If you’re anything like me, you’ve awakened this morning to discover a belly shaped into a half-globe by a month’s worth of eggnog and gravy, seized by an annual pledge to walk, pedal, jog, swim and pogo-stick back into trim hardiness.
And if you’re fortunate, your loved ones have provided the tools to carry out this January promise: gadgets that track every step, measure every mile and calculate each calorie treadmilled off your middle.
You’ve probably even got some kind of a notebook to make each day’s progress, charting inches and pounds like a prisoner counting out a life sentence with hash marks on a cell wall.
But here’s a free piece of resolution-keeping advice: Stop.
A Duke University study, soon to be published in the Journal of Consumer Research, suggests that all this achievement tallying is folly, even counterproductive. The more you jot down your gains and losses, mark days as triumphs or duds, the more the exercise turns to drudgery, and the more you avoid it.
“Measurement has these pernicious effects,” said Jordan Etkin, assistant professor of marketing in the Fuqua School of Business. “Enjoyable activities can become almost like a job, by focusing on the outcomes of things that used to be fun.”
On Christmas day, the digital business journal Quartz reported that Fitbit topped the list of free apps downloaded for Apple devices – a sign of the fitness tracker’s dominance. In the last quarter of 2014, the cursed electronic nagger sold 5.2 million units. Millions more since then have strapped on these little schoolmarms, obsessing over personal metrics.
But Etkin’s work makes me less likely to join these hordes. She conducted six experiments that measure productivity and enjoyment when mixed with record-keeping.
Here’s one of them:
▪ 105 students spent 10 minutes coloring simple shapes. One group got progress reports while they worked, and they finished the most shapes. But they reported enjoying it less, and their coloring looked more drab, than those who worked without a constant update on their headway.
▪ 95 students wrote down their thoughts while walking, and almost all of them wore a pedometer. One group was instructed to check the pedometer as often as possible, and the other group had the display taped shut. Who walked more? The mileage-watchers. Who liked it more? The blissfully ignorant.
“While measurement can increase how much people do while they are tracking their behavior,” Etkin said, “it can negatively affect how much they do in the future.”
Part of this seems moot to me. Most exercise for fitness’ sake is tedious whether you record it or not. That’s why gyms have TV sets mounted on the wall. That’s why runners wear headphones. In the pre-parenthood days when I ran regularly, my biggest motivator was adding another mile to my longest-ever total. Today I reach three miles. Four miles. Six miles! Ten!
So I actually found inspiration in logging statistics. That said, I don’t really run anymore. And with research in hand, I’m making plans to attack the gravy belly with renewed vigor, writing down none of my breakthroughs, recording no evidence of the hard work. It’ll all get done, though. Really ...