Where's My Rest Badge?
What Our Devices Still Can't Recognize
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I’ve been thinking a lot about my watch. It’s not an Apple Watch — it doesn’t do phone stuff — it just has a very precise GPS and lots of stuff that supposedly tells me about my respiration and heart rate and all of that. It’s a stupendously good running watch. But like every other supposedly smart device, it doesn’t quite understand rest.
This has been a common chorus around so-called “wearables” for years: whether it’s 10,000 steps, “closing your rings” on the Apple Watch, or, as my watch orients it, “reaching your average steps” for the last seven days, there’s little understanding of the way bodies actually work. They break. They’re always in some stage of broken. They need time and space to recuperate, or just to be. Exercise science understands this. Training plans understand this. But we’re also taught from a young age that blowing past limitations and “best practices” is a sign of grit, determination, Americanness. You don’t need rest; you just need to work harder. Reaching the bar just means the bar should be set higher.
Earlier this year, I interviewed Adrian Hon about how our gamified technology — including our watches — contribute to this mindset. “The problem,” he told me, “is when gamification — the use of ideas from game design for non-game purposes — expands beyond the bounds we consciously set. It’s one thing to buy Nintendo’s Ring Fit Adventure to intentionally gamify your home exercise. It’s another to buy an Apple Watch because it’s the only smartwatch that Apple allows to be fully integrated with the iPhone, and you start getting notifications just before midnight badgering you to “close your rings” by going for a run, or to always be offering shiny achievements for increasing your calorie burn month after month. This kind of scaled-up digital gamification quietly substitutes the goals of corporations (maximising engagement and profit) in place of our own goals. Worse, it removes human judgment entirely; there’s no-one at Apple who can decide you deserve a day off your calorie goals.”
Even Strava, the leading app in running and cycling, can’t understand what a deloading or recovery week looks like. Two weeks ago, I ran 28.8 miles as part of a 200-mile, 12-person, 36-hour relay from the Canadian Border to the tip of Whidbey Island. (If this sounds ridiculous, of course it is; you can read about why I like it here). I didn’t do much running leading up to that day, and I didn’t do much in the days after: I was tapering in anticipation, and then I was resting in response. This is good running strategy! And yet I still got a push notification from the app when my weekly average was totaling lower than normal: “How far can you go???”
On Peloton, various instructors will encourage you to devote a day to yoga, to make sure you get enough sleep, to cross-train. But the app’s badges rely on badges (earned for minutes of activity or special classes) and streaks (earned when you take a class every day or every week). There’s no badge for taking a rest day for four weeks straight. The only way to get praise for rest is if you do it through a Peloton program — e.g., meditating, stretching, restorative yoga. You can rest, in other words, but you can’t disengage.
Granted, my watch will tell me when I’m overtraining. If I toggle to the “training readiness” screen the day after a long run, it will recommend “taking it easy” with the caveat that I should “listen to my body.” The problem is that I’m battling years of messaging encouraging me to not listen to my body. The Sweat is weakness leaving the body; more is more; run when you’re tired, etc. etc. etc. How do I differentiate between a “yes body I hear you” day and a “do hard things” day? Is that body wisdom? How am I this old and only now getting the hang of it?
At least on my watch, here’s no communication between the training component that advises “Rest” and the step tracker — an alert, for example, that says “you’re still moving a ton today, consider taking it easy.” When I did that 36-hour race (on a whopping one hour of sleep) my “Body Battery” was down to five. It should’ve been vibrating off my wrist, forcing me to override it. But it did what it was made to do: track the run, add the miles, celebrate the PR.
If my watch can measure something as complex as heat acclimation, why can’t it offer a Recovery Mode? An obvious setting (not hidden under layers of menus) you can toggle on when you’re sick, when you’re rehabbing from injury, when you’re forcing some rest after a big event — or that you keep toggled on if, for whatever reason, your body needs longterm rest. It seems so obvious and yet somehow impossible, as if these brilliant computers on our wrists have no capacity to understand a “goal” as anything other than the constant push for more.
It makes sense, I suppose, that a running watch isn’t built to anticipate the needs of someone who’s not trying to run every day. But I don’t stop wearing my watch when I’m injured, even though the 0.0 in the left hand corner of its screen taunts me. I know people who’ve stopped wearing their devices altogether during vacations or recovery periods or Covid because the reminders and encouragement to “keep moving” became too much to bear.
It’s a sign that the device was made by people with an untextured understanding not just of runners’ needs, but humans’. Think about how these devices might change if disabled people weren’t just “consulted,” but an integral part of the design team. Or if they designed with knowledge of very known triggers for eating disorders and enablers of compulsive exercise. Companies insist on keeping the calorie count visible or available because “some people like it.” But what if they listened to the even louder (and scientifically backed) argument about how damaging they can be?
Doing this 200 mile race — all the joy and suffering and outrageous spectacle of it — always makes me think about the hierarchy of hard things. You can set aside time to train for a marathon or a 10k. You can aim for a promotion at work, or orient your life around the completion of a huge project. You can prep for months for bar. You can spend your entire high school career trying to get into a particular college. You can spend actual years of your life planning a wedding, trying to get pregnant, working towards a degree, or buying a house. So long as the goal is growth in some way — growth in career, growth in family size, growth in education, growth in fitness — the process merits praise.
All of these things are hard in some way. But they’re also easy, in so much as they’re socially validated: what you and everyone else should want. The category also expands to include “beating cancer,” “facing down Parkinson’s,” “fighting ALS” — the goal is to stoically and methodically vanquish the disease so you can go back to work, go back to running, go back to growth. Even when people retire, a “good” retirement is filled with growth, or, more precisely, “keeping yourself busy.” The maxim for constant growth is exhausting, but it’s also so predictable, so dreadfully dull.
Give me dynamism! Give me glorious failure! Give me subdued lateral movement! What about the hard work of showing up for the same volunteer shift every week for years on end? Of building or rebuilding a friendship? Of quitting a high-paying dream job that made you miserable? Of reading so deeply you entered a flow state not dissimilar to what happens during endurance exercise? What if you want to be ambitious in the care you provide others? What if you want to work hard at being someone’s Harriet? What badge do you get for that?
I want validation for an unscheduled week — or month — on the calendar. I want a smartwatch that does those little explosive emojis when it sees that my body was tired and I listened to it. I wish having enough time to sleep as much as you need wasn’t quietly interpreted as a sign that you clearly don’t have enough going on in your life (“must be nice!”) I want to live with challenges, not constantly vanquish them and heed the expectation to take on yet another challenge. I want to decide for myself what’s hard and worth pursuing, and when and if I do that hard thing, I want space to process and recover from it, too. I’m bad at that, but thinking hard about how to be better.
Our economy is addicted to growth. We know this; we bemoan this. But we, as individuals judging ourselves and others, are addicted to it too. Our technology isn’t broken, or stupid, or incapable. It’s just designed in a way that mirrors our incredibly limited understanding of what’s worth celebrating.
And so I’m wondering:
What’s an area where you feel yourself resisting the push to constantly grow? What have you noticed about your reaction and others’?
How have you had to reconfigure your relationship with rest, and how has it affected your relationship with family members, friends, and coworkers?
How do we square resistance to the growth mindset with the need to periodically do arduous things, either because they need to be done or because they feel good?
If you could design an anti-growth badge for an app or device, what would it celebrate?
This Week’s Things I Read and Loved:
Bekka Palmer made the Garden Study logo and wrote a lovely behind-the-scenes process piece
Why are all the Citibike E-Bikes constantly broken?
Your coworkers probably don’t know what your handwriting looks like, isn’t that weird
This week’s just trust me (and no you don’t have to have seen the film to read it; just trust me)