my own. I worked out that I needed at least six hours of “deep sleep” and another hour of light sleep to function at optimum levels. This was based on data from my Fitbit. Other contraptions suggested that my cadence (number of steps per minute when running) could be improved for better outcomes. I had to work out how to put in longer strides. This meant learning how to breathe better. The output from the oximeter showed that my efforts to improve in this regard weren’t going to plan, because I wasn’t breathing right. The lungs needed to be trained.
Meanwhile, around me, people glided effortlessly past. I assumed they’d got all their complex parameters to align. “Matter of time before I get there,” I’d mutter.
That’s not how it went. In fact, when I completed my first half-marathon, a year into this process, I didn’t even enjoy it. What should have been a joyful run was instead just hours of worrying about and checking on the metrics. A voice in the head had insisted I stay at it because, as the business-management adage goes, “What cannot be measured cannot be managed”. But that run proved to be the last straw.
Today, all I use is a smartwatch. I look at its consolidated data from time to time, but for the most part I focus on finding joy in my running and walking. I am once again noticing the beauty around me. I’m listening to my body. On the day of a big run, when there are cheerful people all around, instead of obsessing about statistics, I can share in their joy and sense of community. (Incidentally, even with all the data and spreadsheets, I didn’t ever get my timing “right”.)
In some ways, I suppose those early years as a runner were a bit like the early years of being a parent for the first time. One thinks one can combine expert tips and lists and eagerness to arrive at a formula for perfection. But that’s not how humans work.
We may aim for perfection in a project, a product line, a process. But in our leisure hours, our personal lives, when wandering, running or walking; listening to music or planning a takeout meal; swimming or sleeping, I have come to believe we must not be driven by charts, wraps and data. Don’t aim for perfect scores. Just aim for joy.
(Charles Assisi is co-founder at Founding Fuel & co-author of The Aadhaar Effect)