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How Fitness Trackers Change the Way You See the World (2): Manipulating Rhythm

Updated: Dec 9, 2020

Time. Time? Time!

This chapter is premised on a simple fact that the pattern of daily life is part of a wider life course. From this, a simple insight can already be derived: rhythm exists in different orders of magnitude.

At the level of life-script (the 'story' of one's life etc.), there is a unique plot for everyone. In an abstract sense, one's biographical rhythm is a process marked by distinctive stages with relatively stable patterns, sandwiched between birth and death. Adolescence, early adulthood, parenthood, retirement, and so on. Social ties (relation to acquaintances, colleagues, members of the community, friends, family), professional commitment, and life goals are continuously transformed as life unfolds.

In a contemporary setting, the majority of human beings live by the clock time. 24 hours a day, 7 days per week. However, in our subjective experience, time is felt and felt differently. For example, time 'flies' when you are watching favorite movie, and 'freezes' during the frenzied tube (metro/underground) experience in London on a pre-Covid Monday morning. Ever completely forgot where you were after one of those naps?

The temporal constraints of daily rhythm

A delicate tension thus exists between the subjective experience and objective ordering of time. We are our own person, on the one hand, with our own experiences inexplicable to others. Yet, as members of society, temporal resources are subject to deliberation and manipulation, on the other hand. You only have so much time and energy.

What 24/7 looks like

To illustrate my point, let's turn to our three protagonists.

A (Female, 40s) is a seasoned management consultant who recently became a freelancer, based in an East Asian financial hub.

B (Female, 30s) is product manager at an established European tech platform.

C (Female, 70s) is a retired artist who resides in Southern U.S.

"I was really into the corporate life, lots of traveling, all that kind of stuff" - A

Recently leaving behind her "high powered, intense job", A made a deliberate lifestyle choice to prioritize her physical and mental well being. In her previous professional life, her sleep schedule was dictated by her work. Being called in last minute to catch a midnight flight for a business trip was a feature enmeshed in her old reality. For someone who values physical fitness, she could barely squeeze time to cook for herself, let alone exercise. Besides, a much-needed drink with friends after a long day of work would be the more effective way to cope with exhaustion and stress. "I did drink a lot...Ultimately, it is a trade-off", as A told me.

The topic of work life balance comes up all the time. Interestingly, certain ideas of "money Youtube" (the part of YT where gurus offer you the key to financial freedom, a secret which, of course, is monetized) are built on a profound sociological insight: employment entails much more than trading time for money.

"What the employer buys is not the employee's time, not his 'labour', but him, a solid, chunky object, having the disposition...[and] the right circumstances...which are to the employer's advantage" (Alfred Gell, 1992, p.212)

The tension which defined A's previous life is the same one that characterizes B's current life. When we first spoke in mid-June via Zoom, she was crossing the French border to Berlin on a train, as her short vacation came to an end. Contrary to my stereotypical preconception of high tech workers, B's intends to track her daily activity as a way relax and gain some weight, as opposed to becoming leaner and more high functioning. "Why?", I asked.

"Well, it is as old as human beings. You know, at one point 'ticktock, ticktock, ticktock'. You realize: 'Oh shit, I'm over 30!'. I don't have that many years, you know?" - B

The end goal is simple: get pregnant. However, the unfortunate part is that her agency to "let go" is limited by her professional commitments in yet another 'high powered, intense job'.

On the other side of the planet, with the monetary stimulus pumped out by the US government, C, a retired artist in her 70s with a 'free flow' lifestyle characterized by spontaneity and independence, purchased her first Oura (a wearable ring) amidst the first wave of Covid. On top of her post-retirement occupation as a fitness instructor for the elderly and her life-long passion for physical exercises, her primary motivation to self-track stems from gathering information about the sleep condition that has haunted her for over a decade. One of the consequences of getting three hours of sleep on averaged for the past 10 years is the fragmentation of daily life, as C naps throughout the day to combat her lethargy.

Tracking, inspecting, and manipulating rhythm: a user's guide

How are fitness trackers used to inspect and intervene daily routine? My participants present three different approaches, each with pros and cons. The graph below illustrates where their approaches sit, in relation to methodology (quantitative/qualitative) and outcome (recognizable patterns/specific knowledge).


Let's start with B, who adopts a primarily qualitative approach.


It is her intention to mostly avoid rigid measures and keep her practice qualitative in nature (written records of subjective feeling and daily activities), by keeping track with the basic metrics, such as step count, with her Apple Watch, while relying on other apps and a diary to document her diet, mood, and activities. Sleep is important, but contradicts her overarching goal of 'letting go'.


Her qualitative approach (5 mins morning and 5 mins evening journaling) proves to be effective in identifying her bodily reaction to certain food items and the degree of exercise she needs just to keep her energized.

"I use qualitative measurement, because just getting a score doesn't tell me anything. It doesn't tell me what happened that day"


The biggest frustration of B - a product manager who considers her well-being as yet another product to manage - stems from her inability to aggregate personal data to identify meaningful, long-term patterns. She has considered getting a sleep tracker like Oura, but it would contradict her objective to let go of control. Her curiosity continues to fight her plan.


The struggle of identifying generalisable insights is shared by C, despite her disciplined use of Oura.


Overall, C derives somewhat fragmented statistical insights from in-built features of Oura app to derive some sort of statistical insights, in the form of daily and weekly review of her sleep quality and recovery index. The retired artist turns on her iPhone's Bluetooth to allow data transfer, reviews her sleep score, and uses that 5-10 minute window to charge her ring every morning.

C's has a experimental relationship with her data and Oura's metrics. She occasionally uses the data from the previous night as a reference to inform her largely unstructured routine and often follows her own pre-existing instincts.


The short-termist approach of C works well with her overall, self-described 'free-flow' lifestyle. The idea is that other than morning coffee, nothing is set in stone. Her use of Oura's nudges and scores as no more than just a reference is also highlighted by consistant outliers.

"It always tells me to go to bed really early. A lot of times I do but I still don't sleep. And I go over to my daughter's and we eat late - very close to bed time - and then I sleep like 7.5 hours. Well, that's a mystery"


Without generalisable insights, C remains unable to identify the root cause of her sleep condition. Perhaps this is outside of scope of an off-the-shelf device, but the particular obstacle C faces is technical in nature. Unlike A, who has the ability to play around with 30+ variables, or B, who intentionally avoids doing that, C often finds herself just 'out alone in the cold' and hopes that someone could help her develop a more rigorous method and download her data onto a spreadsheet.


On the other end of the spectrum is A, the former management consultant and the most methodical and results oriented, with a bottomless end goal: reverse-aging.


A reviews her data every morning and downloads it onto an Excel spread sheet via Oura's cloud server. Over the past year, her ever-expanding inventory of metrics has grown from 10 columns to 36 on her spread sheet. In addition to the fixed metrics given by her Oura (sleep score, breakdown of sleep stages, activity score and step count etc.), daily caloric intake, screen time, weight change, and so on, are also documented daily.

"I checked my app like, oh, usually I take my app like a few times a day. So the first thing I check when I wake up is the sleep score, if the sleep score is not good then I will force myself to go back to bed (Chuckles). Then I look at it again like when I'm inputting like all my all my data into my spreadsheet."


Over the span of 10 months, she lifted her baseline sleep score from between 60-70 to 70+, an indication that A takes as consistent improvement.


"Anti-social" is what many of A's friends consider her current routine. On top of weight training, an hour each for yoga and cardio is part of her regimen. Going to bed by 20:30 and restricting her eating window between 11:30 and 17:30 eliminates the possibility of any nighttime activity. Even lunch with friends becomes off-limits - "11:30 is an unpopular time for lunch".


The cost of knowing

To reiterate, in an ideal world, the process of behavioral change facilitated and sustained by fitness trackers begins from a simple feature of documentation - seamless, provided that the information flow is uninterrupted (trackers are charged and worn). Inspection (reviewing data) and intervention (routine change) then follow.

Conceptually, trackers like Oura can be viewed as an extension to the human users' cognitive function, both in terms of perception (biological indicators like heart rate vs. sensory input) and anticipation ('readiness score' and recommended activities vs. our innate ability to plan and act accordingly to our subjective feelings.

According to the above linear description, more 'knowledge' = more planning ability = better control over life. However, life seems to be all about negotiation, as it appears. A key aspect of decision-making and action is the (un)awareness of potentialities, also commonly known as opportunity costs.

"The world is as it is, but we think it could be otherwise, and it may be otherwise than we think" (Alfred Gell, 1992, p.217).

The element of knowability is central to the theory of agency, as the realization of an action inescapably and intrinsically forgoes alternative possibilities - such is opportunity cost, with options "once open, now foreclosed" (ibid.)

Every choice made carries with it foreseen as well as unforeseen costs; alternatives exist only as mental constructs, forever situated between the reality and the unreal. Let's return to the example of A. An underlying theme of A's rhythm is about what to do (exercise) and what not to do (drink) as much as it is about when to do it (bedtime). Self-tracking, as such, is in co-existence, if not direct competition, with other lifestyle factors.

Since the benefits of quality sleep and hangover-free workouts in the morning outweighs social pressure, despite the growing number of complaints from friends, A adheres to an elaborate operational principle in structuring her daily routine. For her, discipline makes it easier to maintain a habit, it's about "removing the friction and any thought process - so try to make it effortless as possible to get out of bed and start running".

In all three cases, the practice of self-tracking is in itself a lifestyle choice - one that tends to reflexively dictate other lifestyle choices. Some emphasize balance more than others. It means doing it in a way which is less invasive and only to inform big decisions as a way to avoid obsession. B and C, for instance, find the idea of monitoring calorie appalling, viewing it as an anxious and stressful aspect of self-tracking.

The anxiety-inducing property of self-tracking has been a particularly pronounced issue in the design of tracking devices. The idea that 'you cannot lie to yourself' is a psychological burden that many have to bear, with their new found access to their bodily status, in quantifiable terms, and with their naked eyes. Users tend to put their devices away as a way to escape the need to meet their goals and the guilt that comes with the inability of attaining them, as the anxiety builds up.

Contemporary selfhood and experience of time

The idea of choice highlights the reflexive nature of contemporary selfhood, as self-identity is no longer chiefly per-determined by traditional institutions but a continual process of exploration and negotiation. In other words, knowing how and being able to consciously make a lifestyle choice has become in itself a skillset and responsibility. With self-responsibility at the crux of selfhood, self-management and empowerment, by extension, prevail as an important asset to acquire and technique to master. Hence the allure of self-tracking, as a technique of the self to generate self-knowledge and better your life.

Yet, temporal experiences are necessarily asymmetrical, not only subjectively unique: it may strike many as a privilege to have the perfect setting to wind down with the freedom to take time off work, or enjoy lunch in a beautiful patio on a Tuesday, or even have the stamina required to enjoy a session of physical exercise. At play is a myriad of socioeconomic (profession and money) as well as biological factors (energy). Times do not compete with one another (the biological clock versus the industrial clock, for instance), activities compete for time (does one take time to wind down or work more, for instance).

If every available choice represents a certain set of predispositions, sensibilities, and identities (for instance, drinking as a social activity that highlights A's ties with friends and colleagues, or indeed her college experience, versus her fitness pursuit), then the nature of decision-making involves the competition between different identities, since every choice made comes with an opportunity cost (at the expense of other choices).


Moving forward, let's stay focused on the basic premise that self-tracking is in itself a choice made to pursue specific goals according to a logic of feedback, while an adequate explanation of choice involves more than just sociocultural factors, intersecting with personal ethics, cognitive biases, and so on. We have learned that the mastery of rhythm is also the mastery of the self. The development of a 'tracker intuition' (action informed by the metricizing gaze), according to the goals in pursuit, necessarily competes with my participants' pre-existing identities (professional, familial, and more) for time and energy.

Following this analysis, anther set of questions ensues: if self-tracking is a way to open up and intervene rhythm by (re)arranging the temporal order of the activities in one's daily routine, how does the process of contextualizing and indeed knowing behind inspection and intervention work? We will look at how Oura and Fitbit afford and facilitate and epistemological change in the user to fundamentally alter their perception of everyday life.

Part III

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