A prod to the self.

Photographer: Eric Thayer/Getty Images

What Fitbit Says About Me -- and the World

Mohamed A. El-Erian is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the chief economic adviser at Allianz SE and chairman of the President’s Global Development Council, and he was chief executive and co-chief investment officer of Pimco. His books include “The Only Game in Town: Central Banks, Instability and Avoiding the Next Collapse.”
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When I replaced my phone, I was given a free Fitbit -- one of those activity trackers you wear on your wrist that monitor how far you walk each day. I was highly skeptical, but decided to give it a try. Almost a month of using it has reminded me of some old lessons and taught me some new ones, including about the generational pivot toward more self-directed lives:

 1. Measurement metrics matter, especially when they end up altering behavior and influencing self-esteem. This is particularly true for inherently competitive people. I have found myself walking around the house and hotel rooms in the evening as I try to register a minimum 10,000 steps for the day (the initial objective set by Fitbit). And when I have failed to make that goal (yes, the photo below isn't illustrative of all of last month), I have been quite disappointed.

2. Multiple metrics can confuse rather than enlighten; and they can add to a sense of underachievement. My Fitbit, even though it’s the most basic model, goes beyond measuring steps and miles. It also claims to be able to tell me how many calories I have burned and the number of “active minutes” in the day -- and it sets a daily target for each.

I have no idea how I am supposed to internalize all these data points, including their order of importance. So I find myself pursuing multiple objectives that are highly correlated but, frustratingly, are not sufficiently linear in their relationship -- adding to the potential for performance anxiety. The Fitbit also allows me to do more, provided I am willing to be disciplined about entering data (which I am not willing to do at this stage). This includes monitoring calorie and liquid intakes, as well as weight evolution. It even allows me to “start a food plan.”

And, I am told, all this pales in comparison to the capacities of the more sophisticated models, which can record a wide range of activities (such as cycling) and monitor cardio workouts. Apparently, the most advanced models also provide exercise analysis and summaries as well as log calls as texts from your smartphone.

3. I've also discovered through my Fitbit analysis that a lot of walking gets done in airports. This was somewhat surprising. One recent day, I met a quarter of my 10,000- step objective just walking from the rental car drop-off, through security and to the boarding gate. A quarter! And having arrived at the gate early, I opted for a bit more walking rather than sitting -- again influenced by a measured metric.

4. There is little upside to monitoring sleep if, like me, you are a lousy sleeper. My tendency to toss and turn all night was confirmed by Fitbit’s “how did I sleep” function. But quantifying it through a measurement of how many minutes I am “restless” only added to my sleep-related anxiety, making it even harder for me to get a good night’s sleep. So I no longer use that function.

5. And like many of us, Fitbit seems somewhat confused by time-zone changes. Returning from a trip to Europe last week, it couldn’t initially decide whether today was indeed “today” or “yesterday.” 

6. It's also something of a conversation piece that attracts three types of people: The uninitiated, who seem genuinely intrigued by the black band on my wrist; the partial adopters who, like me, appreciate the functionality but aren't totally hooked (at least yet); and the truly obsessive who use really sophisticated bands that monitor an amazing array of things.

And let’s not forget that Fitbit reflects a much bigger phenomenon that is influencing so many aspects of life:

Enabled by technological advances and mobility, we are much more focused on obtaining data about ourselves. This is part of a consequential drive toward lives that are more self-directed, not just among millennials but also in growing segments of the world’s population. This shift needs to be understood and internalized, whether by individuals looking to communicate and interact with others (especially kids and grandkids), companies keen on positioning their businesses successfully or governments seeking to govern credibly and effectively.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Mohamed A. El-Erian at melerian@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net