The original plan for this blog was to be a science driven project where I get the opportunity to write more while also doing single-case experiments on myself. I had a vision of tracking performance prior to, during, and after making tweaks to my life and seeing how all that beautiful data looked afterward. The problem is – I have the tendency to get obsessive to a fault. Sometimes I dive too deeply into something, become singular in my focus and then ultimately get burned out from it. If I were to fully devote myself to this project as prescribed I know what would happen. I would do very well for a little while and I would have some nice data to show and then I would become worn out and abandon the project as a whole. I want to avoid that end part.
Knowing my pattern of intense commitment to the data followed by complete abandonment, I often wonder if there is a cost to all of this data tracking. Is self-monitoring helpful or harmful? It seems like such a common recommendation for people. Do you want to lost weight? Write down what you eat. Are you trying to train for something? Document what you are doing. Trying to start a new hobby? Tell people and post every time you do something. If you are even a casual visitor of reddit you will see troves of subreddits with people monitoring and publicizing progress. Is all of this healthy and helpful?
The answer, unfortunately, is most likely “sometimes.” A more effective way to ask the question is – when should I be tracking things and when should I not be tracking things? Below are three common things that are easy and tempting to track as well as whether or not they should be tracked.
For weight loss
There seems to be a pretty strong consensus – track your diet if you want to lose weight. This comes with a pretty loud disclaimer. If you have a history of problematic eating or significant, interfering self-image difficulties then consult a mental health professional before you start doing any tracking. While writing down the things you eat can help keep you accountable for what is going in, it can be a very slippery slope from casual tracking to meticulous monitoring and ultimately restriction. This same advice is even stronger for monitoring your weight. If you track it – track in infrequently. Your weight is a chaotic outcome. You can do everything perfectly and for some reason beyond you, your body happens to hold on to extra water one morning. Unpredictable spikes in weight can feel crushing if you are sticking to the plan you set out for yourself. Don’t use weight as a primary outcome measure.
With that said, tracking appears to not only be helpful to lose weight but to also maintain a healthy weight. There are a few active ingredients that help make this strategy effective. First, monitoring your makes it easier to see what you are actually eating. In that same vein, if you can get into the habit of monitoring your food it will also help you to make sure you are eating at regular, predictable intervals rather than the feast and famine eating style a lot of us develop. A lot of tracking apps will also break down nutritional percentages from what you are taking in. This helps to get a sense for the types of nutrients you are getting as well as what you may be lacking. For those who are trying some specific style of eating (e.g., low carbohydrate, high protein, etc.) tracking is the best way to ensure that you have the correct percentage of macro nutrients (carbs, fats, proteins).
Tracking also helps you to better acknowledge the purpose of what you are eating. Eating can sometimes be problematic because it is rarely only about fuel. When we were pre-civilized animals, food was scarce and we needed to evolve to seek out and get strong reward for nutrient and calorie dense foods. That’s why eating feels so good. Our animal brains still dump a payload of feel-good chemicals into our body when we eat. Now, eating is rarely just eating. Eating is comfort. Eating is boredom killing. Eating is coping. Eating is fantastic and can be problematic. Tracking and writing down what you are eating BEFORE you eat it slows the whole process down and helps you to add some rationality into the process. When you’re home alone and bored – are you making popcorn because you are hungry or because it will be something to do? When you had a bad day and reach for a stack of cookies – are those to help your blood sugar or to help your mood?
As a bonus – tracking also seems to be helpful to prevent the typical holiday binging.
Track or Slack? As long as you are shooting for a healthy, doctor recommended target for calories and macro nutrients, tracking will be the best thing to help you stay on course
Recommendation: My fitness pal. Easy to use, free, and uses the camera on your phone to allow you to scan bar codes.
For athletic performance
I am a pretty dogmatic with tracking my running. Whenever I finish a run I quickly stop my tracker and look over my splits. Where did I lose the most time? How steady was my pace down the last half? My gut, automatic response to, “should you track your athletic performance” is yes, absolutely.
If I am being honest, though, I feel like that answer comes from a place of anxiety. Even now, the thought of going for a run without my phone to track my pace gives me a weird feeling in my stomach. As silly as it sounds, it actually makes me nervous at the thought of working without something tracking me – my GPS to track my pace, a heart rate monitor to track calories or effort, a watch to see how long I was going for. I feel like I have the faulty logic of – if I don’t track it, does it really matter?
There are certainly pros to tracking your exercise. First, it is the best way to grow in whatever you are doing. Putting yourself in competition with yourself keeps you pushing forward and self-reliant on inner motivation. With monitoring, you don’t necessarily need to rely on having others around (like you would for a group fitness class or a team-based exercise). Sure, it’s great to run with other people but if you have your GPS and the information from your last run, you at least can run against the ghost of yourself. You gain freedom. You can run with people or you can run alone. Within that freedom, you also have accountability. If you track your progress, you have hard numbers to look at. I ran x miles at y pace. I pushed z% farther than last week. You take the guess work out of if you had a good workout and keep yourself honest.
Unfortunately, honesty is a hard teacher. Getting fixated on goals and focusing on the cold, hard truth of the numbers may lead us to being just as cold and hard on ourselves. We can’t track everything. On any given day, there are countless variables that we can’t account for that may contribute to a better or worse workout.
Today, I ran X% slower than I did yesterday.
Was it hotter than yesterday?
What was the humidity?
How much difference in sleep did you get?
When was the last time you ate? Is that markedly different than yesterday?
It’s tempting to cast a wider and wider net to account for these things. You can track out your diet, and timing of your diet, and the weather conditions and your resting heart rate and the phase of the moon. That sounds exhausting. And, if you can’t find the culprit for a bad workout then it becomes tempting to blame yourself.
Sure, self-blame is okay to keep you pushing but you must also be compassionate towards yourself. Math is not compassionate. The more we go by math, the less compassionate we will be as people.
The risk of all this tracking is that it could suck the joy out of what we are doing. Running should be fun. I know, that sounds like a crazy notion. Trust me – finding the fun in running is the only thing that will keep you running because running is also hard. It is dirty and painful and time consuming. We must find the fun. Get completely absorbed in the music you are listening to. Find a new route and explore your neighborhood (or, drive to a completely new place and explore). Tap into your body and pay attention to your heart beating and acknowledge how alive and strong you actually are. Forget (for a little bit) how many seconds you added on or cut off. Lose sight of how many calories you are burning. Run for the sake of running.
Track or slack? Track with caution
Recommendation: Nike Run Club – I’ve been using this since 2009 and have been tracking my runs on there for 9 years. True, I have missed lots of runs along the way but it is still fun to look back at my pace and where I was running at different points in my life. The app is good – basic GPS tracking, routine updates on pace and distance and the built in guided run feature.
For increasing personal, self-care life stuff:
If we can track our fitness and our nutrition, what about tracking other parts of our lives? Sometime back in January or February, I wanted to start being more deliberate about how I spent my time. I wanted to be better about tracking my diet and exercise, drink more water and to do something creative every day. I did well with all three of these goals for about a month, maybe even two. Each day I found the time to write something creative, draw a picture or fiddle out a song. I also was good about proactively tracking what I ate and the workouts I did. I even found that I was drinking enough water each day (a lifelong struggle of mind contributing to my newly diagnosed dehydration).
After a couple of months, though, I started to lose steam with being creative. I would get to the end of the day and my tracking app (done) would pop up alerting me that I hadn’t been creative yet. The first few times it happened I would quickly jot down some random phrases into a notepad and call it a short poem – click, done. Then, I started to just mark that I did it and promise I’d be extra creative the next day. Then, I deleted the app.
What happened? I genuinely love doing creative things. I find writing extremely fun and rewarding and playing guitar and writing little songs is one of my favorite things to do. Why did it become so hard to keep up with? There are two reasons that I could see.
- – I never carved out protected time to do these things. When you look at the work schedules of productive, creative people there is one common theme. Each of these people have a reliable, predictable time to be “creative.” Leonard Cohen, one of my favorite musicians, often talked about the myth of inspiration and how he was constantly working, constantly writing. For him, being creative was his job and he treated it like that. My problem was that I was hoping that being creative would slip in to whatever down time I had. I had hopes that I would happen to stumble upon a clever turn of phrase or the image of a funny cartoon would pop into my head and I could translate it onto paper and move on. I didn’t show creativity the respect it deserved by giving it a place in my daily schedule.
- – I sucked all the fun out of being creative and punished the lack of productive creativity. Instead of having fun, I felt obligation towards doing something creative. I set myself up to fail. I didn’t give myself the time I needed and kept punishing myself (through regret) when I couldn’t get something done. This is the dark side of tracking. Tracking didn’t reveal what mistake number 1 was – it just showed me I wasn’t getting done what I said I was going to.
Track or slack? Slack
Recommendation: Make a daily planner and block off time to do hobbies that you enjoy. It doesn’t matter what it is – reading, writing, playing music, ship in a bottle, animal training. Determine up front how many days per week you want to do this activity, how long you want to spend doing it and when, specifically, you are going to do it. Then, stick to that plan.