Just do it … better

Head in the Cloud

Photo of Bianca Lee

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“Keep going! You’re so close to achieving your activity goals for the day,” my Apple Watch quips.

Ever since I got my Apple Watch to motivate me to exercise more during the pandemic, I’ve found myself obsessing over the rituals and discipline of keeping my body under regulation. I began dutifully counting my steps on my Health app, predicting my menstrual cycle using Flo and tracking my REM cycle when I sleep. 

My watch became an embodiment of my ideal lifestyle. So long as I paid attention to its notifications, I’d be able to make sure that my body was at peak performance. 

As a Bay Area resident and UC Berkeley computer science major, tech’s culture of efficiency and performance isn’t novel to me. Tech companies are always trying to launch the next all-in-one productivity software, the next enterprise tool to manage every microservice or anything that will help us get more done in less time. And if I’m going to eventually be building software to optimize people’s lifestyles, it only makes sense that I make sure that my body is also functioning at maximum performance, right? 

I was easily swept up by the mantras of efficiency and performance, especially considering that these values were lurking everywhere I looked. Even in fashion, an opportunity for free self-expression, I have seen athleisure make its way center stage in people’s wardrobes. And as athleisure steers style towards uniformity in reliable performance-enhancing materials, fashion has started associating style with pushing your body to its limit. Lululemon has accrued a massive fan base by selling athletic wear that allows wearers to “give it everything you’ve got” and go on “record-breaking runs.” And when I wear my Lululemon leggings to work out, I do buy into the claims that they optimize my workout experience. I start to feel the same way we want our computers to be: fast and sleek.

The tech industry has deployed technology to upgrade our bodies as if our bodies themselves are machines too. Whereas I was once in touch with my body and knew how to push it harder during workouts, tech now sells devices that are supposed to revolutionize my workouts for me, convincing me that I’m burning more calories and getting in better shape. 

Hyping up a “game-changing cardio experience,” Peloton has been on the rise as people opt for virtual bike rides backed by an online community and live leaderboards to achieve their ideal body shape. To ensure that every workout is harder than the one before, Lululemon recently released the Mirror, which is advertised to track buyers’ workout results when they exercise in front of it and offer real-time optimizations.

The rhetoric of efficiency even ingrains itself into our nutritional intake and onto the shelves of tech companies’ microkitchens, which are lined with meal replacement drinks. Chuggable in less than five minutes, Soylent and Huel promise a shortcut to top-notch nutritional value and a one-stop-shop for my body’s caloric needs. 

I don’t drink Soylent, but I still find myself biohacking my nutrition in my search for healthier options: meat alternatives, plant-based “milk,” daily vitamins and anything else that will jampack nutrition in calories while minimizing unhealthiness. In a world that gets faster, better and stronger, our bodies are expected to keep up. 

And keep up we do. In order to stay afloat in the modern workplace, my laptop can’t just have one tab open to my emails; every facet of my work is spread out between Slack, Google Suite, Zoom, spreadsheets that link to each other and simultaneous chats happening with 20 different people.

The impulse toward self-improvement is compelling. Who doesn’t want to be a fitter, smarter and upgraded version of themself? But I’ve found that in my endeavor to strive for maximum health, I can easily slip into pushing my body to the breaking point, seeing it as more machine than biology. And if I’m trying to optimize my life, am I really succeeding if I’ve lost my enjoyment of growth along the way?

I still see pushing myself during a workout or practicing self-discipline as healthy, and I do find myself in a better mood after a good yoga session. But tech culture creates the illusion that, like my devices and the software that I write, my body is just another efficiency process. In reality, always charging toward things at full speed made me burn out and lose momentum in the long run –– and lacking motivation entirely felt even worse than not constantly maxing out my efforts.

As I try to strive for self-improvement at a healthier pace, I’m trying to take tech and fitness brands’ value of peak performance less as a mantra to live by, and more as encouragement from the sidelines. 

A stroll around my neighborhood, for example, can still be enjoyable even if my Apple Watch isn’t tracking my steps. Just because I have access to the tech that allows me to make sure I’m always going all out doesn’t mean I have to. So maybe next time I forget to close my activity rings for the day on my Apple Watch, I’ll just let it be. My body will probably be fine, even if I don’t have the data to prove it.

Bianca Lee writes the Thursday column on the intersection of technology and society.