The Art of Quotidian Observation

Socrates is alleged to have declared, “ὁ δὲ ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ” Or, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

At first, the declaration seems pedantic. That the only way to live is by analyzing everything. In truth, he’s merely stating reality: the unexamined life is one that isn’t lived at all. We can’t help but examine, as observation is one of our primary ways of learning. Sometimes, the observations are deliberate, sometimes unconscious. It’s cooler in the morning than midday. It gets dark at a certain time, light at a certain time, and, if I have a clock handy, I can see how those times change. While casual observations can be easy, I’ve found myself occasionally overwhelmed when the effort needs to be deliberate. I (briefly) tried filling in a paper training diary; it quickly felt like too much time was spent recording observations, that the examined life meant not living, or at least living much less. Even trying to take my resting pulse in the morning proved too challenging—the alarm clock going off is disturbing (for a reason), then there’s finding a clock with a second hand and focusing on it, while realizing that the day needs to begin right away.

With the advance of technology, we can outsource a good portion of the data-gathering and collating aspects of examination to machines. In many cases, this is welcome. Having a bike computer record all your riding and having it auto-uploaded into a program where you can see charts and graphs can mean all you need to do is take a look, add in a few subjective evaluations, and then you can have an easier time correlating sensations with performance. One of the great things about power meters is you can, with a little experience, easily determine if the ride/race is hard or you’re just sucking. Another great use is figuring out rest weeks; a line graph showing weekly hours ridden or mileage covered is hard to ignore when you are feeling like maybe you should add another intense week after three hard weeks in a row.

Even far more quotidian observations are getting easier, though potentially far more invasive if stolen. The data we’re sharing with the cloud could be used against us: caught for traffic infractions if our ride data is shared with law enforcement or maybe our food consumption, weight, and sleep with health insurers, or marketers.

The more quotidian observations can be hugely valuable. And they don’t need to be sent to the cloud, or even recorded on some kind of permanent media. They just need to come from a consistent source and get eyeballed.

One of the best investments I’ve made in terms of examining my health might have been the cheap travel alarm clock I bought nearly 30 years ago. It’s a Casio PQ15-1K. I might have paid $7 for it. Today, it runs about $18. The point, at the time, was having something portable and piercing for road trip sofa surfing stints. I once used it fairly regularly, but it had been retired when I realized the thermometer might be the best thing about it.

I found that knowing the ambient temperature next to my bed before I go to sleep improved my sleep.

All I did was eyeball it before I went to sleep. Again when I woke up.

In just a few weeks, I started sleeping better.

Try it out. Repeat for a few weeks.

You’ll start sleeping better.

The simple answer is that it’s a variation on the observer effect. Namely, the act of seeing a numerical representation of temperature in a fixed place changes your relationship with temperature in that location. Before, the room was too warm, too cool, or just right, but I lay down the same regardless. Some nights I slept well, some I didn’t. Armed with the simple knowledge of a few weeks of temperature numbers gathered from glancing at the clock by my bedside, I started associating a numeric range with the quality of fades to dreamland and slumber.

Once you have a sense of temperature ranges, you’re in a position to start controlling variables more precisely. Open windows, close windows, run a fan, an air conditioner. Change sheets, blankets, pillowcases. Sleep in clothing, sleep without. You can even start to figure out how fatigued you are. Assuming the temperature is constant, the more tired you are, the higher your resting pulse will be, the warmer you’ll probably feel for that constant temperature. If you’re tossing and turning and feel too warm with the room temperature and sleep accoutrement is something you otherwise would feel comfortable with, chances are, your body is fatigued.

I picked up this habit in the pursuit of something else. When altitude tents were all the rage, I was tasked with writing a guide to their proper use. The assignment came with a loan of a sample tent. I set it up over my bed, set the altitude to a virtual mile, and went to bed. At first, it was ok. Then, on subsequent nights, it got uncomfortable. It was summer and I didn’t have an air conditioning unit hooked up to the filter. I got warm. I couldn’t sleep. I remembered I had that Casio clock and that it was small enough to bring into the tent. Turned out, the temperature rose in the tent over the course of the night. It was in the mid 70s when I got in, then rose into the mid 80s. An unclothed human body allegedly typically starts to sweat at around 81-degrees Fahrenheit. I concluded I had a problem. Either I needed to cool down the tent or drop the altitude or both.

Subsequent to that experiment, I’ve kept that alarm clock by my bedside. Accuracy isn’t important here; consistency is. I’ve learned at what temperature to open the windows, then turn on a fan, then add the air conditioner. I’ve also learned what bedding is best for what temperature ranges. There is better and worse sleeping weather, but even with seasonal variations, it’s entirely possible to control variables enough to improve sleep on a regular basis.

While everyone is different, generally cool rooms are better for sleeping. How cool? The National Sleep Foundation claims it’s between 60-67 degrees Fahrenheit. Clearly, those temperatures are unwise to achieve in warm and hot climates in summer, but bedding, sleepwear, moving air also play roles. The NSF even advises adding socks or a hot water bottle by your feet to dilate blood vessels faster to set the body to a sleep ready mode.

You don’t have to be an intellectual to enjoy the examined life. You just need to be aware. You already have a certain level of awareness; the only issue is what you’re focusing your attention on.


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