In Which I Become Unquantifiable

Drawing of fitness band and smartphone with statistics on it.

I’ve boxed it up. After four years of consistent and unwavering usage, I have taken off my Fitbit, unlikely to ever be used again. The level of self-awareness from this device has now reached the point of diminishing returns. It just became a habitual accessory with curious bits of information that I ignored.

I recently deleted my Goodreads account, despite having filled lists with hundreds of books. I never wrote public reviews, felt guilty using a reductionist rating system, and wondered why I was advertising a solitary habit that I had done all my life without fanfare.

One by one, I began to look at all the ways in which I was tracking and quantifying my life. Counting calories, making lists, tracking exercise, inventories, writing journal entries. I’ve done these things one way or another since I was 13, keeping a running list of flaws and excesses and not quite getting things right. It is a lifestyle geared towards being better – until the time, energy, and devices become a replacement for a life. It’s a sterile proof of life. Would you know me by my steps, my carbohydrate intake, my reading peccadilloes? Does the nebulous, contradictory shape of my being need data for definition?

Orange and red rays of streaming data.

Perhaps menopause, and all its accompanying mood swings, seismic corporeal changes, and the catching of breath before entering the final third of my life (if I am lucky) has sent me off the deep end. I do not wish to live in a data-driven world, dragging cookies with me from one internet site to the next, ads popping up to tell me just what a screw-up I really am or that despite how messed up the world is, I should be buying this device and make sure I’m getting apps that tell me that I will never, ever be good enough.

It’s frightening to leave my life up to me. Ever since I cut heel holes into leg warmers and wore collarless sweatshirts to do Jane Fonda’s ab blasters, I’ve expected services, apps, people, books to give me the magic answer that will make me good enough. I am capitalism’s most perfect mark. Got a problem? We know you do. Buy this. Listen to the guru. Download this app. Purchase these magic beans.

I’d been staring out of the window watching the birds and squirrels in the yard when my phone beeped to tell me it’s time to meditate. Wasn’t I just doing that? Perhaps if I just let myself be, I’ll be drawn inexorably to what I need. I can listen to myself or make Pavlovian choices, dropping down into a sitting pose on a beep. App deleted.

If I sound strident, I am. It’s uncomfortable – this unregulated, un-tracked being I now inhabit. At 53, I see where I have robbed myself – of joy, of adventure, of passion – in an effort to be good enough. My life feels like a succession of apologies and renovations. At times, when I thought I was reinventing myself, I was just swapping out new tracking methods, different-colored charts, but really it was the same old plan. Stop being me.

In 1982, “I’ve Never Been to Me” by Charlene was on the charts. We used to snicker at the song, saying things like Well, I’ve been to me and it wasn’t that great. Jokes as a cry for therapy. I did therapy too. But I was so concerned that the therapist would think I was a nutjob, that I processed and packaged my feelings. When I told her I was going to stop therapy, she felt satisfied with my progress. I am, when push comes to shove, a skilled liar. Mostly to myself.

Megaphone with words on it like feedback, opinion, and view.

So how does one unravel self from a world eager to define it for you? How does one stop speaking the language of critique and review and feedback? How does one disentangle what it means to be human from what it means to be a citizen, consumer, a content regurgitator?

As part of an MFA program, I am required to do workshops. I hate workshops, but not for the reasons one might assume. Feedback is nominally useful, because most workshop feedback is organized around a disparate group of readers who don’t know the writer’s intent. It’s a messy process and less useful than one might imagine. I decided to no longer read with a critic’s eye and it has changed how I approach the work of others. I approach it with curiosity – what is the writer trying to do? How can I help them do that?

Keyboard with shopping cart key.

This shift in my approach is bleeding over into other areas in my life. Approach with curiosity. The adjustment period is awkward. You can’t miss how people talk or write – all the pronouncements, opinions, critiques about everything. Were we always like this? How have we been trained to see and point out the flaws in the most minor things? I heard the phrase deficit advertising to explain how we are convinced to buy, buy, buy through the calculated strategy of making us feel as if we are not enough. We are vicious critics of ourselves. That’s a problem, but there is probably an app for that.

Is the absence of planning, tracking, and logging in, a plan in and of itself? Perhaps. It feels more like scraping away the distractions to see what is there. Who am I without data? Who am I without the automatic longing for something else and the ongoing, constant data feedback from my life? Does this body still have good bones?

So here I am, a nebulous, unfocused, undefined being. I do not know if I have maintained a good carb-fat-protein ratio. I have not met any personal goals today. I’m not sure how many books I have read this month. Or if REM sleep comprised enough of my night. I do not know how many steps I have walked today. I just know that I am moving in a different direction.

Administrative Note: I have not included a recording of this post and will not for the foreseeable future. I wanted this blog to be more accessible and to provide other options for those people, of which I am one, who get way too much screen time. The problem is, I’m not very good at creating recordings. After trying a lot of different configurations for a duct-taped sort of studio and using free recording software, it still takes an inordinate amount of time and effort. It stops me from writing here, because of the work it will entail. I’m not famous or in great demand or even paid for this. When I am any of those things, I will find someone who knows what they are doing and they can record it. Until that time, I’m going back to the basics of writing.

36 thoughts on “In Which I Become Unquantifiable

    1. Thanks, Fransi. It’s a weird place to be – like a deprogramming. I feel a bit adrift, but I am reminded of Pema Chodron’s talks about distracting thoughts during meditation – just notice what arises. I’m trying to notice what arises in the spaces that used to be filled up with data feedback.

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  1. I found myself nodding my head along as I read. Possibly in agreement. Also possibly out of exhaustion from putting my garden in. (Late, I know. But at least the store-bought vegetables have a chance of surviving. I killed nearly all my tomato plants by insisting on planting them when the sun was a scalding 82 degrees outside.) I like the idea of a garden possibly more than I like having an actual garden. It is possible my gardening obsession is my version of over-booking expectation and living a life that only someone with sufficient money to hire a real gardener should pursue. We all have our achilles’ vegetables!

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  2. I loved this! It seems we have so many mostly unsolicited, mostly unfulfillable Shoulds, but so little 20s & 30s boundless energy left to try to ace it all because.. well, because why?? You are enough.

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    1. It is exhausting, isn’t it? And I don’t just mean in physical ways. Shifting to use your time and energy for what you love as opposed to all those “shoulds” – it’s just a different kind of exhaustion. I’d like to be exhausted because I finally worked out a story I was working on, than exhausted trying to meet arbitrary metrics.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes. I agree. That may have to due with age or intention; I want less, I am already perfect as I am (Adjan Cha), those adverts will no longer drive my life.
    My partner and I studied Buddhist/Hindu/ Sufi philosophy out of curiosity, not as skillful means to solve problems. None the less, problems get solved. Curiosity opens my mind.
    I have been thrilled to discover ‘scribophyle.com’, because crits are well done. It is free. Ah, more tech! Lovely.

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    1. This is a tough society to see one’s way clear in, I think. It requires a certain degree of disconnectedness in order to find connection. I think, too, the value being placed on cynicism these days, elevating it over compassion or curiosity, really does some damage. Time to heal ourselves and our communities…

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      1. Dear Ms. Study in Green,
        “Disconnectedness in order to find connection” is a lovely image, though I sit and ponder what you might mean, yourself, by it, I consider that for myself, disconnecting and stepping back provides me with perspective. It is the “one small backward step” that Zen refers to as the first glance of enlightenment; the stepping away from, the separation from, a sense of personal self allows room for the rest of the story.
        I am obsessed with synchronicity these days, only because they seem to flowing through my life at a vigorous rate. This is also why I am inclined to say more to you.
        I struggle with the cynic in me (reading Ishmael by Quinn has not helped, neither has my science background), yet I long to see the world become better. Your words often ring true and interestingly reflect what I just read and/or thought/chatted about. I think that a ‘Gentle Writer’ might be just what is needed for the healing that you describe. Why must we write screaming action and gut wrenching emotion? Subtle truth is powerful too. Healing is what happens while you are doing other things, like finding compassion. I have often felt that the Absolute was ultimately wisdom and compassion. As Nisargadatta said “I look within and see I am nothing and this is wisdom, I look without and see I am everything and this is love; between these two, my world turns”.
        I have even more to say, but wisdom suggests I stop now. The future will give me the opportunity to read your good words. Now I will go calculate my steps and water and consider its meaning about my body/mind’s place in the universe.
        Kind Wishes, Kiora

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow. Just … wow. So much insight and struggle and wisdom here, Michelle. At the risk of quantifying this marvelous mediation on becoming unquantifiable: Offer this to HuffPost. It’ll have to be shortened, but …. geez. It’s SO good, and will hit home with many. Just a beautiful piece of work. I especially liked this:

    At 53, I see where I have robbed myself – of joy, of adventure, of passion – in an effort to be good enough. My life feels like a succession of apologies and renovations. At times, when I thought I was reinventing myself, I was just swapping out new tracking methods, different-colored charts, but really it was the same old plan. Stop being me.

    Many of us, at any age might conclude the same.

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    1. Thanks for you kind and encouraging words, Cate. It’s a kind of limbo now – getting used to not knowing all that random information about myself. Freeing, but odd. Like any lifestyle change, it will take a bit of getting used to. And whew, need some fine tuning to reacquaint myself with bodily intuition.

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  5. It’s really hard work to be something/someone you aren’t. I struggled with that for decades, but since retirement, I don’t really care anymore! How did that happen? Aging. Getting older actually aids in getting wiser. One lets go of sooooo much! It’s very freeing. Lucky you, Michelle, for you are letting go at 53 whereas I wasn’t as wise as you, taking me almost 30 additional years. See, you are wise, you are special, you are enough…being you. Can you recognize yourself just being you? I will be 80 on Friday and I am free…if I come across as eccentric, so be it. I kind of like it! There is still more of “me” to be discovered and I am curious if the fun side of me will show up. Remember, my name is Sybil (the old movie with Joan Woodward) so I continue to seek and discover my multiple personalities. So far, I’ve found a few and they are “healthy” sides of me. I like that. I’ve lived most of my life without the technology that is overtaking us these days. I’m glad for that…I don’t need a calculator to add 2+7, I actually write with a pen on a calendar that comes to me via snail mail. No computer reminders, I tried, and quickly gave up on actually conquering my computer, my smart phone and my FitBit rip off. Technology devices seem to be addictive and I hate repetition, maybe that’s why I can’t paint the same picture twice. However, I do play Bejeweled 3 daily. Oh well, one such addiction can’t be all bad.
    I love your blog and I love you too, so keep on being you…you are delightful.

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    1. Happy 80th, Sybil! Thanks for your warm words. I see how you’re taking off with your fantastic painting and how happy that makes you – inspirational for all us “whippersnappers”. Never too late, right?
      I live in a hybrid world between pen and computer. Technology can be a very useful tool and that is what I’m trying to sort out – what’s really useful and what’s just addiction/compulsion/habit? It becomes an issue of time and energy as well. Thanks for stopping by!

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  6. Well I was not prepared for the contents of this post… Maybe a little literary license was used – not that I mind – because there were some poignant moments throughout. Godspeed to you.

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  7. You go girl! I read somewhere that the 10,000 steps that so many people fixate upon was a pretty arbitrary number which the app developer used because the number had some sort of good luck mojo in his or her culture. There is a certain satisfaction in performing exercise or an outdoor activity and then realizing that it felt good on its own and there is no need to plug it into some app to see how you did. Isn’t enough to know that you cleaned the gutters? Cleaning gutters may not equate to more than a couple of burpees, but my satisfaction the next time it rains will be very real.

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    1. Absolutely true, Dave. It almost feels like we’re all turning our lives into The Truman Show, but willingly, without compensation. I think redirecting focus on arbitrary goals also means we don’t listen to our bodies or our own intuition about what we need. I would look back on my week, see what I tracked, and immediately think “so?” Just useless. I know what I did yesterday. What do I (or my gutters) need today?

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  8. Being able to quantify something is great for building habits or increasing the amount you do something. But once it’s become second nature, the habit is ingrained or, conversely, when you have decided the habit is not for you or unhelpful, then there’s no point in tracking it any more. I’m beginning to build up my fitness after medical treatment, so my fitness watch is invaluable at the moment. I have even been known to go out for a walk before bedtime to hit that number because otherwise I’d spend all my time reading. Really, my goal in life is to read all those books. And those I track on Goodreads; how I love it! It seems I have not yet reached your heights of zen-like maturity. Enjoy your freedom!

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    1. I think it also depends on your personality. I have the kind where I’m always in competition with myself, which meant those numbers end up being something I expect to surpass. I’m no longer paying attention to what I need and running myself straight into an injury. I absolutely believe they can be useful tools, but you make a very good point about the habituation. That’s where I’m at. My Fitbit became just a very cluttered watch.
      Best wishes on your continued recovery!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Self-improvement is a con’s game.
    I keep track of books read in the back pages of my journal. I like lists and it helps me remember what I read and when. I’ll put something in Goodreads now and then but only when I have something to say (and it will never be, “I couldn’t relate to the characters!”).
    Cheers.

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    1. Not just a con’s game, but an unending one. I’m pretty exhausted approaching my life as if it’s in constant need of repair. Condemn it and leave me to my ruins.
      I wrote one Amazon book review for a friend many years ago and vowed never to do it again. I didn’t want to say anything negative, but then I felt a little dishonest. I’ve also come to realize that I am an indiscriminate reader and that I don’t wish to view everything through a critic’s lens. I take notes when I read for my own reference, so I do sort of keep a list.

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  10. Bravo! Well said! So much time and energy is spent planning and organizing our lives. It seems so ironic that we work so hard at trying to relax. I try to remember; life is a noun and living is a verb.

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    1. I think there is a huge issue with control as well and living in a world where it seems like we have so very little. So often my “go-to” when struggling with something, is housework or planning or organizing. It gives us the illusion of being grounded and having some measure of control, even if it’s only a neat dresser drawer or a color-coded list. And I think it’s fine if that’s what one needs at the moment, but important to recognize that is a diversion and then figure out what we’re trying to avoid.

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  11. Incisive post! I’ve been knocking around similar ideas on my blog, Image(s). What ridiculous times we live in. What mundane tragedies befall us. The status quo: an artificial economy that manufactures lack, outsources production, and markets objects of professed fulfillment to a culture ravaged by inordinate self-interest.

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    1. I love the language of your comment. And wow – “manufacturing lack” is a very incisive way of saying what I said, but in a more efficient manner. The real trick is, of course, to acknowledge the failings of self, society, economics, etc. and to look at one’s own role clear-eyed, in order to make change for the better. I think I’m in the “assessment” stage – mentally and physically – decluttering, doing an inventory of resources, and deciding on a way forward. Planning for not planning. Old habits die hard!

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  12. I am an habitual tracker, and I completely see your point. There should be a 12-step program for that, but that would defeat the purpose. All this tracking is just another reminder of how flawed and self-absorbed we are. Some days, all I see are numbers: how many calories I consumed, minutes I exercised, dollars I have and hours I worked. I have forgotten how to be any other way and am not sure if there was ever a time when things were different. From an early age, children are graded and taught to live life within time slots. No wonder we’ve all gotten comfortable with technology. We are becoming more and more like robots ourselves.

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    1. Hi Gail. What I’ve found and am likely repeating here, is that the tools to make my life better often start seeming like life itself, as if tracking has its own merit. As you say, we’re so accustomed to being rated, graded, judged, and measured that as technology takes over those functions, we barely protest.
      I keep thinking about how they are trying to use AI to create works of art. What differentiates art or writing or music done by a computer from that done by a human? Mistakes, happy errors of discovery., glorious imperfection. How does that apply to us engineering our lives? I feel like there is no greater joy than organic discovery, but if we are fitting ourselves into externally developed frameworks (steps, calories, time management), where is the room for that to happen?

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  13. I’ve had a smartwatch since 2015. I love it, because it vibrates when I get calls or text messages, which is helpful when teaching. My steps feed into Pokemon Go, which “rewards” my steps with game progress. How many steps? I have no idea. I used to pay attention, for bragging rights, but it’s been years. These things are inexact anyway. Am I winded climbing stairs? Maybe I should get up off my ass more. Or move somewhere without stairs. My choice, no cha-ching. 🙂

    Btw, your writing is amazing. Fluid and calm. Interesting (in a good way!) word choices. It’s a pleasure to read.

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    1. Thanks, Shelley. And sorry for the delayed response. This has been a month of juggling. I always think these devices are very good early on for self-education, but at some point, they’re just something gnawing at the back of one’s mind. I think I’m getting to the point where useless data is replacing important things like “did I pay my property taxes?” or “where are my car keys?”.

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  14. There’s something about entering that final third of life that promotes a new level of reflection, isn’t there?! I did get a new running watch with better wrist-based heart rate monitor …. which is helping me focus on listening to my body rather than the pace or the miles … it has been wonderfully freeing, although it sounds inconsistent, to commit to a heart rate training plan for a half marathon this fall after swearing off that distance a couple years ago (because of the unfounded pressures I was putting on myself, largely due to data and what others claim it should be) — interestingly, this shift has helped me approach running differently and with gratitude for what my body can do in its 50’s, versus lamenting what it cannot …

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    1. Kat, you’re always so ambitious – put the rest of us middle-aged couch pumpkins to shame! I have to admit, I was feeling pretty smug about my heart rate monitor, since my resting heart rate is low – but that’s likely a measure of genetics and not a reflection of my fitness level! I’m slowly returning to running, but also running slowly. I’ll probably do a 5K or two next year with friends, but not in any competitive sense. Best wishes (and joy) in your running endeavors!

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