I realised that tracking was beginning to consume my thoughts, says Sophie Morris. I was spending more time tracking than actually doing

Portrait of journalist and writer Sophie Morris standing in front of a white chalk cliff.

I didn’t set out to become a self-tracker. For a long time I stifled yawns at the mention of an Apple watch and rolled my eyes at people’s Strava running results. But then, five or six years ago, I finally gave in and bought a Fitbit – just to time my swims, I thought. Very soon though I was using it to monitor all sorts of things and relishing how much data I had.

Some things I tracked were areas in which I needed improvement: On a work from home day, for example, if I wasn’t doing the nursery run or any outside errands, I might clock up just 500 steps, which seemed impossibly low. Then I moved on to sleep; I liked seeing how much my rest was disturbed if I drank more than two drinks, and began to monitor it more. I could pinpoint the day in my menstrual cycle when woe betide any fool get in my way.

But last year I realised that tracking was beginning to consume my thoughts. I was now spending more time tracking and measuring than actually doing. Did I mention that by this point I was also tracking my alcohol intake, my reading, my spending (in many sub-categories) and countless work measures?

I became reliant on the data to tell me how I was feeling, instead of letting my body do the talking. It’s said that if you use a GPS to find the way, you’ll never be able to find it yourself, no matter how many times you make the same journey. I began to wonder if handing over responsibility for my wellbeing to my watch and phone was not only naïve, but ineffective. Could I – should I – give them up?

I sought expert advice from Brittany Hunt, a clinical therapist at Clinic Les Alpes, which treats people for many mental health conditions including behavioural dependency. “While technology assisted tracking devices can be useful in offering objective data, it’s important to question how useful this data is to the average person,” she says. “These devices may create a level of focus on ‘the numbers’ that detracts from their body and habits.” Hunt also says that the data can cause anxiety, or lead to incorrect assumptions about our health.

“Trackers have their place, and there is such a wide variety, which bring many promises but also a lot of overwhelm,” says Natalie Mackenzie, a cognitive rehabilitation therapist. “It can lead to fixations on tracking data, without allowing us to consider how we actually feel when we wake up.”

She also points out that there is a fine line between using apps to support our health and over-relying on them. “Our brains need to learn for neural synaptic activity and growth. Learning, repetition and consolidation of memories and skills is needed for good cognitive health. If we rely entirely on technology this synaptic growth and neurogenesis just isn’t going to take place.”

It’s more than 10 years since the “Quantified Self” movement took off, with Silicon Valley tech pioneers advocating ‘self knowledge through numbers’. People have measured aspects of health and behaviour before, perhaps writing down what they’ve eaten or how much exercise they’ve done, but when easy-to-use apps appeared at everyone’s fingertips, allowing us to amass big data out of individual habits, it became irresistible. Today, it’s commonplace to track daily habits such as blood sugars, sleep, steps and stress levels.

When I began to track my sleep, I wasn’t experiencing any particular sleep problems – only lack of access to it, exhausted by the toddler in my bed. But I soon developed an unhealthy fixation. The Fitbit gave me a score out of 100 for sleep duration and quality on waking, and anything under 80 (which was what I got on most days) put me in a bad mood and made me feel more tired.

I began to search out my phone when I woke up in the night. I checked how many hours I had slept and returned to bed full of resolve to try harder for a high score come morning. “Far too many people see a low score and immediately feel tired and irritated because the data doesn’t show a nice green circle,” says Mackenzie. “There is a term, orthosomnia, born out of the obsession of looking at our sleep data, to the extent it may cause insomnia.”

I was obsessed with getting eight hours, but usually managed around seven. “Some people only need six, others need 10,” says Mackenzie. “Your watch isn’t going to tell you which one it is, tracking with diaries and sleep logs is far more insightful.”

What’s more, trackers often aren’t accurate. Mackenzie says the only way to measure sleep behaviour is via a sleep study or actigraph.

When the BBC Sliced Bread podcast looked into step and sleep trackers recently, it found scores of inconsistencies with what popular Fitbit, Garmin and Apple products said they could accurately measure, and the reality – concluding that they are better than nothing for forming good habits, but that the fancier and more expensive watches did not perform better than cheap products.

Tracking did teach me plenty of valuable things. First of all, the oft-cited 10,000 steps is a reasonably high number. On a deskbound day, I need to do both school runs and a long dog walk to hit this. But now that I often leave my watch at home, I think about my activity levels far less, and I don’t believe they’ve plummeted. I am free to think, “Oh, I’ll take myself off for a lovely spring walk!”, instead of “Just 3,000 more steps to really smash this day out the park,” as if I’m working on Wall Street in the 90s.

And my sleep? However hard I tried, I rarely hit eight hours, and couldn’t get my scores above 85. Accepting my sleep reality instead of fighting it has left me with more energy. I try to go to bed earlier. Theoretically, I always want a lie in, but my body tends to have other ideas after 7am.

I can’t give up tracking my spending as it took me a decade to crawl out of debt. And I am interested in data, and don’t dismiss its importance for work as well as personal outcomes. But for now, I am concentrating on the outcome rather than the number, and feel far more relaxed and rested as a result.