Boring tech saves lives

Without getting into a sad personal story, suffice to say that I’ve had my share of mental health issues over the years (mainly anxiety and depression), and that has been a major source of struggle throughout my life.

Every few years, I’d end up in an urgent care facility, convinced that I was about to have a heart attack, or a stroke, or something else, you name it. This would lead to a chain of doctors visits, blood tests, etc. These would usually reveal a few things: high blood pressure that could be managed with lifestyle changes, carrying around about 50 pounds of excess weight, terrible eating and sleeping habits, terrible stress management, and… not a whole lot else.

The doctors would give me a lifestyle management plan and also encourage me to enter therapy. I’d make some small changes to lifestyle for a few weeks, promise myself “I’ll go to therapy if I can’t fix this myself”, and then somehow manage to kick the can down the road another couple years. I’d never get to the point where I felt good, only to the point where I felt “Not terrible” and could be productive again.

This was a vicious cycle for me, one that culminated in me hitting the worst anxiety/depression symptoms I’ve ever had throughout the winter of last year and into early this year. This time, I did finally throw my hands up in the air and get myself some therapy.

This post is not about that. It’s about one of the concrete things that my therapist encouraged me to do, and that was to find a way to systematize as much as I could about the lifestyle changes I wanted to make.

This nudge from my therapist initially lead me to pick up a Fitbit for tracking sleep, exercise, and daily steps. Further nudging got me in to see a nutritionist, and she recommended that I start using MyFitnessPal for tracking my daily food intake.

These two applications are in about the most technically uncomplicated domains as they come. They’re basically just logging systems for tracking some simple numbers and putting them into context. But I can honestly say, they’ve been a huge part of what has rescued me from what felt like the edge of oblivion.

These tools are both very well designed. They make boring stuff easy, and then reward you with very clear insights into what their data means in terms of impact on your life.

MyFitnessPal will tell you things like “If you ate like this every day, you can expect to weigh X pounds by DATE.”

The Fitbit will tell you “Based on your typical sleep patterns, it looks like a good bedtime would be around TIME, assuming you want to sleep X amount of hours and wake up at TIME. Should I automatically set a silent alarm to remind you to go to bed at night, and to wake you up in the morning?”

The feeling that you’re accountable to a system and not to some vague promise to yourself, and that the system will support you in sustaining your goals is very powerful. But then things go even farther when you start to use these tools as accountability measures.

When my therapist asks me “How has your sleep been lately?”, it’s much harder to over-or-underestimate in my response, to spin things in some direction either out of a desire to protect self-image or just because I’m minimizing or maximizing my own perception of things. The information is right there: I’ve been sleeping less than six hours a night on average, or I’ve been sleeping at least 7.5 hours a day, whatever it is.

When my nutritionist reviews my progress and meal plans, it’s not this vague question of “Well, what in general would you say that you eat day to day?” … she has a complete record of everything I’ve consumed in the past month, and can get daily/weekly/monthly summaries of that information.

Being accountable in this way makes it so that I question my choices myself, before I have to explain them to anyone else. There is this feeling of someone looking over your shoulder, simply because you’re generating this paper trail as you go about your daily life. Some may feel constrained by that sort of thing… I feel empowered by it. It’s as if I have a very powerful early warning system which will start setting off all the alarm bells long before I reach the danger zone with my daily habits.

But looked at from another angle… a Fitbit is just an expensive pedometer/heart rate monitor. MyFitnessPal is just a calorie counting diary. Boring tech. Boring problem domain.

But isn’t it the boring things that we’re often most neglectful of, even when those boring things end up being critically important to our well being? Isn’t it the boring things that we need the most help with… the things that benefit the most from smooth running, well designed technological systems?

Big, complicated, moonshot-like technological problems may be attractive to some. For my part, elegant solutions to simple and common problems are every bit as inspiring.

If you have questions or thoughts to share, open an issue in my “Ask Me Anything” repository on Github, or email gregory@practicingdeveloper.com.