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Why My Fitbit and I Are "Just Friends" Now...

It's not you - it's me.

Today's Mindless Moment:

Dartmouth researchers have created a mobile-sensing system which consists of fitness bracelet sensors and a custom app, which can measure employee performance with about 80% accuracy. The system monitors physical and emotional signals that employees produce during the day and uses that data to create a performance profile over time that is designed to eliminate bias from evaluations. Their intention was to “empower workers to tell them whether they’re being influenced by levels of stress or sleep or other factors that may not be immediately obvious to them.”

smart watches, activity trackers
Image by Andres Urena via Unsplash

Research shows that conscientious people, who are often more detailed-oriented and disciplined, tend to be more productive, but it was not clear what habits make someone conscientious in the first place. So the research team took the wearable deice to a whole new level. They stated that future versions of the system could be tailored to individual jobs and provide workers with meaningful information about changes in their mental well-being during meetings or suggestions for reducing stress each week.

While they kept all individual data collected private, some corporations are already looking at this new technology as a way to evaluate, compensate and promote employees based on inner emotions rather than actual work. Since companies already have the right to extract and analyze our blood, and there are absolutely no laws or regulations prohibiting companies from reading our mind or emotions, as sci-fi as this sounds, it’s a real possibility.

I don’t know about you, but I know I don’t want someone reading my mind or evaluating my performance based on my stress levels or how well I sleep on any given night. Research and development is underway across wide swaths of the health industry and show promise for ultimately detecting both mental and physical issues that can be addressed before symptoms become challenging. But turning over our inner state of being to our employers is a mindless act that goes beyond violating our privacy. It’s another case of just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.

runners on treadmills

Speaking of wearables, whether an Apple Watch or a Fitbit or some other brand, many people use wearable technology now. It started out as a great tool in helping us simply track how many steps we take so that we can take active role in improving our awareness around physical health. With dizzying speed, wearables are becoming more sophisticated and can track our pulse, heart rate, REM sleep, blood sugar levels and more. They are a fine tool for us to use in improving our health. Except perhaps our mental health.

I wear a Fitbit and loved that it buzzed on my wrist once an hour to remind me to move. While I find my work very rewarding, much of it is very sedentary, which is definitely reflected in my waist size. The convenience of a bracelet buzzing me as a gentle reminder was a vast improvement over setting 10 alarms on my smart phone to get me up and moving during my workday. In the beginning of our relationship, we were inseparable and I kept my Fitbit close to my skin 24 hours a day, monitoring my waking activity and sleep quality, my partner in getting into better shape.

I first noticed some odd-thinking a few months into the relationship when one day I realized I hadn’t charged the device, so couldn’t use it. One of the thoughts that popped into my head was along the lines of “now I won’t get credit for my steps.” Doesn’t that sound crazy?! Why do I now need credit for walking? Then my granddaughter got her wristband and shared that “if you’re short on steps, Nana, you can just swing your arm.” Then I recognized that after all-day workshops or retreats, when I tried to get out of my car upon arriving home, my feet and hips were killing me. On those days, I always received a message from my partner telling me what an overachiever I was. Those painful days were at or above 18,000 steps a day with “activity” every hour. That’s comparable to the 21,000 steps it takes me to do Disneyland and California Adventure and that’s not sustainable for me on a regular basis in the shape I’m currently in.

Are our brains so wired for competition and goal achievement that we’ve already lost touch with the original point of these devices? They are a tool to help us, but once again, we’re allowing them to be in control and the concern from a psychological perspective is that we’re not noticing how bad they can make us feel about ourselves. Studies are being conducted to measure mental wellness experienced by those wearing trackers. There is no doubt that the praise and motivational messages make many people feel great. But what about those who aren’t living up to their partner’s expectations?

Only walked 9,000 steps today? Failure! The goal was 10,000. Only active 5 hours out of your day? The goal was to be active 8 hours of the day. Loser! Only six hours of uninterrupted sleep? Shame on you for decreasing today’s productivity! And like my experience, physically push yourself to the point of pain and suffering and yay you, you overachiever!

If you’ve ever dieted, you’re familiar with the judgment of a scale. Perhaps you’ve been starving yourself for days and then step on the scale only to be “told” that you lost nothing, or perhaps even gained a pound. It doesn’t feel good and it can be the same with wearable technology.

smart watch, sleeping man

When we allow ourselves to be shamed by a piece of rubber and silicon, it’s time to check in with how mindfully we’re using technology. It’s great to have a regular reminder to move around, but we need to reprogram our reaction to the results based on our experiences. If I’m writing all day long at a computer, I am not going to meet whatever goal is set on my Fitbit for steps or activities. I can’t write while bicycling, nor can I research on the internet while taking a walk. On days where I know my activity is going to be low, I simply don’t put the device on anymore. Interestingly, this made me uncomfortable at first. Then I read about a study of 200 women who also had close relationships with their Fitbits and over 40% of them said they felt naked when they weren’t wearing theirs. Hmmm...

On the many, many days I don’t reach my step goal, I no longer get upset with myself. If I hit 5,000 steps instead of ten, I can easily reflect on my day and consider it a very productive day work-wise. It’s not laziness preventing me from getting enough exercise; it’s simply the nature of my work which is writing, sitting in meetings or in client sessions, researching and facilitating. Now on workshop days, when my Fitbit congratulates me on hitting my step goal by 10 or 11 am, I use that as a reminder to slow down. Those long days are not a sprint, they’re a marathon, and I’m mindfully using my device to remind me to pace myself.

Companies have already created wearable devices and smart phone apps that can detect if we’re feeling depressed. And that’s great if it’s helpful for people struggling with depression. But if the devices themselves are depressing us, there’s a very simple solution. Change your relationship with the device through being aware of your thoughts, or … take off the device!

I did buy an under-desk elliptical machine so that I can at least move my legs while writing and researching, but the Fitbit doesn’t pick up that activity because my arms are still pretty stationary. I could consider using my granddaughter’s wise suggestion and swing my arm, but I’ve changed our relationship status from partner to friend and am no longer interested in impressing my Fitbit. The point is to move and I’m moving, at least part of my body. That’s a step in the right direction, pun intended. I’m skipping over-monitoring myself that can so easily lead to self-judgment or shame. I’m never going to hit 10,000 steps on a daily basis and that’s okay. It means I have lots of rewarding work and that makes me happy. But I can mindfully appreciate my wearable device as an effective tool for reminding me to practice healthy habits. And just leave it at that.

Have a mindful week,


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