Pseudo-Philosophical Observations on Wearables, Part 1

Jawbone announced the Up3 today, reportedly its most advanced fitness tracker to date.

As with all fitness trackers, the Up3 has an accelerometer, but it also has sensors for measuring skin and ambient temperature, as well as something called bioimpedence. As these data collected by the Up3 are used by a new feature called Smart Coach.

You can imagine what the Smart Coach does. It sounds like a cool, possibly creepy, feature.

This post is not about the Up3.

This post is about my journey into the dark heart of the quantified self. The Up3 has just reminded me to coalesce my thoughts.

Earlier this year, I started wearing my first fitness tracker, the Misfit Shine. I happily wore it for about two months before the battery died, and then I realized it had control of me.

Misfit calculates activity based on points, and my personal goal of 1,000 points was relatively easy to reach every day, even for someone who works from home. What I realized quickly was that the Shine pushed me to chase points, not activity.


My high score.


The Shine uses its accelerometer to measure activity, so depending on where I wore it on my person, a run could be worth more points. This isn’t unique to the Shine. I’ve seen people spinning at the gym wearing their fitness trackers on their ankles.

As the weeks passed, I found myself avoiding activities that didn’t register a lot of points, definitely not good behavior, and even though my goal was 1,000 points, I avoided raising it for fear of missing my daily goal-achievement dopamine high.

Then, mid-Summer, Misfit dropped an update that added some new game mechanics, and one day, my Shine app happily informed me that I’d hit my goal 22 days in a row.

This streak was the beginning of the end for me.

On the 29th day of my streak, the battery died. I replaced it, crisis averted, streak in tact. Then, later that day, the Shine inexplicably died. I tried several new batteries and finally had to contact support.

All the while, I worried about my streak. I went to gym, but it felt hollow and meaningless without the tangible representation, the coaching, as it were, from my Shine.

This is not a good look.

Misfit replaced my Shine, but in the days that elapsed, during my detox, I decided to let it go. Turns out the quantified self isn’t for obsessive, overly-competitive personality types like me.

And I’m not the only one in this group.

In September, I read an article called Stepping Out: Living the Fitbit Life, in which the author, David Sedaris, describes a similar obsession with his Fitbit. As I read it, I commiserated, but I also felt a little jealous of the level of his commitment. This dude makes me look like a rank amateur.

Definitely worth a read.

Anyway, this is not in any meant to be an indictment of the Shine, Fitbit, Jawbone or any fitness tracker. Overall, these devices offer people a positive and effective way to reenforce healthy behavior and habits.

But for people like, they lead to unanticipated side effects. As I read about the Up3, its sensors and Smart Coach, all of which sound very cool, I had to remind myself of the bad places where I went with the Shine.

And the colloquial, functionally-incorrect but very memorable, definition of insanity.

In Part 2, when I get around to it, I’ll discuss the flaws in the game mechanics these companies use.

Find the comments.




  1. I suspect that ANY rewards system will have its flaws, since rewards are based on a subset of what we actually do. If I am rewarded for fixing bugs, I will be tempted to create a few.

  2. Hi Jake – I’ve never used the same kind of internet-of-things trackers which are popular now, but when I used to cycle to work a lot, I used to keep a spreadsheet of my journey stats (avg mph, max speed, total time, distance), covering about 8 years worth of data. If my bike computer (a cheap and basic affair) broke or I forgot it, it would feel strange, almost like I hadn’t done the journey. Once I gave up cycling to work, and just did small rides with my kids, it felt like I rediscovered the fun of cycling, because it wasn’t about stats etc.

    It feels like the way things have developed now, runners / cyclists have a huge amount of analytical data at their disposal, and can also share everything with everyone and I think that adds to the sense of having to do the sport, to “keep up with the joneses”.

    David Sedaris is very funny – he has had a few series of his monologues / reading his writings on Radio 4 here in the UK.

  3. @John: Long time, you are correct. In this case, the system works too well, at least for me.

    @Jim: Another long timer, I did the same w gym workouts for, oddly, the same amount of time, 8 years. Sadly, the gym is not fun, quantified or not.

    Completely agree about fitness analytics, it pushes average people into professional behaviors.

    Great to hear from two of our most-tenured readers.

  4. Interesting observation. My own experience is with iOS app. You can select different training plans (marathon, half-marathon, aim to finish, certain time etc). You can set goals, etc. One day’s assigned task was to run a half marathon. I did. When I completed the run I noticed the GPS on my iPhone had failed to kick in with Runkeeper. I was so freaked out by not being able to record the goal that I turned around and ran another half marathon immediately.

    There you have it. A marathon run just to get a tick on a box on the online training plan. Who says this gamification and motivational app stuff doesn’t work?

    I used to have a personal trainer. I had no problem blowing off his appointments with excuses.

  5. @Ultan: Wow, h/t to you for your fitness level. When I get to Part 2, I’ll discuss my thoughts on why the approach is backward.

  6. Interested to hear if gamification mechanics work for the hard core:

    What is interesting is that I pay no attention to leader boards, I train on my own, etc.

    I agree they may have it wrong, based on a fundamental misunderstanding that the body is smarter than the mind in such matters.

    Look forward to P2.

  7. @Ultan: I’m not sure any of these devices are good enough for the hardcore. There seems to be a cottage industry around training athletes, e.g. Polar maybe and that new training bicycle. None of these casual fitness bands or watches would be good enough.

  8. I liked the Basis watch because it tried to develop “habits” in the user: encouraging morning walks, afternoon walks, sleep goals, etc instead of 1 metric of just total steps. Plus you could adjust the goals to suit your own health levels and objectives; it wasn’t just the goals imposed on you by the device/company, but you could make them your own.

    I suppose the drawback to this approach is that by allowing such personalization, it doesn’t allow users to “compete” against their friends. Since everyone has different goals, the data is pretty much just for you. In fact, Basis does not have any social features whatsoever. That’s why I was wearing both Basis and Fitbit for a while: Basis for more accurate data, Fitbit to compete with friends. 🙂

  9. @Joyce: I like the Basis, and its lack of social features wouldn’t be something I’d miss. The new one looks very slick, might buy it if they had a development kit.

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