Sleep Tracking is Stupid

I purposely wrote a clickbait title of “Sleep Tracking is Stupid” for two reasons. One, because it’s fun to rile people up, but more importantly that within some specific parameters, I believe that statement to be true.

Sleep study
Real Sleep Studies Aren’t Stupid

As you poise your fingers over your keyboard to send me hate mail explaining why I’m stupid, let me take some time to explain why I say this. And I’ll start by setting one major parameter. If you’ve gone to the hospital and done an overnight sleep study where they stick electrodes all over you to monitor your brain waves, breathing and movement, that’s not stupid at all. Those tests are designed to diagnose serious problems like Sleep Apnea and are no joke.

What I’m complaining about today is how everyone wants devices like the Apple Watch to track their sleep. Here’s why I think it’s dumb. Tracking your sleep on little graphs on your phone is not going to help you sleep better, because they only tell you something you already know and does nothing to reveal the root cause of your sleep problems.

Let me give an analogy to help explain what I mean. Let’s imagine you want to lose weight. Before you step on a scale, you already know that you are heavier than you desired. You may have been deluding yourself about how bad things actually are, but your pants are tight, you’ve lengthened your seatbelt, and it has been getting harder to reach down to tie your shoes.

If you want to lose weight, you can weigh your every single day for a month and you’re not likely to lose any weight at all. That’s because the scale is only telling you the results of other behaviors. It is not the root cause. I proved this with a very scientific experiment. Years ago I tried weighing myself twice a day and I still didn’t lose weight.

Sleep tracking is just like weighing yourself. It will not help you to sleep better. It very likely will be valuable in measuring progress towards a better night’s sleep (just like a scale can show progress in weight loss), but the problem is that there’s no root cause measurement to go along with it.

To lose weight, we have two tools. Like a checkbook can measure how much we spend and how much we earn and allow us to balance the two, we can measure our intake of calories and our output of energy. Awesome apps like Lose It and My Fitness Pal allow us to enter the foods we eat to measure our caloric intake. They make it easier than ever to be as accurate as possible. The great thing about these apps is that even if you lie to yourself about your portion sizes, recording your intake every day will be relative over time as you improve your own behavior.

On the flip side, we have devices like the Apple Watch which will measure our caloric burn. You can argue whether these values are precisely accurate, but again the importance is the relative change. If your watch measures an increase in caloric burn because of the exercise you’ve begun or extended, then you know you’re moving in the right direction.

As with the checkbook, you balance the two until you’re burning more than you’re consuming. And then the results are measured with the scale (or a tape measure if that’s what’s important to you.). The critical pieces to the equation are the caloric intake and the caloric burn. The scale or tape measure is only the verification of your success.

So let’s get back to sleep tracking. I can recharge my watch in the evening so I can wear it at night and track my sleep. If I do that, it’s just like weighing myself. I see people say all the time, “Because of sleep tracking I know I should go to bed earlier.” Really? That concept totally escaped your understanding until a little device told you about it?

Unlike losing (or gaining) weight, we don’t have empirical equations that tell us how to sleep more. Maybe for me, having a glass of red wine before bed helps me sleep, but it causes disruption in your sleep. I like to read before bed, specifically because it makes me sleepy, blue light or no. You, on the other hand, may be highly affected by having your brain stimulated with a book. Maybe you can drink coffee all evening long, but I can only drink caffeine in the morning or I’m jittery all night and could never sleep after coffee.

I’ve made this argument to many people in real life. Not one person who likes sleep tracking thinks I’m right. They all argue with me, and leave the discussion thinking I’m short-sighted. I’ve been wrong before so while I do leave the option open, I don’t think I’m wrong on this one.

One of the arguments I hear when I ask why someone tracks their sleep (in spite of my clearly articulated arguments about how it’s stupid), they often answer, “Because it’s interesting.” And I think that’s the crux of it.

The term quantified self is common today and it means our absolute delight and fascination with anything that tells us about ourselves. I can prove we all feel this way. When you blow your nose, do you often look at the tissue afterward? I bet you do, even if you’d never admit it publicly. There are other examples of this that we’ll skip over for the sake of decency.

Because of our fascination with ourselves, sleep tracking is interesting. I have tracked my sleep and the results were fascinating. Just as fascinating as I think my own dreams are to other people. Because everything about me is fascinating.

If you’d like to track your sleep, go for it and enjoy it. Revel in the intricacies of seeing that you got up at 3:48 am to go potty and pretend you never would have realized that if the app hadn’t told you. When you feel exhausted in the morning from a restless night’s sleep, be sure to check your app to be sure that your feelings of exhaustion are warranted.

But until we have tools and evidence to explain what causes each one of us to be robbed of a peaceful night’s slumber, sleep tracking is stupid. Ooh, look! David Smith has an app called Sleep++! I’ve gotta buy that!

10 thoughts on “Sleep Tracking is Stupid

  1. Steve Sheridan - October 4, 2019

    Poking the hornets’ nest, Allison?

  2. Lindsay - October 4, 2019

    I’m interested in the argument that knowing you’re sleep tracking makes you go to bed earlier. I feel like that kind of equates to use of a Fitbit. The simple act of forcing yourself to wear that device makes you focus on it more. While you probably can’t force yourself to sleep “better” throughout the night, I would probably agree with them that it would make them go to bed earlier, and thus possibly get more sleep. Yes, that concept could get away from me unless I have a little device hooked up to me to guilt me into it 🙂 ps I’ve never sleep tracked or even thought about it, but you got me thinking!

  3. Eric - October 6, 2019

    Allison, as a sleep tech, I applaud your analysis. People who have symptoms of restless leg or sleep apnea should get checked out in a lab. Other sleep tracking is fun, but doesn’t really change outcomes. As long as you don’t drink Mountain Dew before you go to bed (seen it), eat hot wings in bed (seen it), or get wasted before you g to bed (saw it Thursday night), besides giving yourself enough time to sleep (very few people do) there is very little we can do to affect our sleep.

    That said, some doctors and insurance companies will be moving patients to sleep testing using Apple Watch over the next few years because it will save time and money. In-lab studies and even the home tests are clunky and patients often struggle to adjust to the change in their environment that the study adds. We affect the test by testing. The Apple Watch will be a perfect solution…once Apple adds the needed accoutrement for testing restless leg, blood O2, and breathing patterns. It is inevitable like self-driving cars.

  4. George - October 7, 2019

    Quoting Lindsay: “I would probably agree with them that it would make them go to bed earlier . . . ”

    Isn’t this really a matter of discipline? As Eric suggests, Mountain Dew (lots of caffeine and boodles of sugar) as a bedtime toddy is likely to impede good sleep. All that water you’ve set goals to drink during the day? When your water app alerts you to drink more to reach your goal, and you do that shortly before bedtime, it’s not only your kidneys that will be flushing; all that rolling over while trying to fall back asleep to avoid the inevitable trip to the loo disrupts good sleep.

    Vibrant dreams make you restless? It may be those hot-wings Eric mentions you ate just before turning out the light.

    Realize you’re not getting enough sleep because you’re staying up too late? Set an old fashioned not-internet connected alarm clock to bingle your “it’s time to wind up the day alert.” Having trouble breaking the hot-wings and Mountain Dew habit before trying to sleep? Have some replacement snacks and drinks at hand that don’t keep you awake. No watch or app required.

    I’d like to add that what would make me sleep deprived is knowing just how those “fitness” and “diet” and “sleep” apps are a digital firehose blasting your most intimate personal information into the hands of app developers and, likely, “related” companies. And I do mean, most intimate: it is the bedroom . . .

  5. Allister - October 7, 2019

    If sleep trackers “only tell you something you already know” then the heart rate recovery feature of Apple Watch, the Screen Time reports on your iOS devices, your Fitbit, and yes, even your Activity stats are all in the same boat. You know when your heart rate recovers because you can feel it, or stick a finger on your wrist to be sure. You know how long you spend looking at your screens — most of them have a clock on them and if not, there’s an Apple Watch on your wrist. You know how far you walked, how long you exercised for, how often you stood, and much, much more — IF you decide to pay attention to those things and record them.

    Personally, if my devices didn’t track all that, I’d maybe be only vaguely aware of any of those quantities, as I’m usually focusing on other things. I’m also usually not paying attention when I sleep. Notwithstanding the accuracy of sleep tracking apps (and there’s a BIG question mark over the accuracy of many of those other stats), they measure when you actually sleep and whether it’s deep sleep or light sleep (or indeed the technical terms for those) and whether you wake in the night. As someone who does have trouble sleeping, I can’t tell you in the morning how many times I woke up any more than I can recall the details of my dreams.

    You also say that the sleep trackers don’t tell you what to do about poor sleep. I’m pretty sure that, for the most part, the Activity tracker doesn’t tell you any more than “go for a walk” or (duh) “stand up.” There’s nothing in the Activity tracker to tell you to consume more or less calories. That’s something you learned. You can also learn to do things about sleep, which I did by talking to my doctor. Here are some things I know work for me: keep the room as dark as possible, do something relaxing before you turn out the light (like reading, but not a horror novel), have a hot milky drink (no caffeine please) about 2 hours before you intend to sleep.

    How do I know those things work for me? Well, it’s just a feeling, really. I’m still tired, but I feel that I’m spending less time awake during the night. So by the same approach, you don’t need to track your expended calories because you feel like you’ve done an honest day’s exercise, right? You’re pretty sure you stood at least twelve times during the day, you felt fine shortly after your workout, and you didn’t use your phone or iPad too much at all.

    Does sleep tracking “work?” I say it works as much as calorie, step, heart rate, weight, and screen time tracking work. The problem you have is, as you put it yourself, you don’t have equations.

  6. Allison Sheridan - October 8, 2019

    I don’t see it this way at all, Allister. Without a way to measure, we are far too delusional to actually know whether we got enough exercise or whether we ate too much. We know when we were seriously stupid (ate a whole chocolate cake) but not that those nuts we put on our salad dramatically increased the caloric content.

    I never said that tracking JUST activity made sense. I said you have to track both.

    If we only had scales (or tape measures) I would (and did) say that’s stupid. but because we have measures for the caloric intake and output, the scale has value because it gives us a closed-loop system to ensure we’re working at it hard enough.

    If sleep tracking has companion apps to track the sources of lack of slumber, then sleep tracking ISN’T stupid. But it’s the input to the equation that matters.

    You did the right thing going to your doctor to ask how to sleep better, but from what you’ve said you’re still tired. Is sleep tracking helping you be less tired? Evidently not.

    Your bottom line is that sleep tracking “works” as well as calorie, step heart rate, weight work because we don’t have equations. That’s categorically wrong about calories and weight. We have the equation. If you burn more calories than you consume, you lose weight. Subtract one number from the other. That’s the equation.

    We don’t have any such equations for sleep tracking. We have vague guidelines that may or may not work for people.

    By the way, stay tuned – in next week’s show we’re going to have a rebuttal to me that is pretty compelling.

  7. Allister Jenks - October 8, 2019

    I think we’re missing each other on a fundamental level.

    Calorie burn tracking works. Calorie intake tracking works. Combining calorie burn tracking and calorie intake tracking in an equation is a good approximation to make weight loss (or gain) happen. I say sleep tracking works because it tracks sleep (notwithstanding the accuracy of current tools). Sleep tracking, on its own, does not make sleep improvement happen. I think your position that “sleep tracking is dumb” is better explained as “Only tracking your sleep does not help you improve it.”

    Incidentally, I don’t do sleep tracking. I tried it but found the discomfort of wearing a watch in bed, plus the charging regime required, made it untenable for me. If those problems were solved (and one may have been by the Milanese loop!) then I would absolutely do it.

  8. Pete - March 31, 2021

    I disagree with the notion that sleep tracking is the same as step (or calorie) tracking. Step tracking gives you data against which you can proactively make adjustments. 30,000 steps last week? Let’s do 40,000 this week! I can make an effort to go out and walk those steps. Not to mention the fact that there’s no other way to count those steps.

    On the other hand, I may want to set a goal of sleeping 7 hours tonight because I slept 6.463 hours last night, but I can’t force myself to sleep more. Yes, I could go to bed earlier, but a) that doesn’t guarantee I’ll actually sleep more, and b) do I really need a $300 piece of tech to tell me that? How about, if I wake up tired, I’ll start going to sleep earlier.

    I code for a living, so I consider myself quite tech-forward, but sleep trackers are a solution looking for a problem (and millions of suckers).

  9. podfeet - March 31, 2021

    Pete — You’re actually agreeing with me 100%! Sleep tracking is like weighing yourself, not like counting calories. It’s a result, not a root cause. As the follow-up article by Jill from the North Woods points out, sleep tracking can be useful but only if it’s paired with tools to measure the root cause. Unfortunately, there don’t appear to be many good tools to do this. Jill did discover that she woke up at the exact same time every night and finally set an alarm to wake herself up before that time to try to figure out what was causing it, and it was some device in her house where she could control the timing.

    It’s an interesting read:

  10. sarah - December 19, 2023

    Thanks for challenging the status quo and encouraging us to think beyond the numbers!

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