First Experiment with Quantified Self

As someone who works in technology it’s no surprise that I am typically an “early adopter” of technology. I bought my first PC in 1984, became hooked on my first PalmPilot in 1997 and followed similarly with Blackberries, iPhones etc. Cameras and music players are no different. I also love trying new “apps” and truly delight when they improve my life in ways both small (Paybyphone Parking in SF) and large (Facebook). So given my commitment to exercise I was logical that I should try out one of the wearable devices

I tried on various wristband devices by JawBone, Fitbit,and Nike but really didn’t like the wristidea of seeing one of these on my wrist all the time. Plus, I have extremely small wists and they look ridiculous on me not to mention feeling annoyingly large.

When I read about the Fitbit One which has pretty much all of the physical features of the wrist models(actually more than the Flex) in a form factor that can be worn attached to clothing I thought I would give it a try.

Two months in I must say I’m not won over.

First off, I believe there needs to be a significant benefit to the device if I am going to deal with yet another thing that needs to be kept track of, managed and kept charged. Larger  benefit required if the designers force me to use a dedicated charger instead of micro usb  – I really do not relish one more charger to take with me when I travel.

So what have I found to be the benefits? The Fitbit one is light weight and comfortable to wear (easy to clip on bra, waistband). The charge is long lasting – at least I don’t need to bring the charger for a short trip. The Fitbit amazingly survived a trip through the washer and dryer.  My floors climbed are tracked. Living in a three-story house, it turns out that when I am doing chores at home I can get a surprising amount of exercise – this was interesting. The most important benefit is it is always on (at least if I remember to wear it which has not been difficult) – all of my steps are tracked unlike an app like RunKeeper which you need to start and stop

On the other hand there are several drawbacks and limitations. The Fitbit is useless to monitor my exercise classes – I enjoy a variety of dance, conditioning, crossfit, barre and power yoga classes and they barely register on the Fitbit. Yes I know I can manually log them but that defeats the point of wearing the device. I wish it came in a light beige color – the dark colors show through my clothes. Accuracy has not been great – I hike many trails where the distance is known to me and the Fitbit consistently give me about 15% extra miles. Perhaps this is because as a small person I take more steps to cover the same distance?

I also bought the Aria scale. Nice looking device and an improvement in usability over our Tanita but also not much value add beyond the independent device. I don’t need an app to tell me if I’m gaining or losing – the scale plus my second grade math skill does it independently.

Bottom line for me is that I found this experiment with quantified self devices to be interesting and educational but not compelling. I exercise for my own health benefit – physical and mental, not because I’m competing with anyone so the gamification and social elements were not interesting to me. Most of my exercise is hiking, where I know the distance, or exercise classes where the device isn’t very useful. For new hikes I can use the iPhone to know the distance if that’s important to me. I do find it interesting to use the Fitbit to learn how active I am when I’m not doing a formal workout but I haven’t found that information to be anything that changes my behavior. This was in contrast to what I find to be the best food journal app on the market – MyFitnessPal. A couple of weeks of tracking my food in MyFitnessPal showed me my trouble spots (who would have imagined a medium CineArts popcorn without butter has 760 calories?) and helped me achieve my weight goal.

It’s not that quantification is useless. Quantification of health data does matter. Calories matter if you are trying to manage your weight and apps can be helpful if you enter correct quantities. How far you hike or how many steps you take in a day absolutely matters if you are counting on that activity as part of your exercise and fitness plan. The question is if regular use of the device adds enough more quantification data than you have without to justify constant use – so far for me the answer is no but I’m curious what others think about this.

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Dependent -> Independent -> Interdependent

I was reminded of this psychological construct popularized by Steven Covey when chatting with an entrepreneur today.   I was encouraging the founder to seek help with a particular product issue – he resisted at first, expressing that it would show a weakness to “need help”.

The ever popular Stephen Covey, in his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People describes the maturation process from dependent to independent then interdependent. The independence stage is where we demonstrate mastery and competence. This is the developmental task of children and peaks for teens and young adults. Parents need to allow children space for this development even when that feels risky. Independence is very much encouraged in today’s world. It seems logical that it would take someone with a strong sense of independence and competency to leave the security of a university or large company to start a company. Our society admires and encourages this independence and some of the entrepreneurs’ energy may be derived from their desire to demonstrate independence. I believe this was true for me. But we can be stuck in our independence and I believe that startup founders are at risk of this trap by their very personality.

Many of the most rewarding experiences in life, however, happen when we transition from independence to embrace interdependence. Biology is full of interdependence examples.  Common_clownfish_curves_dnsmplFamily is obviously one of the most cherished interdependent structures in our society. Many musical and sports activities are interdependent. Interdependence is, I believe, the essential quality in business environments today which absolutely require teamwork and good leadership.   Interdependence at a societal level has had profound impact – countries that are interdependent with one another are less likely to resort to war to manage conflicts.

It seems that the more successfully independent we were as a young person, the more difficulty we have during the inevitable later bumps in the road where we need the support of others.  Appropriate interdependence is not automatic – it is learned and takes practice. I was empathizing with one of my young adult children over a particularly difficult research paper they were writing. It was an esoteric topic outside their comfort zone. I asked if they had brainstormed with peers – the answer was “no” as it might be viewed by the professor as “cheating”. I found this interesting as I cannot remember the last time I wrote an important document – e.g. presentation or business plan completely by myself. That’s simply not how the business world works. Even if I were fairly independent in developing the content I would certainly show it to colleagues to find ways to improve – everything from graphics and language to logic and examples. And often the core idea is developed in a collaborative manner.

In my own life, I have found that the times when I have done something significant to seek  support or collaborate – taking what felt like a risk – have directly correlated with the times when I’ve had the most significant personal breakthroughs. When we are encouraged to seek support or other help, it is easy to perceive it to be a step back towards dependence when, in fact, accepting that support is moving forward towards interdependence and progress.

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