I Love the Exist App (and I Super-Love What It Taught Me About Priorities)

So you probably remember that I have this thing I call the “Daily Spreadsheet,” in which I track everything I want to prioritize on a binary level (did it happen, did it not happen).

Did I sleep more than 7.5 hours, or did I not?

Did I do something musical today, or did I not?

Did I draft NEXT BOOK today, or did I not?

Did I connect with another person today, or did I not?

Well. I recently learned about this app called Exist, which pulls data from a bunch of other apps (Fitbit, RescueTime, Apple Health, Dark Sky, etc. etc. etc.) to present a unified theory of Who You Are and How You Work.

You can probably guess that I love this app. It pulled in the last 30 days of data from all my other apps and instantly showed me correlations between sleep and exercise and heart rate and everything else—and sure, some of the correlations were fairly obvious, e.g. “the less you sleep, the more you eat,” but some were unexpected.

I didn’t realize, for example, how increased carbohydrate intake had a negative impact on literally everything else.

Of course, days in which I eat enough carbs to affect sleep, heart rate, exercise level, etc. are generally days when I eat at restaurants, buy cookies at the library, and/or visit the candy shop across from my apartment. Which means that these aren’t just carbs, they’re refined carbs. Added sugars. High fructose corn syrup.

I wanted to make sure my carb assumption was correct, so I added “added sugars” and “restaurants and snacks” to Exist’s custom tags section—that is, the part of the app where you can make binary choices about things that did or didn’t happen that day.

I started setting up a lot of binary choices.

Instead of “did I do music today,” I created tags for “piano” and “singing” and “Chorale” and “rehearsal” and “performance.” (Maybe Exist will tell me that my heart rate is higher on performance days!)

Instead of “did I connect with another person,” I set up tags for “Mom,” “Dad,” and so on. (Maybe Exist will tell me that spending time with a certain person lowers my heart rate!)

You get the idea.

Two things happened, almost immediately:

I had more tags than I was able to keep track of, making the correlation element less trustworthy. I would wake up the next morning and think “I forgot to track that I took a melatonin pill yesterday,” or I’d review the data and notice that I forgot to track the Steam game I played three days ago. If I can’t keep my tags straight, I can’t trust Exist to provide me with accurate correlations.

The more tags I added, the less any one tag became a priority. With my Daily Spreadsheet, I was motivated to do something musical every day so I could turn the “music” cell green instead of red. Same with reading a book every day, completing my shutdown ritual every day, and so on. I gave myself a handful of priorities and, because of that, was able to prioritize them.

But Exist didn’t show me a handful of priorities. It gave me a huge list of tags and asked me to identify which ones I’d done that day. Without that narrow set of items that I’d decided were the most important, and the constant visual reminder that THESE WERE MY FIVE MOST IMPORTANT NON-WORK TASKS, MUSIC-READING-CONNECTION-EXERCISE-REST, I… stopped prioritizing those tasks.

Unbelievable, right? Is my motivation to read an actual non-internet book weak enough that I will spend all evening on the internet if I don’t have a spreadsheet with a cell I want to turn green?

Turns out… maybe?

I want to keep using Exist, because I love it (and because it’s teaching me a lot about myself). But I think I’ll have to do some serious tag culling first.

Also, I am pretty sure I need to update my thesis that building the life you want means setting boundaries and priorities.

Now it’s “building the life you want means setting boundaries and priorities and avoiding refined carbs.” ❤️

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