A Day on Paper
Typically, measuring something includes using instruments such as grams, meters, minutes, and celsius to gauge a quantifiable quality. In context, numbers help us bake cakes, build schools, dress comfortably (I obsessively check the weather app for information), and give a thrilling sense of how fast a professional athlete is. A lot of human life is made possible by measurement. Can my everyday life stand to grow better by it, too?
I recently came back from a long trip. A month removed from routine is enough to alienate me from it. I was anxious to come back to my life again, but I find that I’m anxious to be back in it, too. There are too many ways to get started. Juggling work and non-work projects with a new summer running schedule, making or enjoying at least one of my meals, laundry, reading, tv, and with family is a life of good things. But it’s also a life of many things, and I’m still young and high-strung enough that the amount I have to do seems daunting. It’s very usual of me to think through the macroeconomics of mundane chores, but now, I would rather stop allowing myself to overcomplicate my way out of doing the things I want to do. Instead, I want to simply do them.
Swayed by the idea of a quantifiable life, I admit to an apprehension when it comes to tracking myself so meticulously. Usually, I’ve only associated it with an unhealthy tendency to obsess. Unresearched fact: everyone feels some kind of pressure to perform better. Weight, productivity, time, money, discoveries, travel. People will get excited about the number of books they’ve read in a year and post it on social media because it totally is exciting to have read many books. But instead of celebrating other people’s shared achievements, something incredibly stupid happens instead: we feel not good enough. Numbers take on a kind of tyranny when they are entrenched in ideals.
Here is an unobsessive to-do list:
July 9, do a load of laundry, email back the sales rep, edit this essay, sort travel bills. July 10, make a lemon cake, run 5k, go to a family gathering, do studio work at night.
There’s a good essay about the data-driven life by Gary Wolf that paints multiple stories of personal-life record keeping. About tracking technologies, he aptly deems them “emotionally neutral, but this very fact makes them powerful mirrors of our own values and judgments.” Which is to say, tracking technologies are almost never emotionally neutral. Measurements make us face an assumed position we have on an ideal—there is a sense of correctness and a wrongness that we put onto measurements. If we spend too much or we stretch too little, there’s an underlying sentiment that we ought to do less of one thing and more of the other. Without judgment, though, measurement takes on a potentially fulfilling role. Wolf writes that “once you start gathering data, recording the dates, toggling the conditions back and forth while keeping careful records of the outcome, you gain a tremendous advantage over the normal human practice of making no valid effort whatsoever.” Hilarious, and true.
These days, I’m planning my days on paper. But writing them in the morning won’t necessarily make them happen. I didn’t sort my travel bills on July 9th. It’s kind of disappointing, because I had time to do it, but it’s hard for me to take that disappointment too seriously because soft measuring — writing these daily plans down for the simple sake of being able to recount them — is better for me than feeling like a total dud and without any tangible outcome. It’s, at the very least, a written thing. It’s something.
A soft approach to measuring is a way to measure light-handedly, such as keeping track of how much I run but not discounting a week wherein I run far less than I usually do. (The opposite is hard to do—long running streaks are classic bait for gloating.) I’m generally an extreme hard-ass who thinks that everyone, including myself, can do a lot better. But I’m also a regular realist who, at the end of the day, knows that it’s just normal to be living a human life in tune with a two-steps-forward-one-step-back choreography. I’m not interested in the purely ultra-human, or in the achievement of optimal results. I’m interested in the complicated and interpersonal everyday that it takes trying to get there.
For me, the term measure is interchangeable with observe. They are both action verbs executed using different tools. Tracking numbers is one such tool. So is walking, note-taking, fasting, organizing, eating, listening. All of these activities may be forms of measurement, or observation, when done with slight intent. I can spend a week drawing small pencil sketches, and those sketches will exist as a measurement of a moment’s time. Like maps, anything material—something you can read and interpret—simply provides a means to understand the quality of something that exists in another dimension. Generally, this is just called ‘something greater.’ A painting of a pipe is not a pipe. A planner is not a life. The scribbles on my notebook are merely a framework through which my day may have unfolded. But we’d have to have a conversation with gestures and flesh and interruption to access something more meaningful. It still won’t replicate the exact experience of my day, because that’s technically and physically gone, but it will at least have more dimension.
In the same article, Gary Wolf points out that the self may actually be best understood in the trivial aspects of our individual everyday lives. “Behind the allure of the quantified self is a guess that many of our problems come from simply lacking the instruments to understand who we are.” I don’t believe we lack the instruments to understand who we are—that’s a philosophical inquiry that may never be resolved. In fact, I believe there are too many instruments that try too hard at understanding who we are, as if there will be a finite answer. Gene-tracing technologies, nutrition trackers, performance reviews. These are all ways to understand parts of who we are, but not entirely. Classically, this is why other instruments, like poetry, exist. It is to attempt to give communicable form to experience; to trace the idea of a life. To Wolf’s point, however, we are lacking in something: the ability to observe—without judgment—that which is not right in front of us, but which we occupy. A body, a mind, and the happening of a day over time.