De-quantifying my life

by Sunita

Liz has a great post about quantified reading and the stress it can induce when we set goals for things that are supposed to be enjoyable. I commented there, but I kept thinking about the ways in which tracking and quantification of everyday habits has permeated the lives of so many of us. Part of it is human nature; making “best of” lists and remembering things in relation to other things is enjoyable. But these tendencies are exacerbated by incentives to make money off them. It isn’t new, of course: Cosmo was doing “10 best ways to put the spark back in your relationship” before I was old enough to have sparky relationships. But it’s so much more pervasive now because of the need for content that generates ad clicks and the technological advances that let us keep track of everything.

I started doing reading challenges a few years ago. The original idea was to help me track my reading and to expand my range of reading material. After several years of participating in Romancelandia and especially while reviewing for Dear Author I was reading romance almost exclusively, and newly released romance novels at that. I missed the other genres, but a steady diet of short, easy-to-digest genre fiction had reduced my ability to read longer and more complex work. Reading challenges like PopSugar gave me a way to branch out and feel like I was accomplishing something.

This approach was helpful in getting me back to reading a wider variety of fiction, and the Mt. TBR and Harlequin challenges highlighted the discrepancy between what I was reading and the books that were piling up unread because I couldn’t resist a new release or a sale. But they also stressed me out: would I make my TBR challenge goal, how many books would I read, how many underrepresented authors was I reading, etc. etc. Not meeting a number, however arbitrarily that number had been chosen, seemed like a failure. A small failure, but still a failure.

Reading isn’t the only area in which I’ve quantified some quotidian aspect of my life. Like most women I’ve counted calories, tracked everything I’ve eaten, and generally made food a focus of scrutiny. I lost the most weight (and kept it off) when I stopped doing that, and I haven’t dieted in any meaningful way in years. But I still get the urge to do so, especially when I put on a few pounds or see yet another “easy” way to track my food intake. The various hacks of apps like My Fitness Pal have helped me avoid getting back on that psychological treadmill, though.

I’ve worn a pedometer/step counter of some variety for about a decade, and currently I wear a Garmin watch. It tracks my steps, obviously, but what I like about it is that it maps my walks, hikes and runs. We used our Garmins in Wales and on the Fen Rivers Walk, and I can go back to old events and see how I’ve changed (or not) in my times, distances, etc. I stop wearing it for stretches but I mostly don’t pay attention to it unless I need it for something. I don’t feel stressed out by seeing how few steps I’ve taken on an off day, so I think it’s doing what I want without adverse effects.

The biggest de-quantification, aside from deciding to pare back my reading challenges (which I’ll talk more about in a year-end reading post), is not participating in social media. I still read a handful of Twitter feeds regularly and I visit a couple of Goodreads groups, but I finally, finally have let go of the feeling that I’m missing out by not participating. I don’t think it’s possible to be active on social media without getting swept up into the “please like and share” economy. And it is an economy. It’s about building capital, whether the specific form is financial, cultural, or personal. Sometimes it’s about actual sharing in the sense of dividing/distributing a resource, or talking to online friends and catching up on their lives, but so much of it is about amplifying messages that are most effective when they are emotional and negative.

It’s ironic that I’m back to blogging and enjoying it, because blogging in the old days was definitely part of social media and had all the quantification attributes that the popular platforms have now. People blogged to develop a media portfolio, to reach a larger audience than they could in face-to-face life, to get a book contract, to become internet-famous. But now that blogging is unfashionable and back to being under the radar, most people who blog don’t do it for the clicks. Quantified blogging will make you depressed, whereas unquantified blogging is its own reward.

So what has de-quantification given me? More time, definitely. I rarely go down internet rabbit holes anymore, and when I do, it’s relatively self-conscious; I need a zone-out break, or I’m too tired to to anything more interactive. But I also have much more relaxed and introspective mental stretches. I can sit and do nothing but think. I can read without getting distracted. I walk without pulling out my phone, let alone looking at it. I let thoughts, ideas, worries roll around in my head without trying to shut them off. It’s not always easy to be with my thoughts, but overall I’m less frantic. I count that as a win.