Woman asleep wearing a sleep tracking watch

The Problem with Sleep Trackers

Everything runs on data now (and Dunkin’), so it’s easy to hand over the reins to a gadget or an app to find out how we’re doing.

Sleep trackers and apps come up a lot in my work with clients. Because so many people struggling with their mental health have issues with sleep, many of them have resorted to trackers and wearable tech to try to get better data about their sleep patterns.

We’ve got watches, earbuds, and rings, you name it.

In the old days, approximately 2014, you could put your phone under your pillow and it would capture your movements while you slept. That was nice because the warmth from your battery overheating kept your pillow nice and cozy. 🤦🏻‍♀️

Invariably when I ask my clients how well they sleep, they whip out their phone to tell me.

And it almost never reports a good story. There’s always a deficit somewhere in the week prior, leaving my client frustrated and worried about how to interpret and improve their data.

Now we have frustration and worry on top of whatever we’re already working on, which, of course, doesn’t help at all.

Sleep trackers aren’t designed for this kind of scrutiny. There are too many uncontrollable variables in your world that make the data they collect suspect.

At best, they might give you a little peek into an area or two, like how many times you moved around in the night, or how long you were in bed. How does that help you sleep better?

Real, actionable data on sleep comes from a lab in a facility where you are observed in a room while hooked up to wires and monitored. I’m not sure how well I would sleep in that environment.

And believe it or not, those lab tests don’t really measure insomnia. Instead they are looking for sleep apnea or other conditions that might be detrimental to your health.

Still, we let these trackers dictate our mood and ultimately our choices, when they really don’t have the whole picture in terms of what data really constitutes good sleep.

In my opinion, sleep trackers create more stress than they alleviate.

It’s like having a backseat driver in your brain, constantly pointing out every wrong turn. Fine, you only got an hour of REM sleep last night. What exactly are you supposed to do about that?

You can get good, unmedicated sleep using a more empirically-based method like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (I’m certified in CBT-I so ask me more about that if you’re curious 😉).

It takes a bit of time and focus to unlearn some myths and bad habits around sleep, but once you learn them (and apply them), you will be amazed at how much better you feel about your sleep.

And you don’t have to wear your watch to bed unless you’re just super time conscious.

We may need to work on that, too. 😆

At the same time, I’m not a Luddite.

I like technology and apps because they can help us do some things better and faster.

What kind of technology can you use instead of a sleep tracker?

For starters, how about the one that reminds you to land your busy daytime plane and get ready for bed?

Time moves fast at night, especially if you are busy with kids and kitchens.

Once you sit down, it’s easy to let Netflix keep rolling you over to that next episode. (Do you remember when we had to use a remote for that? If you’re old enough, you may remember actually being the remote in your family. Good times.)

Use your calendar app, reminder app, or some proprietary app that does basically the same thing to light up when it’s time to start winding down.

Don’t set a reminder that says, “Go to bed.” No one likes that. You don’t just throw your kid in bed and turn the light out, do you?

No, you get them started with a bath, cozy pajamas, brushing teeth, and then a book, or two, … or ten.

Use your app to remind you of the first step in your own cozy, beddy-bye time ritual. You’ll be a whole lot more excited about a reminder to get in your fuzzy Hello Kitty jammies than in just going to bed.

Another great way to use technology is to capture all the garbage that invariably starts coming to the surface when your brain is taking its last gasps of air for the day.

Whether it’s your Notes app, your Todoist list, your Trello map, whatever, use it to get that stuff out of your head and somewhere else.

No doubt while you’re reading your nighttime print book (because print books don’t give off blue light) you’ll be tempted to wonder if you included the Net Sales Valuation in  your TPS report. Capture that wonderment in your app and move on. You’ll take a look at that tomorrow morning before you send the report.

The best use of an app for sleep is to use a meditation app to seal the deal.

But not just any meditation app, the best is to find one that does a Body Scan Meditation. We’re not emptying our mind or anything transcendental.

This exercise will teach you to relax your whole body bit by bit. We Westerners are a tense bunch, and most of us carry stress in our muscles most of the time.

Even when you feel pretty relaxed when you turn out the light, you will be surprised how much tension is still in your neck and shoulders that you need to release.

Plus, a body scan is a great way to learn to relax during the day, so you can be good and relaxed at work. That would be nice, wouldn’t it?

I think we can all agree that technology is here to stay. But technology should never stress you out, or make you worry about something else.

Use it to help you, and remember, you always have the power to use that power button.

Interested in more witty and informative insights like these?

  • Sign up for my emails to stay updated on my latest articles and projects.
  • Buy my book to start developing good daily mental health habits
  • Work with me one-on-one for sleep coaching or counseling (Florida folks only for counseling).
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