Measurement is Not the Goal (and Sleep Anxiety is Real)

This weekend, over post-dinner drinks, a friend and I got into a discussion about sleep.

It’s not unusual for me. The discussion typically starts with a question about my watch, which is a cheap Garmin (vivoactive 1), but resembles an Apple Watch.

They ask how I like it, and I tell them it’s great, but I actually don’t like the smart watch features. I use it for tracking running, cycling, and sleep. And these days, it’s mostly sleep tracking.

The sleep tracking functions of this particular watch are all movement based. They’re rudimentary. But I like having it anyway, and that was the most advanced technology available at the time.

This led us to discussing the quirky things we do for good sleep.

Improving Sleep

For her, it was custom-moulded earplugs and a mouthpiece. The earplugs were the sleep aid she valued most.

For me, the list is much longer. 

I’ve talked before about what I do to get the best sleep possible.

Earplugs are part of it, though I don’t have custom moulded ones (yet).

I black out all my windows.

I have a light alarm clock, and overhead lights that slowly get brighter in the morning.

Sometimes I play white noise on my speaker overnight.

I have a heater attached to a smart plug to warm up the room in the morning.

I’ve gone as far as attempting to measure the perfect amount of water to keep you hydrated, yet not wake you up having to pee through the night.

Recently, I added an air quality monitor to my room to measure temperature, humidity, CO2, VOC and dust levels, in an attempt to further isolate the variables associated with good sleep.

But what if those things don’t matter?

Tracking Sleep

In theory, these factors affect sleep quality. We all know how poorly we sleep when it’s too hot or too cold, or when it’s very humid, or very dry.

My aim has been to improve each area, with the goal of consistently better sleep.

The problem is that the tracking technology I currently use doesn’t allow me to verify the result of these changes.

There are better trackers available - I’m interested in both WHOOP and Oura, and have plans to try them both - but I don’t have them now. And I didn’t when I tracked my sleep over the past two years.

So what’s the point? Is there a downside?

Turns out, those are good questions.

Peter Attia, an MD well-known in self-quantification circles, is an amateur endurance athlete, and a geek about this stuff.

He’s an investor in Oura, and has previously spoken about how his Oura ring and his continuous glucose monitor are the two devices he uses, because the data he gets from them is actionable.

For the rest of us though, what if we can’t track sleep with anything more than a Fitbit? Is it worth worrying so much about our sleep?

My friend argued that worrying about sleep could have negative consequences. It’s like focusing on the clock when you want time to pass quickly - it makes it worse.

Turns out, she could be right.

The Science Behind Sleep Trackers

In a recently published case study, authors noted that the data from many of the most common sleep trackers - Fitbits, Apple Watches, and the like (including my Garmin watch) - don’t actually correlate with more proven methods of monitoring sleep.

Furthermore, there was an increase in sleep anxiety among patients who started using them.

I don’t worry too much about my sleep. 

But the downside of any routine is that when the routine is broken, it can cause anxiety that wouldn’t have existed without a routine in the first place.

The danger is that you worry about the sleep score on your device, which may not be accurate.

And there is some anecdotal evidence for this. For example, I know that personally, some of my best sleep happens after a long evening on the water. When I get back, I fall asleep as I hit the pillow, and wake up fully refreshed.

On a typical work day, that rarely happens.

Do I think it’s because of the lack of focus on sleep tracking? No. There are other factors in that example that affect sleep quality.

Exposure to sunlight and sunset helps balance my circadian rhythm. Physical activity on the water tires me out. I’m not getting the blue light that supposedly disrupts those same patterns, because I’m not looking at screens before bed.  And if I’m on the water, I’m often in Nova Scotia, where there is little ambient noise, aside from the sound of the ocean or the forest.

Measurement is Not the Goal

Many of us who love new technology and new data forget that measurement is not the end goal.

The goal is to make changes that improve outcomes, and to measure those outcomes to verify. 

In this case, the goal is to improve sleep, and to figure out what changes lead to that outcome.

If we can figure out the small changes that make a large difference to our sleep - making sure that the room is dark, wearing earplugs in the city, or avoiding blue light before bed - then we don’t need to keep measuring. We don’t have to keep worrying. We just need to do.

So before you start measuring anything with your sleep, ask yourself, “is this going to lead to something actionable? Is the data I’m gathering valid?”

If not, you may not want to start measuring at all.

You might also enjoy this post: 10 Things I Do to Sleep Better