How Many Steps? Some Thoughts on Tracking

A Doe a Deer, watercolor and ink on paper, 2022 by Julianna Paradisi

I’m visiting family on the Oregon coast. Through a window I watch a doe, a deer, lounging contentedly on the next door neighbor’s lawn. Like me, she gazes at the 180-degree view of a sunlit harbor, beyond which the flat horizon beckons sailors to test its edge. 

The house we are staying in has stairs. Our bedroom is upstairs. This morning, as I climbed the stairs to retrieve something from my suitcase, I realized I didn’t carry my phone with me, so its fitness tracking app didn’t log the flight of stairs, or the the steps I took. 

“Damn,” I thought.

Almost immediately, a second thought crowded out the first. “Why is tracking your steps important?”

It’s a question worth examining. I’m naturally active. I don’t need a program to increase activity to improve my health. Personally, tracking my activity is only useful for the times I’m trying to shed a few pounds, which I occasionally do. What I’ve learned from my fitness tracker is that during any given week my daily steps vary between 2,000 to 17,000+. As long as my weight is stable, it’s reasonable to assume I’m getting enough physical activity. That should be enough, right?

Except it’s not enough.

In our culture, our days are measured for productivity through apps, comparing social media posts, and answering unguardedly the common question, “What did you do today?”

Along this line of thought, a stay at home mom with three young children told me she is frequently asked when she will return to work, now that the pandemic lockdown is over. During the pandemic, she home-schooled her children, bolstered their spirits, maintained an orderly household by shopping, cooking meals, etc, with barely a private moment to herself. I was offended by the question, on her behalf. 

“Did you say you are working, you just don’t receive a paycheck for your work?” I asked.

Nurses are used to being tracked for productivity. In fact, productivity is the metric used to decide hospital staffing numbers. The more patients cared for by the fewest number of nurses is a hallmark of good productivity. 

When patients are not cared for because too few staff prevents them from being admitted to hospital rooms, or the hospital experiences an increase in preventable errors caused by delayed care attributed to too few staff, it becomes apparent a line has been crossed. At this point, productivity tracking might be reassessed. 

I experienced this once in my career. Our unit was awarded two additional FTE nurses. Shout out to the physicians who observed our need and brought it forward to hospital administrators on our behalf.

Sometimes nurses wear tracking devices to improve their productivity. Before texting was available, I once floated to a pediatric floor and was given an in-house phone to carry in my pocket. The intention was the unit secretary, who manned the phones at the desk, could contact a patient’s specific nurse with their requests. 

A good idea, for sure, until it isn’t. 

I was in a patient’s room and the poor child was vomiting. As I assisted him and his mother, the phone in my pocket rang. The unit secretary notified me that a patient in a different room needed their water pitcher refilled. I told her I was busy attending to a patient, and would get to it as soon as I could.

The phone rang several more times before the boy’s vomiting was controlled. 

Passing the desk with the refilled water pitcher for the other patient, I was lectured by the unit secretary for being inaccessible.

I’m sure her work was interrupted with repeated calls for the water pitcher to be refilled too, but it’s a hospital, not a restaurant.

That’s the problem with solely using productivity as a metric: it doesn’t take value or priority into consideration.

Since I’ve retired from nursing and can devote myself full time to my calling as an artist and writer, I’ve discovered exchanging productivity for value and priority is not an easy transformation. 

Meeting deadlines and project completion are essential skills for creating exhibitions and publishing, however, making productivity the goal of creativity is plunging a stake into the heart of our creative selves. 

A creative mind needs time to wander, to engage in play. 

Images, prose, and poetry bubble up from the subconscious like dreams. Forcing them develops discipline, and hones skills, but inspiration is a gift from the soul. The soul hates being pushed and prodded. Denying it play and rambling for prolonged periods of time will result in creative drought.

These days, my task is to release myself of tracking, and concerns of productivity; to loosen myself from counted footsteps, learning to rest contentedly like the doe, a deer gazing toward the endless horizon. It’s more difficult than it sounds, but when it happens, there’s magic in it.

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