Monday, February 18th, 2013

Are Wearables the Change We Need?

Are Wearables the Change We Need?
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In Spite of Goal-setting, I Fall Short

I’m achievement focused. I set personal and organizational goals on a weekly basis, and like to measure my progress. I’m also quite competitive, but in a somewhat different way from those one might describe as A Types. I don’t want to “win” at any cost; instead, my interest is in more personal achievements: I need to “own,” and feel fully invested in them. Games, for example, seem really boring, when you run your own business—which to me feels like an more immersive game experience.

I fall short in certain areas—most likely due to racking up too long a list of concurrent goals. As such, I’ve worked to limit my areas of focus to business, family, and health. Focus by definition can only be on one thing, though, and the first of these three always wins. (That’s an embarrassing thing to admit: my kids have taken a back seat to my clients on many occasions, and I’m not proud of this.)

Certain mechanisms have helped a little on this front. Avoiding the office altogether on weekends means that I’m more “present” when with my kids. Similarly, not carrying bus passes or change makes it more viable to just walk home (a 6.5 kilometre / ~1 hour trip) which isn’t a bad way to get some exercise. The problem is that these behaviours are still inconsistent, partially because an “emergency” at work will quickly derail them. Additionally, the fact that I don’t measure this stuff means that I don’t truly understand it.

Over the past months, I’ve been testing some wearables with the hope that I’d find something that changed this—on the health side, at least. In doing so, I worried that I was just getting caught up in a fad (which I do more often than I’d like to admit) or was really indulging in a fancy toy. I justified my choice on two levels: as a principal in a digitally-focused company, I wanted to understand whether this thing was real or bunk; additionally, if by some strange possibility the thing actually worked, it was an inexpensive way of potentially warding off a heart attack. (For the record, I think myself a mild-hypochondriac, and often fret such things—particularly as I near an age at which such things are increasingly common amongst men.)

F for FuelBand

My first experience was with the Nike FuelBand, which held so much promise, but turned out to be a dud. Nike’s entry into the market is smart, in that it gamifies movement, and provides a digital readout of your activity for the day—which is surprisingly motivating. For a few days, it worked well, as I found myself doing more to hit the goal I had set. Even my kids were getting into it. The device celebrates your achievements with visual congratulations on the display (and in the associated iPhone app) and our boys found this fun.

All of this is great, until you realize that it’s largely nonsense. The metric used to reflect activity on the device is Nike’s own thing. This is understandable, given that it comes from the same company that erroneously convinced the world it needed $200 running shoes. It means users of their “Fuel Points” are locked into a proprietary system that has no real reason to be (that is, if you get past all the marketing hype about their formula democratizing the measurement of activity).

Worse yet, is that this metric is so highly flawed. I could give the device some latitude in its accuracy just due to the limitation of current technology. This is ultimately a glorified pedometer; no wonder it can’t properly track activities that aren’t walking/running focused. This inaccuracy was tedious when I realized that cleaning out my pantry had more of an effect on my score than an hour of intense nordic skiing—largely comprised of long, huffing-and-puffing, hill climbs. What put me off completely was when I mysteriously “reached my goal” after a day that had me confined solely to my chair. Suddenly, I felt like a complete sucker just for having worn the thing.

Witnessing A Blue Ocean Turning Purple

Upon returning the FuelBand, I stood at the Apple store staring at a number of other options, periodically jumping back to my iPhone to read more. This was after far too many hours at the office drowning in product reviews on each respective system. I was nearing the point of calling the whole thing a bust, but eventually decided a week with another device certainly wouldn’t kill me. If it didn’t work out, I could just return it and wait a few more months; at which time there would most certainly be altogether new options available for consideration.

For the record, wearables are huge. By 2016, the market for them is expected to top $6 billion and my hunch is that the next big coveted Apple product will most likely be in this area—probably as a watch. Current options available to you include the FitBit, Basis, Withings Smart Activity Tracker, MOTOACTV, Alpha, Misfit Shine, and probably a whole number of others—certainly enough to make one’s head spin. I opted to give the Jawbone UP a go.

My reasons for choosing the UP were in not having to clip it on my clothing (it functions more like a watch/bracelet), its ability to collect data on nutritional habits, and the built-in sleep monitoring and alarm. (The Fitbit Flex will soon do all of this, include a simple display, and be available at a lower price point.) The UP was described to me as something that would give back as much as you put into it. This isn’t a lie. It does substantially more than the Nike FuelBand, but requires the wearer to input foods, turn it to sleep mode before retiring for the night, and plug it into the phone for syncing data.

Round 2: The Jawbone UP

The UP has a number of other shortcomings: the community isn’t as deep as Nike’s, so, you’re ultimately on your own with it; the lack of display means it needs to tie into the iPhone more frequently (which turns out to not be that big of a deal); there’s no web interface whatsoever; additionally, it too suffers from misreading certain things as activity that it probably shouldn’t. While it isn’t, in my experience, as egregiously inaccurate as the FuelBand, I don’t fully trust the data it provides me. Instead, I look upon it as a relative representation of activity.

I like the device, though, and that’s what I want to concentrate on for the remainder of this post. The UP isn’t perfect, but for some people it may signify a way to make positive change in their lifestyles. This is because it measures three key items (sleep, activity, diet) and allows you to get a better sense of how you’re doing. For me, this is huge, and I’ve felt that the UP has, in a way, taken my blinders off, providing a much more accurate sense of my habits/actions and their consequences.

Part of this is simple because it gives shape to otherwise foggy things. I’m overweight. Not dramatically, but perhaps 10 – 15 pounds over. Typically, when I try to change this (i.e. exercise and diet) I go too far. I try things like cutting all fats from my diet, or, playing with things like alternate-day fasting. These are somewhat extreme choices that don’t tend to stick. Turns out, they’re also unnecessary.

My daily recommended intake seems to be around the 2,200 calorie mark (less if I want to lose weight; more when I increase activity). Curiously, I’m actually far lower than this on most days… that is, until about 8:30. All the racing through the day means that I don’t think much about eating. Once I get home and drop my ass on the couch, though, everything goes for shit. By then, I’m so hungry that I over-indulge at dinner. I don’t wait long enough before reaching for a snack, and I’m quick to pour a glass of wine. Just cutting that last item for a few months would probably shrink my waistline more than any hardcore diet (as I’d probably stick with it for longer).

Honestly, I’m not obsessed with my weight. I just know it’s something I need to think about. What’s nice with this device, is that instead of worrying or putting things off until “someday,” it forces me to understand things in a more applied fashion. This is the important part for me with these devices: they are educational. I’m almost 40 years old, but I couldn’t have told you how many calories a slice of pizza had prior to three weeks ago. Similarly, if I went for an hour long run, I figured I had probably burned off a big dinner. (Unfortunately, that turns out to not be the case.)

Sleep and Activity

The sleep data this band provides is also quite interesting. I’ve always been a good, deep sleeper, so little of this data was a surprise. What was alarming, was realizing that on most weeknights, I was only really getting 4.5 hours of sleep. Somehow I had abstracted that space between midnight and 5 AM to think that it was longer. (Stupid, I know, but I’d done it for so long that I hadn’t really paid much attention to it.)

Additionally, I always held a bias towards sleep as something for the weak. I could go longer, harder than anyone else. (Up at 4:45? I’ll do it if that’s what it takes to win. 40 hour work-weeks? Those are for punters; 60 is baseline; 80 is the norm. A 90 hour video shoot in 5 days? What the hell… bring it on!) The downside of this was the inevitable crash. After long enough, I’d just need to collapse on Sunday mornings to try to make up for the beating I had just put myself through. At one point, I wondered what my eyes looked like when they weren’t bloodshot.

Treating a good night’s sleep as something to aim for, instead of something to avoid is a change in mindset that leaves me feeling less guilty for not putting those hours into work. For as much as I may fight it, the Puritan work ethic is set deep in my firmware, and it takes things like this to break such habits.

The activity aspect of the UP’s measurement is what I (curiously) pay the least attention to. For as flawed as it was, the FuelBand did motivate me to move. That said, I have for the most part incorporated an hour walk into my daily schedule; doing so has me thinking less about exercise, as I feel that a brisk walk like this puts me at a reasonable baseline for activity.

Wearables are Here to Stay

I accept that these devices are still really early in their development. As they start to monitor heart activity, they’ll provide a better representation of real physical exertion; with new materials and better batteries, they’ll become lighter and provide more information without needing to tie back to another device; and, with greater adoption, the social aspect of wearables will become unlocked, and have a real impact on the way we act.

As an early smartphone user, I got used to telling people, “In three years, you’ll have one of these, and you won’t be able to put it down.” I feel similarly about wearables, and am excited to see how they change us.

I feel that by understanding my behaviours and their impacts, I’m better equipped to make the good decisions. In truth, I also feel more OK about some of my indulgences. Instead of feeling like a failure for caving to temptation, I’m more forgiving with myself around these things. After a low calorie day, the couple-of-hundred calories in a glass of wine doesn’t seem like that big a deal. And, where dieting and exercise always felt like something I’d inevitably stop doing, the presence of this measurement device is a persistent reminder that I’ve committed to something more cumulative and manageable.

All of this could be dismissed as mostly just a change in mindset, and this might not be inaccurate. In practice, though, this seems to have been enough to leave me eating a little better, sleeping a little longer, and walking a lot more. I’m happy with all of that.

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