Person sleeping with Zs above them

Why I Think Sleep Tracking is Dumb

Sleep++ showing 95percent restful sleepI’m one of the lucky people who sleeps extremely well. Many years ago I established with Steve what we called the Rule of Nine Hours. That rule said he was not allowed to awaken me until I had slept 9 hours and it was after 9am. One day he decided to see what would happen if he simply didn’t awaken me at all. He gave up waiting after 12 hours.

I tell you this so you’ll immediately dismiss what I’m about to say because I clearly cannot understand or be sympathetic to those who have trouble sleeping. That may or may not be true but I hope you read on anyway if only so you can argue with me when I’m done.

I love metrics. I love the process of measuring and I love looking at the data and analyzing it. I love the whole “quantified self” craze especially as it relates to health. You’ve heard me drone on and on about counting steps, counting calories burned, counting stands and more.

I loved it at work and I love it at home now. Nothing better than a good survey in my book. Figuring out what questions to ask and analyzing the results and figuring out an action plan. I live by the words of Peter Drucker, “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.”

I took a metrics class at work that had a huge impression on me. The instructor talked about being intelligent about what you measure. He said to imagine you’re trying to lose weight. What do all of us measure to accomplish that goal? We weigh ourselves. As you and I all know, weighing yourself has absolutely zero effect on whether or not you lose weight. Heck, I tried weighing myself twice a day for a while to see if it helped.

He said that instead, you have to measure those things that effect the desired change, not the change itself. In his example, measuring calories burned and calories consumed will allow you to see what’s causing the change in weight, up or down. I believe that if you measure those values, just having the precise knowledge will make you change your behavior, either by consumption or burning of calories.

In the weight example, if you simply weigh yourself and “try to eat less and exercise more”, you’ll have no long term success. In fact, many people believe that you can exercise your way to weight loss. If you measure both values, you’ll find that you have to exercise for an awfully long time to be able to eat that pizza you want. With measurement you learn to balance the two values.

Not measuring the input and output in order to affect weight would be like trying to get out of debt by measuring how far into debt you are each month. Without knowing on what things you spend your money and how much you earn, it would be ludicrous to think that your debt would go down, wouldn’t it?

You should measure your weight (and check your debt balance) but only in order to track progress.

So that takes us finally to sleep tracking. We have these fancy gadgets that will measure how well we sleep. It’s really cool and fun to measure. I did it once and it was fascinating. I could see where I tossed and turned, when I got up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, and what percentage of good sleep I got. The insomniacs who are still reading will be angry when they see that I got a 95% restful sleep night.

But let’s say I wasn’t so lucky, and the chart showed a restless night. Isn’t that just like weighing myself? While fascinating to look at in a narcissistic way, because everything I do is fascinating to me, what will it do towards helping me to sleep better? Can I look at it and say, “clearly I need to stop waking up at 3am and lying awake until 4:30!” Well sure I can but how do I make that happen?

Just like with weight control being managed by measuring calories in and out, and money spent and earned, it seems to me that we need ways to measure what causes poor or better sleep. I’m no sleepologist, but I’m betting that those professions have figured out what affects sleep. I’ve heard a lot about not using bright screens right before bed, not drinking, avoiding certain foods, etc, but I’ve not seen apps that give you a way to measure and thus improve those things. And maybe it’s because those things affect people in different ways, so there’s no definitive thing like calories burned to measure.

If you want to measure your sleep and you enjoy it, I say go for it and have some fun. Sleep++ from is a terrific free app for it. But don’t think that measuring your sleep will have any effect on how well you sleep in the future.

Arguments expected and encouraged.

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