Why Tracking is More Productive, Less Fun

New research from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business in Durham, North Carolina, shows there are hidden costs in using gadgets to track how much we eat, sleep, and exercise.
Why Tracking is More Productive, Less Fun
IS IT SUCH A GREAT IDEA to obsess over your Fitbit? New research from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business in Durham, North Carolina, shows there are hidden costs in using gadgets to track how much we eat, sleep, and exercise. Fuqua’s Jordan Etkin found that while measuring prompts us to do more, it can make us enjoy activities less—and do less of them once we stop tracking output.

Etkin conducted six experiments to determine how measuring affects an individual’s enjoyment of certain tasks. In the first, 105 students spent ten minutes coloring simple shapes. Those who were told as they worked how many shapes they had completed were more productive. However, they colored less creatively and reported enjoying themselves less than the group whose output was not tracked.

In a second test, 95 students were asked to record their thoughts for a day while they walked—one group was offered the option to wear pedometers and check them regularly; another group wore pedometers with the display covered and told they were only testing how comfortable it was. Those who chose to track their steps walked farther but reported less enjoyment than the second group. In a tweaked version, where participants could choose whether or not to check their pedometers, those who opted to check walked farther but enjoyed it less.

Etkin replicated these results when participants completed reading tasks. Groups in one experiment read passages that described reading as either fun or educational; only some participants in each group were told how many pages they read as they went. Those prompted to think of reading as educational enjoyed the task no less as a result of tracking. However, those prompted to think of reading as fun, who also tracked their progress, found reading less enjoyable. In another study, those who could choose to track their reading were less likely to want to continue reading after a set time period had elapsed than those who didn’t.

The findings show that it’s important to be mindful about what we track and why, Etkin notes, because those who “self-select” into using trackers could hurt themselves in the long run. “We’re curious creatures, and we find tracking information very seductive, even for enjoyable activities,” she says. “We need to measure increased productivity against our underlying enjoyment. For activities people do for fun, it may be better not to know.”

“The Hidden Cost of Personal Quantification” is forthcoming in the Journal of Consumer Research.