Fitbit and the Fine Art of Not Fooling Yourself

I started tracking my sleep, heart rate, weight, diet, and activity using a Fitbit device about four months ago. The decision came at the urging of my ultra-marathoner friend, who exclaimed after I barely survived a 10km road race in Banff, Alberta that “it will change your life!”

Fitbit is part of a techno-movement called the quantified self. The central idea of the quantified self is that we humans are sometimes a little too adept at rationalizing bad choices and unhealthy behavior. This type of thinking prevents us from truly knowing the impact of our decisions. By using data-gathering devices like the Fitbit, we can come to know ourselves a little better, and to fool ourselves a little less.

It took me six months to go from awareness to purchase. I guess this is because I’m indecisive, meaning I make decisions slowly, change my mind frequently, and like to keep my options open until I’m certain. In other words, I procrastinate.

I bought the Fitbit Charge HR, which has a built-in heart rate and sleep monitor, stair counter, and step tracker as well as software for tracking diet, weight, and workouts. The device works by gathering data from my body and then storing it to a central repository in the cloud. This data is then harvested by the Fitbit app to give me a wide range of insights about overall fitness. These insights should, in addition to helping me understand my personal habits better, also change my behaviour.

For example, I know now that to reach 10,000 steps in a day, which is what Fitbit recommends as a daily target, I need to leave the house and walk somewhere else in the neighborhood at least two or more times per day. And counting calories through the Fitbit app has helped to understand that if I don’t exercise at all on a given day, I have very little room for unhealthy eating before I start gaining weight.

I’ve also learned that optimal fitness comes from — critically — combining controlled eating with daily exercise. This is difficult to achieve, and exercise alone is not enough.

Looking at my weekly Fitbit report, I see trends in my behaviour that I wouldn’t have before — such as a gradual increase in daily calorie intake and a reduction in fitness activity as the weekend approaches, or the fact that my calorie intake spikes on the weekends when I’m not focused on work.

After four months of using a Fitbit, however, I’m still overweight. I haven’t exercised as much as I’d like to, and it hasn’t completely revolutionized my life. Still, I believe it will, eventually.

The reason for my confidence is that whenever I’m tracking my activities and diet closely, good things start to happen. When I take my Fitbit off for a week or stop counting my calories, I tend to regress. In the past few months I’ve done a pretty mediocre job at staying committed to tracking the data and so I’ve made only mediocre progress. The difference seems to be about whether I’m willing to look my behaviour in the eye, instead of avoiding the numbers, and making excuses for my bad behaviour.

This hypothesis — that if I stay committed to tracking my behaviour I will stay fit — is still mostly unproven, but I’m optimistic it will work.

Here are four reasons why I’m hopeful:

Reduced Decision Fatigue

With quantified self all I have to do is commit to gathering information. This alleviates the need to summon willpower each day to make a series of tiny decisions that add up to better fitness.

Greater Attention

Given our finite time here on Earth and a world with so much competing stimulus, it is natural to want to spend our limited attention on things that provide us with clear benefit. Quantified self, from this perspective, is a brain assistive tool; it helps us know ourselves better and optimize our behaviour without taking up significant attention resources trying to track and manage things that our brains are not really equipped to track and manage. This makes positive habit formation less costly and frees up our attention for other things.

Less Cognitive Bias

Humans have a large number of cognitive biases that distort the way we perceive information and the world around us. One type of cognitive bias is known as confirmation bias. We exhibit confirmation bias by seeking out only information that confirms our untested preconceptions, in order to justify a particular belief. Because of this bias, and others, we are not very good at monitoring and interpreting our own behaviours. Technologies like Fitbit and others can help us overcome these biases and gain a truer understanding of the impact of our decisions.

Incentives

Quantified self is a game where I compete against myself and try to improve one or more scores. And when I improve my scores, I feel a sense of accomplishment and the bonus of feeling and being happier and healthier.

The future of quantified self is promising. Analysts are predicting a self-healthcare revolution as the industry matures and the number of personal health and medical devices increase rapidly in the next five years.

As we learn more about ourselves, and come to understand exactly what makes us more and less healthy, we will hopefully become happier and more fulfilled people. That’s the theory anyways.

I’m on Twitter too.