It started with the sleep tracking app that I downloaded for my new Apple Watch.
Just having gotten my Watch, I was super excited to see a real drill down of how long I was asleep, and how much deep sleep I was getting. Would my numbers be normal? Would I be able to tie them to how I felt in the morning and the rest of the day?
At first, the numbers on my Apple Watch were fascinating to me. That is, until they became an issue.
I’ve never had serious problems with my sleep, but after a couple of months of using the sleep tracker, I started noticing some concerning trends. Not with my sleep, but with my thinking.
The sleep metrics I was seeing every morning on my Watch seemed like they were becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts.
For example, on mornings when the app said that I had a terrible sleep, or that my deep sleep wasn’t great, I automatically felt tired, even if I was fine before I saw the numbers. I would also feel upset, as if I had done something wrong.
Conversely, on days when I was tired but the app told me that I had slept fine, I’d be frustrated.
It didn’t matter that my tiredness could have come from something else other than how I slept – overexercising, not fuelling properly, or just stress. I was still feeling shortchanged that how I felt wasn’t congruent with what the tracker was telling me.
I had been excited to use my Apple Watch as a sleep tracker, but it all began to just feel wrong and misleading.
I thought about it. I had slept for decades without giving any of these things a second thought. Did I really need to track my sleep? And more importantly, what was I getting from this information? Was it making my health and sleep better? Or, could it possibly be making them worse?
Most of the time, my sleep is something that I have very little control over. Sure, I can go to bed early. But during the night, if my husband snores, or the dog has to pee, or the kids feel sick, I’m woken up.
It’s annoying, but that’s life.
And when I was tired, which I often was, those numbers on my Watch seemed to make everything worse. Yes, I knew I was tired, and yes, I knew I had slept like sh*t. I didn’t need the sleep tracker rubbing it into my face.
I started taking my Watch off at night, and immediately noticed how relieved I was when I didn’t have to look at those numbers in the morning. That’s that, I thought.
But little did I know that the sleep thing was just the beginning.
When the Apple Watch came out, I was dead set again getting one. I didn’t want to be reachable 24/7, and I had no interest in have something on my wrist that was always tracking my steps and workouts and standing and whatever else. It just sounded like overkill to me.
One in five of us uses a wearable device to lose weight, meet our fitness goals, and track our health metrics.
But research around whether or not all of that actually works, isn’t so convincing.
In a 2016 study published in JAMA, researchers found that people trying to lose weight lost less while wearing a tracker.
A recent, small study in BMC Psychology found that wearables had a mostly positive impact on wearers, with negative feelings mostly occurring when participants couldn’t wear the tracker.
But that’s not true for everyone, and although the research is spotty, I believe that the psychological effects of constantly tracking yourself in so many ways, can’t be underestimated.
After a year or so of hearing my friends talking about some of the cool features of the Apple Watch, I started to get interested. I ended up getting one for my birthday from my husband, and I eagerly strapped it on.
At first, my Apple Watch was fun to use. I could finally see my heart rate in spin class. I could answer calls on it, even when my actual phone was buried in my purse. And those little rings! It was like a game to see how many days in a row I could close them.
But soon, that game wasn’t so fun anymore. It became the source of serious anxiety and something else bordering on obsession that took me from being happy, to being exhausted, distracted, and beholden to a device.
I felt the Watch’s effects ripple out into different parts of my life, beyond what had occurred with the sleep tracker.
For example, if I happened to exercise without recording it on my Watch, it was as if the workout didn’t happen. That happened a couple of times – in a couple of spin classes and in the pool, the Watch somehow didn’t start the workout.
During those times, when I realized that the first 15 minutes or so of activity wasn’t accounted for, it literally ruined my mood and my entire workout.
I wasn’t listening to my body. I was working out for the data.
I was distracted all the time. I would feel my watch vibrate, and I’d instinctively be compelled to check it, even when I was with my kids or a friend.
I knew it was rude, and I felt guilty every time, but I couldn’t stop.
Even when the notifications were off and nobody was calling or texting me, I’d still feel like I had to check my Watch. At times I’d feel it buzzing on my wrist even when it wasn’t. That sensation has a name: the ‘phantom device effect.’
People who are very attached to their Watch (or phone) tend to experience it, and it begs the question: what are we doing to our mental health with all of these devices?
I know a lot of people feel motivated by wearables, but I didn’t find the Watch motivating at all. I found it oppressive. I would constantly be concerned about getting enough exercise. So much so, that at times, I’d force myself to work out or go for a walk at night, even when I was dead tired, just to close the activity or exercise rings. That is not in any way healthy.
Rest days and days that I was sedentary for whatever reason made me feel totally guilty – as though I had spoiled a perfect week or month of metrics.
It was so messed up, and I knew it.
All of those numbers were like a constant white noise in the background of my life. They literally gave me a headache.
I eventually started to resent my Watch, and went from never wanting to take it off, to wondering what life would be like without it. I decided that I had had enough.
In order to have some accountability, I went on my Instagram and announced to my 45,000 followers that I was going to be doing a one-month challenge: I’d take my Apple Watch off, and see how I felt.
Some of my followers pledged to do the challenge with me. They too had realized that the Watch was starting to feel not like a watch, but a leash.
I was ready to take the Watch off, but I wasn’t ready to see how much it had taken from my life over those three years.
Breaking up with my Apple Watch.
As soon as I took my Apple Watch off, I felt like I was on vacation. It was immediate. There was an incredible peace that came over me, a feeling of relief that I didn’t have to measure up to the expectations of a device.
I had given the Watch the responsibility of making or breaking my day, and I was taking that responsibility back.
I realized that even though the Apple Watch drilled so much of my life down into numbers – steps taken, laps swum, minutes slept, hours stood – those numbers never really changed all that much. Sure, some days were more active than others, but in the end, it all seemed to even out.
Still, it was hard to see the big picture when I was so deep into the day-to-day of it.
The feeling of calm that I had without the Watch made me realize that I had been living with this crazy sense of pressure and urgency all the time. Answer that call! Reply to that text! Close those rings!
It was like I had an app running in the background of my brain, sucking up all of my energy. No wonder I was so worn out.
Checking my phone – something most of us do too often anyhow – had devolved into checking my phone…and my Watch. It was like a one-two punch to my wellbeing.
How much time did I spend staring at screens? I don’t even want to know. And often, looking at my Watch led me to look at my phone afterwards, to reply to some sort of text or whatever.
Funny how something that’s supposed to make you more in touch with your body can do completely the opposite. My emotional health suffered, and my physical health didn’t change.
As far as a motivational tool for exercise, a 2016 study in The Lancet suggests that this motivation lasts only so long – even with financial incentives.
The second day of my challenge, I completely forgot a lane swim that I had booked. That would never have happened if I was wearing my watch. Not off to a great start, I thought.
But nothing bad happened, and that opened up another can of worms I never expected to get insight into – my exercise habits.
I started questioning why I was working out so much, and really thinking about how it was making me feel. I had been working out like this forever, but what benefit was I getting from it? Were those habits really serving me anymore?
Without the Watch, I felt like I was free to make changes – in this case, downshifting – to my exercise habits. I never would have done that with the Watch on my wrist. I was too wrapped up in making the numbers.
I began to honor how my body was feeling for the sake of my health, not for the sake of the numbers.
I got into the pool for the very first time without the Watch, and actually enjoyed my swim for what it was: joyful movement that wasn’t a tally of how many laps and how much time they took.
During my workouts, I’m no longer in a race against my watch. I work out and listen to my body. Not only is being active more enjoyable, I’m a lot less exhausted. I realized that I was pushing myself too hard, far too often.
I’m sleeping better, and I’m a lot happier that I’ve kept the Watch off and taken control back.
Are fitness trackers worth it?
Just like calorie counting, tracking becomes this pervasive habit that tends to work against us in the end.
It gives us lots of information.
Some of it probably not accurate.
Most of it things that we don’t really need to know in order to live our best lives.
For me, the Watch felt like a leash. Only when I took it off did I realize that.
When I think about it, I think putting the watch on was something I subconsciously dreaded. Not having to do it now feels so incredible.
I have to make sure I have my phone around most of the time, but I’ve found that I’ve also been able to take a step back from that as well. It’s as if taking my Watch off has shown me that the sky isn’t going to fall if I’m not constantly connected.
Recently, my daughter was having some health challenges. I was so preoccupied and tired from the stress. Not having my watch on meant that I didn’t have more stress compounding on that, because I didn’t feel like I had to force myself to work out. I could be present for her, and kind to myself.
I’m not neglecting my health. I’m actually caring for myself better than I used to.
There’s this obsession with ‘hacking’ everything, and digitizing our lives down to just numbers. I just can’t get on board with that.
And although I can see my watch on my dresser as I’m writing this, I don’t think I will ever wear it – especially long-term – again.
By no means am I saying that nobody should wear a smart watch. Some of you love yours, and that’s great. But if you have or have had an eating disorder or disordered eating, or obsessive compulsive behavior, don’t even go near these devices.
For the people who see themselves in my story, do yourself a favor and try a month without your wearable. You might be surprised at how much better you feel.