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In this video essay, we look at how fetishizing personal data can be both helpful *and* harmful, especially heading into. anew year.

Through bi-weekly video essays, "Making It Work" showcases how *real* people have upgraded their personal or financial lives in some meaningful way. Making your life work for you doesn't mean getting rich just for the sake of it. It means making the most of what you have to build a life you love, both in your present and in your future. And while managing money is a crucial life skill for everyone, there's no one "right way" to go about it — you have to figure out what works best for *you,* full stop.

Video by Grace Lee

Written by Skylar Hunyadi

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There's an app for that-- this subtly haunting phrase beckons people to the seductive world of productivity apps, habit trackers, and the preoccupation with logging and quantifying behaviors and tasks.

There is something so very appealing about the promise an app holds to produce a desired result-- to increase workflow, to create a new habit, or break an unhealthy one, to measure success in one way or another. Essentially to hack ourselves through diligent data collection.

According to Lifehack, popular productivity apps and habit trackers of the moment include Momentum, Habitica, stickK, Streaks, just to name a few. And then there are the classics-- Todoist, Trello, MyFitnessPal, Google Fit/Apple Health, and the medley of other programs that are usually pre-downloaded onto our smart devices. These programs are ever-present in the health and wellness world, and even Audible has a quantifying system that gives badges for app-related achievements.

Know thy numbers, know thyself-- and self-knowledge through numbers are among the phrases that the quantified self-movement upholds. This movement certainly has some cultish vibes, but there is some psychological base to the practice. At their core, these tracking apps echo the work of behaviorist BF Skinner.

Stay with me, psychology nerds, this is for you. Skinner coined the term operant conditioning to describe how to strengthen a behavior through reinforcement or punishment. Habit-tracking apps usually use extrinsic motivation to reinforce behavior through the reward of praise, badges, high streaks, pretty graphs and charts, et cetera.

The behavior or habit is then ultimately driven by consistent and attractive external rewards-- think Snapchat's use of the fire emoji next to the friends you have the highest streaks with. However, using an app-- or any program that requires inputting and tracking information-- can also be a slippery slope. These tools can rouse hopes and provide digital accountability, but they can also generate anxiety, distraction, and perfectionism.

Life-logging, the quantified self, data-fetishizing, self-tracking-- there is certainly a light as well as a dark side to this phenomenon. The pros-- number one, accountability and reality checking. Perhaps most obvious, these tools provide accountability, and from this is a tangible form of reality checking.

Our memory is fallible, so you may have thought you drank the recommended water intake per day, when the three gulps after your morning coffee didn't quite cut it. Tracking the true numbers helps to create a more accurate picture of your past behaviors and trends. Number two, visual representation can be a powerful tool.

Fun fact-- human brains are wired to better receive and respond to visual data-- charts, graphs, tables, maps, infographics. We eat that shit up because even though it's a cliche, a picture is worth a words. Number three-- tracking and productivity tools are accessible.

Disregarding the kingpins of Apple Watches, and the other more costly health and wellness tracking tech, the average smartphone already comes preloaded with software to track health data and productivity tasks. And other apps are right at our fingertips. We may think, well, it's there, might as well use it.

The cons-- number one, we may be more susceptible to cognitive traps. For instance, magical thinking-- if I download and start using this app, I will become a better person. All or nothing thinking-- I didn't log my mood yesterday.

I can't use this app anymore. Mental filtering-- I didn't do well because I only meditated three times this week. Shoulding on yourself-- I should have meditated five times this week.

Number two, quantification, of course, increases quantity, but may decrease the quality of an activity. Falling into the trap of logging data for the sake of logging data can take joy from an activity. It adds another task onto itself to remember to log the walk you went on today, instead of just enjoying the subtle mental and physical benefits of the walk.

Quantification runs the risk of taking us out of the moment. Number three, it imposes on our intuitive sense of free will. Like with any good data collection, consistency is key.

However, digital trackers can restrict our freedom to choose differently, to be day-to-day humans with ever-changing needs and desires. And for that matter, not feeling guilty if we want to put aside our technology for some time. Most tracking apps are designed to aggregate a steady stream of information, most often requesting it daily.

As a mental health professional, when used with a healthy and flexible mindset, I think apps that quantify the self can be helpful tools. They can play into our psychology in a well-intentioned, and sometimes entirely effective way. But it's when these tools become the dominant means of change that they become more harmful than helpful.

In the counseling field, we emphasize the importance of creating a tool belt so we have a variety of strategies to help bring about healthy change. So be curious about the ways technology can help us be better versions of ourselves, use it with moderation, and be mindful of how it impacts our inner voice. And most importantly, leave room to be human-- especially when you're comparing yourself to all the reading goals hit at the end of the year on TikTok.

Measure success also by the more unquantifiable things in life-- love amongst friends and family, passion for a hobby, the peace of doing absolutely nothing. We don't need to quantify everything we do. Some things are better left in the moment.