When — and When Not — To Use Real-Time Data and Tracking
The combination of fast-improving, affordable technology and the popularization of Moneyball — the Michael Lewis book turned blockbuster movie chronicling how baseball’s Oakland Athletics used a data-driven approach to win the American League pennant — has resulted in the “scientification” and “complexification” of performance in many fields. Today, there are trackers that measure everything: sleep, steps, heart-rate, heart-rate variability, power, oxygen saturation, words-written, pages read, and even time spent browsing social media. For many, these trackers guide, or even dictate, how we approach our respective crafts — and in some cases, our entire lives.
Although I take no issue with measurement and informed decision making, it seems that the pendulum has swung from one extreme — what I call the art of performance (e.g., I know talent when I see it and I do everything by feel) — to another extreme — what I call the science of performance (e.g., If I can’t quantify or measure it, it must not be real). It is my belief that neither extreme is a good one.
Consider this a warning to proceed thoughtfully when using the latest and greatest scientific tracking/training/productivity device. Before you dive in blindly — which, given all the hype around data-driven performance and the “quantified self” is easier than ever to do — ask yourself a few questions:
- What do I want to measure?
- What is my end goal and will measuring XYZ help me achieve that goal?
- Am I actually measuring what I want to measure?
- Is the device I am using accurate? Unfortunately, far too often this isn’t the case. Remember: garbage in means garbage out. (For example, see this study published in JAMA Cardiology which found many wrist-worn fitness trackers can be quite far off the mark.)
- Is the additional effort required to use the device, analyze the results, and update the software worth the hassle?
- Do I know enough about whatever it is I am measuring to use it effectively? For example, the latest craze in high-performance athletics is measuring heart-rate variability (HRV) as an indicator of readiness to train. But few, if any, HRV devices tell you how to establish a baseline. Nor do they tell you when you actually want to train through a low variability, which in many ways is key to gaining fitness. In other words, measurement devices tend to make things black and white that are often grey.
- Will measuring the crap out of something take the fun out of the activity? Does counting steps suck all the joy out of taking them?
- Or, worse yet, will it actually hurt performance? If you run every workout based on pre-established scientific zones when will you break through? Are you losing sleep because you’re anxious about getting enough sleep for your sleep tracker?
Another way to think about when versus when not to go full-out scientification of performance is related to where you (or the person you coach, manage, or teach) falls on the four levels of knowledge:
If after going through the above questions and the four levels of knowledge you still feel that a data-driven, more quantified approach makes sense, then by all means go for it! I repeat loud and clear: I am NOT against science! (After all, science is kind of my M.O.) What I am against, however, is the mindless application of science. And unfortunately, I see this happening everywhere nowadays.
This is all a long-winded way of saying that when it comes relying on data, tracking, and metrics, context is key. The answer to the question, “Should I use this or that device?” is almost always, “It depends.” And what it depends on is how you answer the questions above.
In addition to this week’s post, some news that I’m excited to share with the Personal Growth Medium community.
Over the last three years, I, along with a coauthor Steve Magness, have been researching, reporting, and writing a book on the science of human performance. We’ve learned that a few common principles drive performance, regardless of the field or the task at hand. Whether someone is trying to qualify for the Olympics, break ground in mathematical theory, or craft an artistic masterpiece, many of the practices that lead to great success are the same — and they are available to anyone.
Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the News Science of Success draws upon the inspiring stories of top performers across a range of domains — from athletic to intellectual to artistic — with the latest science on the cognitive, neurochemical, and physiological factors that underlie mastery. We found that by looking beyond traditional domain-specific and academic silos, we could uncover new and universal principles that underlie all performance. And, while the stories of world-class performers bring these principles to life, they are all backed by the latest science. In other words, Peak Performance isn’t “bro-science.” It’s real science.
The book is finally available for pre-order. I hope that you check it out. You can learn more here.
Brad Stulberg writes about health and the science of human performance. He is a columnist at New York Magazine and Outside Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Bstulberg.