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Spiritual Lessons From My Fitbit

I received a Fitbit as a gift for Christmas. I knew a little about this data-collecting device you wear on your wrist—that it counts how many steps you take, tracks your heart rate, measures how many calories you expend, etc.—but I had no idea just how popular these “activity tracker” devices are.

In fact, the Fitbit and similar products (such as Jawbone UP and Nike Fuelband) are part of the “Quantified Self” movement, first proposed by Wired magazine editors in 2007 as “a collaboration of users and tool makers who share an interest in self-knowledge through self-tracking.”

Nothing new about that. Socrates famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Benjamin Franklin tracked 13 personal virtues, and Jonathan Edwards developed a list of 70 spiritually centered “resolutions,” which he vowed to read once a week.  I’m certain Socrates, Franklin, and Edwards would have worn a Fitbit had one been available to them.

Still, when you read about the reverent ways people describe the potential for self-improvement offered by these little electronic wristbands and the apps that accompany them, it does give you pause. In a blog, “The Beginner’s Guide to the Quantified Self,” Mark Moschel writes in ethereal, almost spiritual terms about “the adventurous and curious spirit of self-trackers.”

Moschel calls himself a “self-quantifier,” and envisions a time when he will control his own health and modify his behaviors to “optimize the length and quality” of his life. And he’s not alone. Fitbit users can share their results with others in typical social media fashion. I don’t share my data, but I don’t doubt that Fitbit is collecting my information just the same. And just what are they doing with my steps, calories, and heart beats? Moschel fairly gushes when he talks about it:

As data from people around the world are aggregated, explored, and decoded into bits of knowledge, imagine the discoveries that become possible, the mysteries of the human experience that can be solved. With our hands at our sides and our eyes open, our world becomes that much brighter.

And I thought I just got a Fitbit. I had no idea I was making the world a better, brighter place.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not looking for some kind of “dark side” to my Fitbit and the larger Quantified Self movement. But I am fascinated by the spiritual terminology that’s being used to describe something people have been doing rather benignly for centuries, albeit without the aid of technology.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with self-improvement. Indeed, you could make a case that the Bible encourages self-examination (see 1 Corinthians 11:28 and 1 Thessalonians 5:21).  In so many ways we all fall short of being the people God wants us to be, and unless we engage in some sort of self-monitoring, we may never improve.

But when we make activity itself the goal, we end up holding ourselves to an unrealistic standard, and eventually we lose interest. A new study called “The Hidden Cost of Personal Quantification” by Duke professor Jordan Etkin suggests as much. When we focus only on performance and “the quantitative outcomes” of our activities, Etkin suggests, “it sucks the fun out of activities we previously enjoyed, which makes us enjoy them less and be less likely to keep doing them in the future.”

Etkin is writing about the effects of activity trackers, but she could very well be talking about spiritual disciplines. When we make activity itself the goal—when we obsess over how many times we read the Bible, pray, or go to church—all the “fun” gets sucked out of the activities we should be enjoying, and we’re less likely to keep doing them in the future.

So what’s the answer? I have two suggestions. First, stop “quantifying.” By that, I don’t mean never keep track of your activities. Self-obsession isn’t healthy, but self-awareness is a good thing. We all need some kind of measurement to track our progress. After a few weeks of adjusting to my Fitbit, I’ve found that when I check my results at the end of the day rather than obsessing over it throughout the day, I am much more relaxed and likely to keep up my activities. In fact, having some knowledge about activities I never used to track has helped me balance my activity.

As far as my life with God goes, I have found over the years that setting some goals—such reading the Bible through in a year and making a list of people I want to pray for—helps me stay focused on what I need to do to make progress in my desire to please and glorify God. But I don’t obsess over these. If I miss a day of Bible reading or don’t pray for people like I should, I don’t beat myself up. I ask God for help (or forgiveness if I’ve been overly negligent), and then do my best to improve tomorrow.

My second suggestion is to start “enjoying.” If I use my Fitbit as a means rather than an end, I find myself enjoying physical activity more. And do we have to even debate the part that joy plays in the Christian life? The Shorter Westminster Catechism states, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” In Psalm 16 King David writes,

You will make known to me the path of life;                                                                                                       you will fill me with joy in your presence,                                                                                                          with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

Notice that David doesn’t “quantify” his praise by adding “if I obsess over my spiritual activities.” Yes, there are things we can do to please God, but trying harder for trying sake won’t increase our enjoyment of God. If anything, it will suck the joy out of our relationship with him.

Whether your goal is to improve your physical condition or mature spiritually (or both…hopefully), think about quantifying less and enjoying more. In my experience, that’s the best way to make the world a better, brighter place.

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Stan's entire life has been wrapped in content: selling, writing and publishing books and resources that help ordinary people capture a glimpse of extraordinary things.