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To Track or Not to Track?

I remember reading a New York Times Magazine feature on the quantified self movement a few years ago and thinking the people they featured were fascinating and a little bit crazy and a little bit awesome…but definitely nothing like me.  I was blown away by the amount of effort people were spending tracking their sleep, food, workouts, mood, etc; and I (admittedly judgmentally) took the stance that I’d rather spend more time actually in REM, eating meals, and exercising than graphing and reflecting on my activity.

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Maybe I’m just a late adopter, but a few years later, my tune has changed.  I now routinely track my workouts (haven’t advanced to sleep, food or mood yet), and I’m convinced that I work harder when I’m recording what I’m doing.  I primarily use Strava, but there are tons of options in this space (Runkeeper, Fitbit, Fuelband, just to name a couple).  For me, here are the big advantages of tracking exercise:

  • I’m motivated to beat my own best times.  I like knowing how fast I’ve run/cycled different segments and setting a goal to beat those times.
  • I’m motivated to beat other people’s times.  I admit it, I check to see where I fall into the lists of people who have cycled up Old La Honda or run up the back of the Stanford Dish.  Both moving up and moving down in the rankings pushes me to work harder.
  • I like the year-long view.  As we approach the end of the year, I like knowing how much ground I covered during the past year.  I like remembering the big months and the smaller months, the competitive events and the daily shuffles through the neighborhood.
  • I work harder when I know other people are going to see my workout.  It’s vain, but it’s true.  I find myself pushing harder if I know I’m tracking and sharing my runs.  If I know that some random person at work can look up my times, I’m more likely to think twice before slacking or stopping.
  • I connect with friends who care about the same things I do.  I love seeing what workouts my friends are doing….it feels good to cheer people on and support their successes.
  • It’s effortless.  All I need to do is put my phone in my pocket or watch on my wrist, and my workouts are recorded.  I’m a huge fan of passive tracking and a huge skeptic of active tracking (needing to manually enter food eaten, hours slept, etc)

I’ll be trying out a few tracking devices while I write this blog (I’m eager to get the new Basis watch), and I’m looking forward to seeing whether the benefits I see with tracking exercise extend into tracking other things.  I’m excited to see where my personal threshold is…at what point does tracking shift from helpful to consuming or distracting?  When does quantifying my life make me better, and when does it inhibit my progress?  If you track, what have your experiences been?  And if you don’t, why not?

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