I wrote this a while ago, after seeing two articles in two days ragging on fitness tracking devices, and suggesting that they’re bad for you. Both articles warn against outsourcing your intuitive sense of “how you are” to some device. And, sure, I guess you can do that. But if you actually are doing that, I’d suggest that what you have isn’t a harmful device. What you have is a device disorder.

I was going to make an even stronger statement along these lines, comparing a device disorder to an eating disorder. I think the comparison is valid, even though, upon reflection, it weakens my argument. Sure, some people have an eating disorder. But anybody is likely to engage in disordered eating when they eat industrially produced edible food-like substances. Maybe that’s a fair comparison with industrially produced fitness-tracking devices. Unlike with industrial food though, I think the data from fitness trackers can be consumed safely.

“… sometimes I would wake up in the morning and check my app to see how I slept — instead of just taking a moment to notice that I was still tired…”

Source: Opinion | Even the Best Smartwatch Might Be Bad for Your Brain – The New York Times

I get this, because I joke about this myself. My brother will ask how I slept, and I’ll say, “I’m not sure—I haven’t checked with my Oura ring yet.” Or I’ll say something like, “My ring and I agree that I slept well last night!” But I’m just joking. I know how I slept, I know how recovered I am from the recent days’ activities, and how ready I am to take on a physical or mental challenge.

My Oura ring

That doesn’t make the data from the Oura ring useless. My intuitive sense of how I am isn’t perfect. Many’s the time I’ve let wishful thinking convince me that I’m ready for a long run or a tough workout not because I really am, but because the weather is especially nice that day and the next few days are forecast to be cold or rainy. Or because I have some free time that day and the next few days are going to be busy. My Oura ring has been a useful counterbalance to that. If I had a hard lifting session yesterday, but I feel great today and my heart rate lowered early last night, maybe I am really ready for a long run today. On the other hand, if my heart rate took the whole night to get down to its minimum, and its minimum was higher than usual, that’s a good sign that I’m not fully recovered, even if I’m feeling pretty good.

If you have an eating disorder, do your best to avoid triggers that lead to disordered eating. Similarly, if you have a device disorder, it makes good sense to avoid using whatever sort of devices lead to disordered behavior. But that doesn’t make the devices bad, any more than eating disorders make food bad. But any particular device might be bad for you, just like any particular food might be bad for you. (And, I admit, industrially produced edible substances are probably bad for everybody.)

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10 thoughts on “It’s not your device; it’s your device disorder

  1. @philipbrewer I agree with you! On a similar note, a while ago I read an article that went like, “Fitness trackers DON’T WORK: when two groups of people ate the same diet and did the same amount of exercise, one wearing fitness trackers and the other not, both groups lost the same amount of weight.” I was just so bewildered how that article even got published, as if people think a fitness tracker magically helps you reach your goals by itself rather than by motivating you to make healthier choices. I think some people can get a bit too obsessed with them (like if someone’s at the point of “gaming” their tracker…) but I find it useful for me :)

  2. @jayeless @philipbrewer Great post! My favorite fitness tracker anecdote was the guy who was startled to see his step-count so high, only to realize his dog had swallowed his Fitbit. Perhaps that’s our next fitness solution? Zoomies, human edition.

  3. @jayeless I can see the logic in that research design. Depends on what the fitness tracker is tracking, sometimes being aware has a beneficial effect. Much like the observation effect i.e. being observed changes your behavior.

  4. @Cheri I read a long sad article by a guy who started walking more, because he had a new baby he was pushing in a stroller. Except, he found that his step count went down. Turned out, with his hands on the stroller handle, the didn’t move as much, so his FitBit was failing to notice a large fraction of his steps. :-)

  5. @pratik I’m pretty good at not obsessing over my sleep/fitness metrics. I have other things I obsess about though, which cause sleep problems, meaning that my Oura ring data can be useful in helping me optimize the things I can control, with a eye toward better sleep.

  6. @pratik Yeah, to be clearer, my distaste was definitely for how the article had written up the study’s findings, rather than for the study itself. It seems to happen a lot that in pursuit of an “angle”, publications oversimplify and even misrepresent the actual conclusions of the researchers, so I wasn’t going to assume the study was the problem.

  7. @philipbrewer Another interesting post! I’ve certainly thought before about the various apps that gamify language learning, and I have mixed feelings about that too. When I catch myself spamming the Duolingo match-up game to get more points instead of actually working through lessons, that’s when I get the feeling that gamification has gone very wrong. But where systems reward effort and progress instead of, uh, whatever the match-up game is, I think it’s nifty. So I relate to your thoughts on gamified exercise!

  8. @jayeless oh! I know only too well the disconnect between research findings and media reports of them. That’s why I pick & choose reporters I talk too. Protip: stay away from those who ask for an interview and mention their deadline is tomorrow in the same breath.

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