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Blog // Technology
May 1, 2018

Evidence Based Living – On Trying A Nokia Sleep Tracker

We’re obsessed with fake news. But what if many of our beliefs about our own lives are also fake? Maybe it’s time for evidence-based living.

Like the novelty-chasing, early-adopting, lifestyle crash test dummy that I am, I’ve gone and bought another new thing. Except this time, I’m taking it to bed every night.

The Nokia Sleep is, as the name implies, a sleep-tracking device. You place it under your mattress, pair it with your smartphone, and it monitors your sleep patterns. I’ve been using it for a week, and to be honest it’s raising as many questions as it answers.

You might ask, with a raised eyebrow: Nokia? Well, yes. The once world-dominating mobile phone company is trying to reinvent itself as an internet-of-things innovator, having recently bought out Withings, the maker of several internet-enabled life-tracking devices, including the smart scale I wrote about several months ago.

The first thing the data showed was that I am sleeping less than I thought; about 30-40 minutes less each night. The device seems to be doing a good job of recording the time I fall asleep and wake up, and along with that, measuring how long I’m in bed trying to fall asleep and how long I lie in after waking.

The results reminded me of what happens when you ask people how long their commute to work is. Folks will tend to answer by telling you the time they spend travelling. So, a “half-hour commute” means half an hour in the car, or from station to station. But when you ask follow-up questions, like how long it takes from closing your front door behind you to sitting down at your desk, then the number is quite a bit different.

This gap, between what we perceive and what our experience looks like as hard data, is perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of life in the digital age, when there are so many ways to track our activity, to amass evidence about the way we live.

And the evidence often challenges the way we see the world.

Apart from sleeping less than I thought I was, the data also showed my sleep pattern wasn’t optimal, which was interesting since it didn’t turn out to be a good week for sleep. It seems I was spending more of the night in deep sleep than I needed, and less in REM sleep than is optimal (the app suggests recommends about 25% of the sleep be deep and 20% be REM).

In hindsight, this made sense. I did seem to remember fewer dreams than normal. Had you asked me why I felt less refreshed than normal on those mornings, my intuition would’ve been to blame it on a few restless nights. But the device suggested the opposite; I was having largely interruption-free sleep. The balance between light, deep and REM sleep wasn’t within my reckoning. And now I have to try and figure out how to get more REM sleep.

In our artistic lives we put so much effort into getting in touch with our intuition. It’s vital to the kind of openness and vulnerability we need to be creative and productive. The process involves unravelling a lot of the voices, bad advice, and systemic oppression that put us at a distance from our true selves.

So I’m loath to speak against intuition, against trusting your gut, or what feels right to you on some instinctive level.

Except that the evidence sometimes points in another direction.

The step tracker hints at our exercise patterns maybe being less consistent than we thought. The time-tracker tells a story of many unproductive hours in those long working weeks. And the sleep tracker suggests we perhaps don’t know our patterns of rest as well as we thought.

Taken to the extreme, data could become an obsession, maybe even a religion. Like productivity gluttony, it can overtake us, becoming a priority in itself. This doesn’t interest me.

My interest is whether evidence can be used to simplify life. Can it make choices easier and bring good habit-forming into sharper focus?

Back when I started tracking steps, it was all about taking those 10,000 steps a day. But soon came realisation. Getting out three times a day got me near enough to the mark. It didn’t matter what those trips were: to a cafe, to buy groceries, to a local park or cinema. Three walks was all that mattered. It didn’t take a complicated analysis of my daily life to figure out how to turn this into a simple and sustainable set of habits.

Taken this way, the evidence can liberate us, freeing us from doubt and ambiguity, or worse, from arguing with ourselves over what is true. I’ll need to look into this REM issue. But the most obvious move is to shift the night-time routine forward half an hour, to get to bed a little earlier. It could make a big difference to the rest of every day.

I also discuss the importance of sleep to living well and creativity in other articles, like , , and .

Kate 6 years ago

Personally, I never thought I knew anything about my sleeping habits. How to know how much I spend on REM or deep sleep? Its impossible. So does the app inform you what to change to get to optimal levels of each stage of sleeping? Or is it your own analysis determining what you think you need to do to improve it?

Jack 6 years ago

Isnt controlling making it worse? Like controlling your weight makes you more obsessed ans stressed about it and you actually struggle more to lose it? Or trying to go to bed earlier but stressing about having to fall asleep at a certain time to make your sleeping habits better but actually making it worse due to focusing too much on it? The more I know I have o go to sleep at some time, the less I achieve that goal cause the pressure keeps me from it.

Dane Cobain 6 years ago

I can relate to this a lot. I use a Fitbit to track my steps and my sleeps, and I actually just got a free upgrade to the Charge 2 after my old Fitbit fell apart (a known issue apparently, hence the free ugprade as it was still under warranty). My old one tracked when I slept, my steps, how many floors I climbed, calories burned, heart rate, etc. This new one does all that and a little bit more, offering breathing exercises and other features.

But actually, the main reason I wear it is for the sleep tracking as I’m a chronic insomniac. The new Fitbit I have breaks up how much I’ve slept into different categories and also shows how I compare against other people my age and gender. What’s kind of remarkable is how close my night-to-night sleep is – not in the amounts, perhaps, but in the percentages. Here are my monthly averages (with the guideline amounts in brackets). I think it sounds about right considering I’m an insomniac!

Awake: 18% (5-20%)
REM: 16% (15-25%)
Light: 52% (40-60%)
Deep: 13% (12-23%)

Unfortunately I don’t really know how to reduce that awake percentage, it’s something I’ve been trying to work on since I was a teenager. I know a lot about sleep hygiene etc. but it doesn’t always seem to help!

Maria 6 years ago

A friend of mine has been using the Bellabeat necklace tracker and she says it really made a difference for her, apart from being a really beautifully designed accesory. I’ve been thinking of getting one myself but have hesitated so far (the price doenst help). Maybe I will try with an app first, dont know if it works the same way or if its as accurate.

Just checked out the Nokia Sleep website and it has a Sleep Coach, was that useful for u? Would love an update on your process.

Mike 6 years ago

Love to see that Nokia is taking a step forward! Great brand, great products… I sure miss my Nokia phone! Hard as a brick… One thing you can be certain about your Nokia Sleep is that its probs indestructible.

fernando 6 years ago

Mike – I hope so!

fernando 6 years ago

Maria – thank you. The progress is fascinating. I will write a follow up soon.

fernando 6 years ago

Dane – thank you for all the detail. It’s good to compare. I’m noticing that the nights I get the recommended amount of REM sleep I seem to more productive and focussed the following day. Insomnia must be tough to deal with. I always find having a dark, cool room helps me sleep and there seems to be a lot of research to back that up. Also, getting away from screens and bright rooms at least a few hours before bed time helps.

Babra 6 years ago

Although I haven’t started tracking my sleep, I track my steps and check on productivity during the day. I have seen an improvement in fitness and productivity. I now have a routine that helps to keep things in check. Having the facts does truly help. I am trying to create a balance to avoid being obsessed with the readings on the tracker.
The next step is to track my sleep, I am quite sure what I think is not necessarily the reality…

fernando 6 years ago

Babra – yes, there’s a saying, we measure what matters to us.

fernando 6 years ago

Jack – this is a very good point. We can resist and rebel against things we track and measure. On Gretchen Rubin’s four tendencies test I score quite highly on the “Rebel” tendency and I certainly don’t like being told what to do or how to fit into somebody else’s idea of what I should be.

So, I tend to look at anything I track as a tool in my own rebellion, rather than some kind of social norm being forced upon me.

And, I think framing it as controlling is maybe part of the problem as well. I can’t really control my weight or my sleep. Some nights will be bad and some weeks my weight will fluctuate. But, I can track those changes and ask what, if anything I can do to improve them. Often the important choices aren’t even ones I make in bed or at the dining table.

fernando 6 years ago

The app does suggest about 20% of the sleep time should be REM and also grades the quality of the overall sleep based on time to fall asleep and interruptions during the night. It’s giving me a lot of food for thought.

Jack 6 years ago

Your view on it is very interesting, funny they have a “rebel” tendency, but yeah I find it very interesting the way you use your own rebellion to improve those habits. Im just talking from the simple action of trying to excercise more or trying to sleep earlier only to lie down on the bed unable to close your eyes and shut down ur brain because “if I go to sleep now Ill have 6.34 hours of sleep” and that has never worked for me, personally. But you are right that the key to the puzzle is more about that rebellion itself and the fluctuations and choices we made during those fluctuations that we were unable to track ourselves rather than what we think we did to generate that unwanted fluctuation.

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