Roughly this week a year ago, I began wearing something that changed my life. In a year of self-tracking with my Nike+ FuelBand, here’s what I’ve learned.

The first few weeks feel amazing

Ostensibly, the FuelBand is intended to motivate me to be more active. Using a combination of accelerometers it measures my motion, distinguishing between activities like running, walking, bicycling, and riding in a car. From this the band continuously calculates a measurement called Nike+ Fuel, allowing me to compare my activity to others in a consistent fashion that goes beyond simply steps or calories burned.

I’d always worn a watch on my left wrist, so wearing the FuelBand instead went virtually unnoticed. Shortly after starting I began to understand my daily activity with a new clarity. I checked the band’s beautiful display frequently for feedback. I noticed that walking or running rewarded more Fuel than I anticipated, compared to biking or working out. I was also surprised how much activity was involved in everyday actions like doing chores around the house.

I initially set my Daily Goal at 2500 Fuel, but found it far too easy to surpass at my normal activity level. To stretch myself, I raised this to 4000, where it has remained since the first week.  Nike would occasionally encourage me to go for other sorts of goals, such as a given weekly achievement, but I largely ignored these. Hitting my Daily Goal and getting achievements for 3- or 7-day streaks felt grand.

Before too long though, the novelty of seeing LED fireworks on my wrist started to fade. Other trends rose out of the data, and a story emerged.

FuelBand activity tells a story 

It’s always puzzled me that FitBit, Nike, and Jawbone market their products so aggressively as mere fitness motivators. After a few months of collecting and watching my FuelBand data, I started to use it more to observe my shifting lifestyle over greater and greater time periods.

In the chart above, you’ll notice that my average peak activity level rises beginning late February and continues through mid-April. During this period I was helping motivate my friend Carl through a round of the Insanity workout regimen, exercising with him 6 days a week to get him in beach-body shape for his honeymoon. Once this regimen wrapped up, I exercised much less consistently, and chose to walk or bike more to “compensate.” However, my average activity level dropped a good 30% in the second half of 2013.

In addition to trends over long time periods, my FuelBand became incredibly useful for visualizing my activity level on individual days versus other data streams. I often compare my daily Fuel graph to my Moves summary, for instance. You can see below that on this day I took a run in the morning, didn’t do much in the afternoon, and then hit my goal somewhere amidst the free beer haze of the ATX Startup Crawl.

Combining independent metrics like this with my normal daily journaling generally helps me achieve a broader mindfulness about my life and movement through the world. 

But what’s the point, really?

In the Quantified Self movement we are encouraged to ask “What did you learn?” in addition to What and How you learned it. I’ll be the first to admit that, while providing tremendously clear and comprehensive feedback, my FuelBand on its own largely failed to motivate me to change my habits. For instance, the FuelBand faithfully enabled me to see my aforementioned 30% drop in activity within a month. My response? Meh. I probably set my goal too high anyway. I’m good.

Gamification is often touted as a Holy Grail solution to human motivational deficiencies, lately with regards to education and especially to fitness. The whole user experience philosophy behind products like the FuelBand (and the equivalents from Jawbone and FitBit) is that knowing yourself is the key to improving yourself.

For me? Not so much. 

In my experience the FuelBand is at best a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for getting me off my ass and doing more every day. Without the FuelBand, it would certainly be easier for me to ignore my periodic lethargy. But to go above and beyond, other factors such as in-person encouragement by friends or noticing that “Wow, doing X never used to make me this tired …” impact me far more than more rarely seeing a colored bar on my wrist fill to green.


Far from giving up on wearables though, this has encouraged me to begin thinking of products like the Nike+ FuelBand in a different way. Recently the Buddhist Geeks podcast interviewed “The Quantified Man,” Chris Dancy. He had some very mature conceptions of self-tracking, and argues that wearable sensors like the FuelBand can help us in new and interesting ways once we free them from the ghetto of psuedo-effectual fitness motivation. I’ll write more on this in an upcoming post.

My FuelBand is still my favorite self-tracker so far. Unobtrusive, futuristic, and powerful, it convinced me that wearable tech could actually become a part of my everyday life.

Arm sensors have sort of become my thing ever since. I recently pre-ordered both the new Nike+ FuelBand SE and the FitBit Force and will be reviewing them head-to-head for about a month once I receive them in November. I’ve also backed both the Nymi and the Angel Sensor, due to ship next year. And of course my pair of MYO‘s are still on the way.

We’re in the early waves of all this wearable stuff. I’m still excited to see where it’s all going, and will stay on the cutting edge for the time being. 

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