The Dangers Of Data-Fetishizing: 3 Ways Habit Tracking Helps You— & 3 Ways It’s Hurting More
There’s an app for that.
This subtly haunting phrase beckons people to the seductive world of productivity apps, habit trackers, and the preoccupation with logging and quantifying behaviors and tasks. There is something so very appealing about the promise an app holds to produce a desired result: to increase workflow, to create a new habit (or break an unhealthy one), to measure success in one way or another, essentially to “hack” ourselves through diligent data collection.
According to Lifehack.org, popular productivity apps and habit trackers of the moment include Momentum, Habitica, StickK, Streaks, to name a few. And then there are the classics: Todoist, Trello, MyFitnessPal, Google Fit/Apple Health, and the medley of other programs that are usually pre-downloaded onto smart devices. These programs are ever-present in the health and wellness world, and even Audible has a quantifying system that gives badges for app-related achievements.
“Know thy numbers, Know thy self,” and “Self-knowledge through numbers,” are among the phrases that the Quantified Self movement upholds. This movement certainly has some cultish vibes, but there is some psychological base to this practice. At their core, these tracking apps echo the work of behaviorist B.F. Skinner (stay with me – psychology nerds this is for you). Skinner coined the term operant conditioning to describe how to strengthen a behavior through reinforcement or punishment. Habit tracking apps usually use extrinsic motivation to reinforce behavior through the reward of praise (badges, high streaks, pretty graphs and charts, etc.). The behavior or habit is then ultimately driven by consistent and attractive external rewards…think Snap Chat’s use of the fire emoji next to the friends you have the highest streaks with.
However, using an app or any program that requires inputting and tracking information, can be a slippery slope; these tools can rouse hope and provide digital accountability, but they can also generate anxiety, distraction, and perfectionism. Life-logging, The Quantified Self, Data Festishizing, Self-Tracking... there is certainly a light — as well as a dark side — to this phenomenon.
1. Accountability and Reality-Checking. Perhaps the most obvious, these tools provide accountability and from this is a tangible form of reality-checking. Our memory is fallible, so you may have thought you drank the recommended water intake per day when the three gulps after your morning coffee didn’t quite cut it. Tracking the true numbers helps to create a more accurate picture of past behaviors and trends.
2. Visual representation can be a powerful tool. Fun fact, human brains are wired to better receive and respond to visual data. Charts, graphs, tables, maps, infographics. We eat that shit up because cliche-ly put, a picture is worth a thousand words.
3. Tracking and productivity tools are accessible. Disregarding the kingpins of Apple watches and the other more costly health and wellness tracking tech, the average smartphone already comes pre-loaded with software to track health data and productivity tasks. And other apps are right at our fingertips. We may think, well it’s there, might as well use it.
1. We may be more susceptible to cognitive traps.
- Magical thinking – “If I download and start using this app, I will become a better person.”
- All or nothing thinking – “I didn’t log my mood yesterday. I can’t use this app anymore.”
- Mental filtering – “I didn’t do well because I only meditated 3 times this week.”
- Shoulding on yourself – “I should have meditated 5 times this week.”
2. Quantification, of course, increases quantity but may decrease the quality of an activity. Falling into the trap of logging data for the sake of logging data can take joy from that activity. It adds another task unto itself, to remember to log the walk you went on today instead of just enjoying the subtle mental and physical benefits of the walk. Quantification runs the risk of taking us out of the moment.
3. It imposes on our intuitive sense of free will – Like with any good data collection, consistency is key. However, digital trackers can restrict our freedom to choose differently, to be day-to-day humans with ever-changing needs and desires. And for that matter, not feeling guilty if we want to put aside our technology for some time. Most tracking apps are designed to aggregate a steady stream of information, most often requesting it daily.
A Mental Health Professional’s Final Thoughts
When used with a healthy and flexible mindset, apps that quantify the self can be helpful tools. They can play into our psychology in a well-intentioned and sometimes entirely effective way. It’s when these tools become the dominant means of change that they become more harmful than helpful. In the counseling field, we emphasize the importance of creating a “tool belt” so we have a variety of strategies to help bring about healthy change. So be curious about the ways that technology can help us to be better versions of ourselves. Use it with moderation, and be mindful of how it impacts our inner voice. And most importantly, leave room to be human.
Measure success also by the more unquantifiable things in life – love amongst friends and family, passion for a hobby, the peace of doing absolutely nothing. We don’t need to quantify everything we do. Some things are better left in the moment.
Skylar is a clinical mental health counselor who talks about self-care as the foundation of a prosperous life. She is also pursuing graduate work in Information and Library Science (#studentforlife). You can find her on Instagram, which she uses primarily to show off her cats, or on LinkedIn for the more ~professional~ stuff.