The directives are increasingly familiar: Eat fewer than 2,500 calories a day. Walk more than 10,000 steps. Smile more. Look at your phone less.
There are plenty of apps capable of tracking whether people hit these targets, and keeping tabs on even more intimate details of their lives. From mood monitoring to sex diaries, self-tracking has seeped into nearly everything a consumer does in a day.
It’s hard to tell whether the trend toward quantifying the self is, overall, a positive thing. True believers swear by the devices, thrilled to report on their FitBit-inspired weight loss. Online, there are testimonials to the power of the Pavlok wristband, which shocks users when they don’t meet goals they’ve set for themselves. But those who fall off the bandwagon tend to be less vocal about their experience, and it’d be easy to conclude that not counting steps every day constitutes a personal shortcoming.
But maybe it’s not. According to a new study by Jordan Etkin, a Duke professor, self-tracking can have perverse consequences. Even though it can motivate people to do more of the activity they are tracking, they may end up enjoying it less. As Robinson Meyer has described in The Atlantic, Etkin found that research subjects who precisely tracked how far they walked on a given afternoon did indeed walk more, but reported the activity as being less enjoyable than those who did not track it. The same went for reading: “While measurement led people to read more pages, it simultaneously made reading seem more like work, which, in turn, reduced how much reading was enjoyed,” Etkin wrote.