The urge to track and its dark roots

I’m on day 5 of not tracking and I’m finding it really hard.  I feel both demotivated and agitated, unmoored and vaguely guilty. Of course I am tracking in my head – how many calories does this have? How many miles does that add up to? It’s the worst of both worlds. The mental preoccupation persists while the clean, reliable records have disappeared. I am very tempted to give in, but I have great perseverance and willpower in everything that I do, so this is no exception.

The bigger question, that I have asked myself – and that anyone who self-tracks should ask themselves – where does this need to track come from? Yes, there are of course objective reasons, healthy lifestyle, concrete goals, small steps. But frankly, that’s mostly hogwash in my instance. My lifestyle would be plenty healthy without tracking.

Here are some candidate reasons:

I’ve tried to remember the times in my life when I was most obsessed by the need to track, and there’s definitely a pattern to this. Early puberty. Just after I ran away. After I quit my regular job and went freelance. Well, basically any time my life took a risky, uncertain turn, where matters outside my control could have created havoc in my life. And in retrospect it’s easy to figure out: I track to give myself a sense of control, impose some kind of imaginary order on my life. Tracking gives me the sense that I’m piloting a plane and all the instruments and indicators are telling me it’s a smooth flight. That no matter what life throws at me, I can handle it, as long as the metrics stay within range. It’s a method of self-soothing, it’s a safety blanket.

It also means that I’ve tied my mental health to walking, calories and money, which is crazy and I know it. I’ve never been able to accept the idea of weighing more than 126 pounds or so. For me, it would mean being out of control, and projecting a sense of out-of-controlness to the outside world, like people would look at me think that I didn’t have my shit together. Thin-ness and being in control of my life are one and the same to me. I know that this must sound utterly ridiculous to 99.9% of the world. Especially since 126 lbs is still only a BMI of 19, barely not underweight. I once tried to put on a little bit of weight, based on a lot of reading of a couple of health blogs and worries about actually damaging my health by being so light. And I did it for a total of three days ’til I broke down, and in those three days I totally cancelled out the effects by walking like a maniac.

The other reason is sort of related but a bit more generational. My mother was a bit of a tracker too. She had her neat books in which she wrote down all her expenditures. She comes from a family that experienced a number of major collapses in their life. Lost their homes, status, belonging, countries, money and ideological frameworks in the great depression and the second world war, which must have left them with a strong urge to hang on and protect what little they had left, to fear change and to embrace control – a belief that if you count everything you have, it won’t get taken from you.

Finally, perhaps because I have few other rituals and relatively little structure in my life (freelancing, again), doing my regular tracking and analysis in the morning and evening gives me a bit of a grid and a framework for the day, almost like a little prayer.

So, in order to alleviate my anxiety and restlessness I need to find replacement activities, new rituals, other ways of satisfying the needs that tracking satisfied. Finding those activities and rituals will be a big part of why I am doing this blog. It should be an interesting journey.

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2 thoughts on “The urge to track and its dark roots

  1. Mental health, walking, tracking and control. You sort of summed me up here… and it made me a little sad reading it.. and a little relieved, I think, maybe.
    Great blog – you’re braver than I ever was, and I’ve been tracking for many many years. Good luck!

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