Help! My Unquantified Self Is Stuck In Fitbit Hell

“Take the damn thing off -- it's making your wrists decompose!” There's no talking to my wife at this point. She is so invested now in her Fitbit Force, rashes on both wrists will not deter her from wearing the fitness band. She is among the slice of users who appears allergic to some compound in this model. The company withdrew the Force from the market in recent weeks and issued a recall. We just got our return mailer yesterday to send it back for a refund.

I can’t wrestle it from her wrist. “But then I will lose track of my progress and the app will be off," she complains.

This from a woman who just discovered a few months ago that the iPhone I gave her three years ago could do a Google search.

“You are going to lose both hands if you don’t take that thing off. You will be dialing your iPhone with your nose,” I tell her.

Oddly, her Fitbit Force addiction did not start well, and at first seemed like another one of Steve’s misfired attempts to gear up his wife.



“It won’t synch.”

“Try rebooting it.”

“You try rebooting it. You got it for me.” I am personally responsible for all tech issues everywhere in the universe.  

Apparently the initial set-up of the otherwise excellent Fitbit series of wearables is one of the biggest issues. Friends have told me of burning through several defective units. My mother-in-law needed a lot of help getting her clip-on up and running. My wife and I struggled to find online instructions for her Force, finally getting it in sync with the phone. And this weekend the new Fitbit Flex I got for my daughter put us through the same hoops figuring out how to get it up and running.

I am guessing more than a few people simply abandon or return these things out of frustration.

Fair warning to gift-givers: You may want to return the thing before your family member gets addicted to her own numbers.

“Honey, why are you tromping up and down the stairs?” I call from bed.

“I have only a few hundred steps left to make my goal.”

“Well the cat is freaking out over this, and I am not too happy about it, either.”

On another night, I am headed to bed and she grabs her coat to dash out the door into the Wilmington night. “Honey, it is 11:45 at night, why are you going for a walk now? You know we live in one of the most dangerous cities in the country, right?”

“I have 15 minutes to hit my 10,000 steps for the day.”

A this point the cat is shrugging in a you-married-her move.

I am now regaled with Fitbit tales and nightly bragging about my wife's calorie count. The first time she hit her goals and the Force buzzed in celebration, she was in the middle of teaching her college class. “I freaked. I thought I was having a seizure,” she tells me.

Now my daughter is texting me her progress. “I just did 800 steps in the two hours I have been awake.” It took all of 12 hours for her to convert from “Why would I want this?” to “This is awesome.”

My wife, daughter, mother-in-law and brother-in-law all have fitness devices now counting their every step. My mother-in-law’s clip-on actually gives her verbal prompts when she needs to pick up the pace to hit her goals. The first time it happened she thought there was an intruder in the house. The second time she thought she was having a psychotic episode.

Eventually, they all got used to the weird interactivity these devices provide. I am the one most uncomfortable with it all. No one misses the irony that I of all people am the one person in the family not wearing a fitness monitor, and I am the one buying and recommending most of these devices for others.

I have my reasons. Truth be told, I am an obsessive exerciser. I've been doing an hour a day of high intensity stair-climb aerobics for nearly 20 years now. But that is the type of activity, along with my excessive weight-lifting, that these monitors don’t really register well. And aside from these bursts of heavy activity, each day I am bolted to my desk.

So I am relegated to beiing the only unquantified self in my family. This is the thing we haven’t explored yet -- the impact of the quantified selves on the unquantified. I am already feeling somehow unreflective and careless for not measuring myself. These new acolytes of self-monitoring (Lord save me from the converted) give the impression they are in contact with some essential part of themselves. My life seems too haphazard now, with nothing keeping count of me.

My wife, who ran for 30 years without quantifying beyond checking the clock when she got home, is now running marathons. My daughter volunteered to do another lap around the mall last night to get her numbers up. I can’t even begin to tell you how unlike her this is.

And they are all app designers now. Everyone of these former app-averse types is quick to advise how to improve the experience and what version 2.0 should include. For instance, none of them is ready to start inputting their calories consumed yet, but they all have ideas for streamlining the process. A voice interface for recording what you eat as you eat it, instead of typing it in? Oral sensors that detect all of your intake?

Yes, it has gotten to that level. In my family I am the infamous workaholic and obsessive compulsive who needs to be torn from his desk or stair climber for a normal night out. And I am the one talking my wife down from compulsion?

“You are getting obsessive,” I warn.

She looks at me with that disbelieving did-you-just-call-me-obsessive? glance. “Are you listening to yourself?” she asks. “By the way, put rash cream on the shopping list. The bumps are starting to move up my forearm.”

At what point does the quantified self veer into the delusional self?  “Are you listening to yourself?” I echo back.

Fitbit has thrust our marriage into an obsessive-compulsive stand-off.

The quantified self is not a new concept, of course. A niche of pioneers has been mulling the implications and uses of sensor-based feedback for a number of years. There are active debates about whether the model is best aimed at deeper personal understanding (big data analytics of yourself) or as a prompt for behavioral modification -- or both.

I think the millions who have embraced the most basic fitness feedback loop, my family included, represent that first wave of response to quantification. They watch the numbers and aim to achieve the abstract goals of milestones.

I expect that we will soon move from quantified self and quantified goals to a stage where the numbers are attached to subtler and more concrete aims. Chasing numbers is less the point than the fitness for which the numbers are a proxy. Ultimately there are hard effects, such as blood pressure, cholesterol levels, heart rates, muscle tone, fat content. The sensors of all manner of intake and output should be helping us to achieve goals that matter. Which is to say: a quantified self must add up to something.   


3 comments about "Help! My Unquantified Self Is Stuck In Fitbit Hell".
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  1. Kim Reichelt from WaylandeNews, March 3, 2014 at 8:42 a.m.

    Hi Steve. There are over 700 people who have reported these rashes or burns on the Fitbit Forum, and likely several thousand in all. Fitbit hasn't given any useful details on the cause, but some users are having systemic reactions. Please pass along to your wife a plea to take off the Fitbit. There are plenty of other devices that could track her steps without injuring her. Also, please ask her to post on the Fitbit Forum:

    What's the point of fitness without health? If she cares about her step count, shouldn't she care more about her overall health and what this product might be doing to her?

  2. Sandy Miller from Success Communications, March 4, 2014 at 2:05 p.m.

    I have the fitbit clip on. I have had it for over a year. It seems to track everything and doesn't cause any rashes.

    I have had the same conversations as you and your wife with my husband. As I pace while watching TV. I hate to tell you that I have passed the 10,000 a day goal and now getting closer to 15,000 a day. The compulsion just seems to grow. Good Luck!

  3. Steve Smith from Mediapost, March 4, 2014 at 2:10 p.m.

    Thanks Sandy. I contemplated the clip but there is no way it wouldn't end up in the washer in a week. I am trying to convince her to wear the clip like a necklace to avoid this. My wife is now wearing the band over her sleeve. someone save me.

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