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Three Ways to Maximize Your (Possibly Disappointing) Wearables

Can apps like IFTTT or the new Jawbone coffee-tracking app make wearables more interesting?

Let me guess: Your activity-tracking wristband is sitting on your dresser or in a drawer somewhere right now, while it seems that every day there’s a news report out about an upcoming wearable product that’s going to be better, cooler, smarter.

As my Re/code colleague Bonnie Cha wrote from the SXSW festival in Austin last week, “these devices have a long way to go in offering personal and meaningful information that encourages people to live healthier lifestyles.”

But all is not lost with that $150 behavior-reinforcement band you’ve got there. There are still some tips and tricks that might help you maximize it in the short term. Here are a few I’ve been trying out recently:

If this, then that

“If this, then that” is a phrase commonly used in computer programming, in the sense that you’re telling the program, “If something happens, automatically perform another function.” If you’re willing to try some simple programming, you can also program your wearable apps, through a free consumer app called IFTTT.

By downloading this app to your iPhone or Android smartphone and linking it to your Jawbone Up account, you can trigger certain actions to help keep you motivated. (Fitbit actually requires some workarounds, so it’s possible to use with Fitbit but not as simple as connecting IFTTT to the UP app.)

For example, I told the IFTTT app that if I got less than six hours of sleep — according to my Jawbone Up wristband, which records sleep activity — then IFTTT should post a “Meh” status update on my behalf. I also programmed the app to automatically tweet when I walked more than 10,000 steps.

These IFTTT recipes don’t always have to be socially motivated. I told the app to display my Jawbone sleep data in percentages: Deep sleep/light sleep/awake. Or I could have my activity data automatically uploaded to a Google Drive document every time I synced my band.

There are enough IFTTT recipes out there to fill a book, and you can make up your own, too. I think this can really help keep things interesting if you’re bored with your Jawbone or Fitbit.

Can a wearable app track your caffeine intake?

Okay, so Jawbone’s newest Up wristband, the Up24, was just a slight improvement over the company’s previous model. Jawbone has now taken a decidedly data-driven approach to Up, focusing less on the next-best-feature race. One of its latest efforts around data involves caffeine.

Jawbone recently introduced Up Coffee, a free app for iPhone that can link to your existing Up app and help you track your caffeine consumption. When used over a period of time, it will compare the data with your sleep patterns and try to tell you whether those Trenta coffees you’re drinking (I’m talking to you, Walt) are having an impact on your sleep.

In real-life speak, that means, “What good does it do if you’re taking the time to exercise regularly, but you’re consuming junk food and not sleeping well?” For the past week, I dutifully recorded my coffees in the Up Coffee app, and set the Jawbone wristband to record my sleep each night.

The app is nicely designed. I liked how my coffee intake appeared as fluid dots in a daily beaker, and how it measured out how much would make me “wired” versus when I’d be “sleep ready.” The app offers the option log a variety of caffeinated beverages, including lattes, espressos and cups of tea. I could even record sweets like chocolate, as well as over-the-counter medications.

The app also shows daily tidbits, like how I stacked up compared with the average coffee consumer. But even after seven days, it didn’t give me any really amazing insights about how coffee affected my sleep. The company says it may take seven to 10 days to see smarter insights.

Look for inactivity data

Most activity trackers are about positive reinforcement. You walked 8,000 steps today? You get a first-pumping yellow cartoon man in your app! You slept nearly eight hours last night? Blast it to social networks! Came close to your Nike Fuel goal for the day? Share it with high-school friends whom you haven’t seen in 15 years! You deserve a bunch of digital slaps on the back.

For some people, these are effective motivators, but lately I’ve found it more helpful when a wearable tells me when I’m not moving enough. Garmin’s new $130 Vivofit wristband, for example, shows you your inactivity, with a red bar that runs across the top of the device’s display. The first red blip appears after one hour of inactivity; like Pinocchio’s nose, it keeps growing the longer you’re sedentary, every 15 minutes after that.

This past week, after losing track of time at my computer, when I looked down and saw the red bar appearing on my Vivofit, I jumped up and went for a quick water break.

Jawbone also highlights the negative: Each week, the company sends an email with your weekly Up stats, and buried in that is an “Idle Time” period. For me, I was most idle between 11 am and noon, which makes sense — I had been at the computer for around four hours at that point, but hadn’t gone out for lunch yet. Knowing that, I made more effort to get up and moving around 11 am this week, even if it meant taking an early lunch. Fitbit sends weekly stat reports, too, which in the past have let me know that my lazy Sundays are getting a little too lazy.

Bonus tip: It’s okay to ditch the wristband

This might seem counterintuitive. How can you maximize your wearable wristband if you’re not wearing it? But the truth is, many of them are really starting to feel interchangeable in terms of feature sets. In some cases, your smartphone can do the job for you.

Take Moves, for example, which is available on iOS and Android. When I first wake up in the morning, this $2.99 app tells me how many miles I walked, biked and ran the day before, provided that I kept my phone in my hand or pocket during all of those activities. Sometimes it’s not the most accurate measurement, but the fact that an iPhone app can track all of this makes me question the value of a wristband.

I recently discovered that I can log not only running and biking activity through the Strava smartphone app, but also yoga sessions; RunKeeper will do the same. Nike has a Move app that records your activity on your iPhone, no Nike+ FuelBand needed. Even Fitbit now has a “mobile track” app that records activity the way the Fitbit hardware does, although in a more limited capacity.

The future of wearables still looks promising; in the next few months, we can expect to see a whole bunch of supposedly improved smartwatches, as well as smart “bands” from Samsung, Sony and others. Hopefully, these tips will help you out until the next big wearable is here — scratch that, until the next big wearable delivers what it promises.

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