One of my best friends is an anarchist vegan hippie with Daoist leanings. We worked at the same newspaper in college, rented rooms in the same apartment, and got up to a hell of a lot of trouble over the summer before Jana and I decided to pack up and hit the road. We still send each other inappropriate snapchats and make fun of the professors in Sault Ste. Marie.
Our perspectives, however, differ wildly. Setting aside the various debates he and I have had on politics and philosophy, however, I think that one of the most engaging conversations we had was on the merits of living a measured life. At the time, I argued for it and he argued against it, and Jana sat there translating.
What does it mean to live a measured life? On one level, it can refer to keeping explicit goals and milestones and working to actualize those goals by measuring one’s progress throughout time. On another level, however, it can refer to the use of ‘life metrics’ such as productivity trackers, fitness devices, and consistent to-do lists and the like.
At the moment, I come down somewhere in-between the two positions that my friend and I took when we first had that conversation. Initially, I argued in favor of nuanced tracking as it led to an ‘expanded understanding’ of one’s actions. Over time, though, I’ve come to realize that, while many of the tools we use are accurate, they can fuel unhealthy behaviors when used in unmindful ways.
The Merit of Metrics
Some things are good to track, as the act of tracking them can create a positive reinforcement loop. In my personal experience, I know that I do better when I track my food, my sleep, my PR’s, and my writing.
For me, tracking my intake is important in helping me manage my bodyweight. I tend to shed weight if I’m not paying attention, and accidental poverty abs, while great for my social life, aren’t the best for my energy levels. Keeping an eye on my macros lets me get the best out of my time, and makes cooking more fun. Standing in front of a mirror after a couple stressful month and realizing that I can see my ribs from behind is too sobering to leave to whim and chance.
In the same vein, tracking my sleep schedule is important because I suffer from mild insomnia and tend to fall into a non-24 sleep cycle if I’m not careful. Just as I forget to eat, I also tend to push-through fatigue and can end up on a rather awkward 35-hour schedule. I don’t rely on apps like Sleep Bot for detailed REM tracking and the like, but I do keep a journal of when I fall off schedule and I communicate with my partner to make sure we’re both working towards healthy sleeping habits.
Tracking my gym progress is also a natural thing to do, as it helps me identify trends that might not be obvious to me when I play things by ear. Paying attention to my strength progress lets me diagnose issues in other parts of my life, as it’s often my lifts or mobility that suffer first. It’s easy, when you don’t track, to focus on the handful of exercises that you like and ignore the ones that you need. For the sake of posture and health, keeping track keeps me on track.
And, finally, tracking my writing is important. It’s my job. I generally shoot to produce 2,000 words in the morning and an additional 1,500 in the afternoon, whether that’s for Illogical Life, clients, or other projects (and no, I’m afraid I can’t spoil any of those projects quite yet). I don’t always hit those targets, but I can use my daily word count to diagnose my productivity and the amount of research I’m putting into each post. If I’m not producing at the level that I need to in order to support my lifestyle, I should at least be able to point to my journal and say “it’s because of X,” and work towards more productive changes.
Overall, I find that the metrics I do keep are related to practices rather than outcomes. I don’t track them in order to reach a finite goal; I invest in them in order to maintain the quality of my daily life. Pursuing a better process nets greater improvement than pursuing arbitrary goals.
Productivity gamification does absolutely nothing for me. I’ve tried using strict schedules, reward systems, pedometers, and social tracking sites like Fitocracy and Endomodo. They’re fun at first, but using a metric-heavy approach often kills my progress.
When you track everything, it can be exhausting. Keeping constant lists, comparing your progress against them, shifting and moving goals around when you don’t manage to meet them within your time-table. That’s a part of my day job; hauling all of that fatigue with me into my personal life does little to keep me ‘on track.’
I’ve tried using apps like Habitica and Streaks in the past. They’re decently made, and I can see how they’re supposed to work, but I found that the act of consistently logging my daily activity got in my way.. It’s easy to keep a journal (and I am, in fact, starting to use the bullet journal method of journaling), but it’s hard, for me, to filter what I do every day through a limiting interface.
On top of that, there are quite a few vanity metrics out there that have little impact on our actual lives. Most fitness trackers provide inaccurate information about steps taken or calories burned. Detailed sleep trackers produce questionable results. Tracking how many tasks you’ve completed per day or what percentage of tasks are completed within their deadlines might make you feel good (when you’re performing well), but they do little to measure your efficiency and effectiveness overall.
On a larger scale, metrics like income, savings, and organisational rank mean little when it comes to happiness and success. It can be easy to compare your own material success against that of others in order to create a sense of hierarchy, but that sense of hierarchy is often misleading. It makes people feel good or bad about their ‘place’ in life, without accounting for the daily experience, societal barriers, and unique needs of other people.
The Simple Way, And An Unmeasured Life
I'm not a Daoist. Don't take what I write as any kind of definitive position on Laozi or the Tao Te Ching. But as I've learned over the years in my conversations with my close friend, there is a common thread of thought in Daoism that connects quite strongly with the idea of living an unmeasured life.
Reality exists in a state of flow. Much like a river, time flows onward with a certain rhythm that carries life along. Living within this river of time is not about progress or swimming against the current, but finding one's rhythm within it, and maintaining a harmony with the Dao. That harmony is not built upon material success or achieving concrete goals, but through connecting with the ephemeral and ubiquitous flow that surrounds everyone.
Time doesn't exist within the Dao; at least not in the way that we consider it. The current moment exists, because it is experienced, but the past and future are creations of the mind. You can attempt to predict a coming moment, but as a concrete thing there is no such thing as the future. Simply the present that we choose to experience.
Because the future doesn't exist, surrounding oneself in metrics and measured qualities is absurd. Only the present exists – why would one fill that presence with the stress and pressure of measuring oneself? Comparison leads away from harmony, as it is measurement that creates inequality. The benefits of tracking what one eats, how one sleeps, what one does, are illusory, as doing so pulls one away from the harmony they feel with their actions.
I'm not a Daoist. I don't have an exact philosophical identity, although I do rely on Stoic and Existential perspectives to inform my position on value. My position on the use of metrics have shifted over time; in some ways closer to the Daoist perspective, but in other ways away from Daoism and my prior position both.
I don't believe in cosmic forces with direction and harmony, and I recognize the conceptual benefit of treating the future as a partially-knowable thing. Goals aren't inherently bad. Consistent self-comparison without the acknowledgment of one's self is. Society creates its own demons, as it defines success as a comparison. Measuring against others creates disharmony.
I measure some things, but I don't measure everything. I don't have an alarm in the morning, but I do have a protein target. I don't track the steps I take, but I do make sure I move every day. I acknowledge that my nature doesn't always align with my value, but I don't assume that all external measures will bring value into my life. There are no universals, but there are consistent processes.
There is value in knowing the process of your life. But measuring all aspects of your life can lead to vanity and comparisons the bring little value. If you measure in order to discover your value, you’re doing it wrong.
I prefer rhythm to routine, but that doesn’t mean I’m not hungry. If you’re improving yourself, if you’re pushing yourself and benefitting from it, keep tracking and keep growing.
I can't dictate what you should or should not track in your life. What causes stress or prompts reflection is different for everyone. What brings value is inherently personal. Some will find that the act of measuring will bring them out of sync with their values, as my close friend does. Others will find that their best rhythm is built on a concrete knowing of their actions that can come from using metrics and tools. Neither approach is inherently better or worse.
So what works for you?