Fixing Apple Watch's Move Goal

I mentioned last week that I was trying to figure out how to fix the Apple Watch’s activity tracker. Elizabeth Lopatto somewhat beat me to the punch by detailing her move goal problems with the Apple Watch:

The first week I put it on, the Apple Watch says I have to make 300 calories’ worth of movement in order to achieve my goals. So I do. This isn’t hard, and a couple days later, I actually triple my goal, which feels good. I know this because the Watch tells me. It feels good to get the little gold star and the silly badge that confirms I’ve made my stand goal, my activity goal, and my exercise goal for the week. The next Monday, the Watch tells me I should shoot for 750 calories.

This is when the failure begins.

The constraint on the Move goal is my rest days. I don’t do yoga on Tuesdays or Thursdays. Instead, I cook, usually in big enough portions that I can use the leftovers for lunch the next day. The relevant thing here is that cooking takes time; I can’t work out and cook at the same time. Without rest days, I hardly cook at all, which means I spend more money on takeout, which is generally worse for me than the foods I prepare myself.

The Apple Watch doesn’t care about any of this. Rest days are the limiting factor on my ability to hit my move goal — while I easily hit 700 calories by the Watch’s measure on my workout days, I move a lot less when I take time off from working out. But rest days are crucial for exercise: they let your body recover. Without recovery, you don’t get the strength you’re trying to build, and you place yourself at risk for overuse injuries.

At times I remind myself of what Blahnik said: this is a minimum. You’re supposed to beat it. This reminder makes me feel worse, not better. I stop letting the Watch set my Move goal. It is too unkind to me.

The idea of a move goal is great, the execution is somewhat off. The current move goal feels like it was designed in whatever is Tim Cook’s fitness equivalent to Jony Ive’s world of white.

There’s two pieces to how I would fix this:

First, the daily move goal should take a cue from the exercise and stand goals and be a static metric: something akin to the 10,000 steps that Fitbits and old-school pedometers used to set as goals (though, I agree with Lopatto that ‘steps’ isn’t exactly right). If Apple is set on ‘calories’ as that metaphor, that’s fine. It can stay. It’s not like ‘calories’ is exceedingly accurate right now, so setting a static calorie goal for everyone is at the very worst value neutral in the accuracy department.

Regardless, the focus of the daily move goal should just be meeting a minimum baseline of activity– essentially making sure that you’re doing more than just sitting on the couch all day. I do think there’s value in maintaining daily fitness goals, but good news! That’s already being achieved with your 30-minute exercise goal.

Second, your new “move goal” is now based on burning a user-adjustable amount of calories per week (exactly like the current move goal operates, but on a weekly instead of daily basis). Apple Watch badges (like move streak, perfect week, and perfect month) should remain. But instead of tying them to daily goals, tie them to the weekly goals.

Let’s say your current (daily) move goal is 500 calories and that you wanted to set your weekly move goal at essentially the same level: 3,500 calories. If you average 600 calories for five days of the week and 250 calories the other two days, congratulations– you’ve met your 3,500 calorie move goal.

This achieves two things:

  1. You can still challenge yourself and have rest days. How many calories you burn in a discrete day is irrelevant as long as you get your 30-minutes of exercise, your twelve stand hours, and meet whatever the baseline activity is for the day. What matters for streaks now is how many calories you burn in a week.

  2. Weekly goals are more easily achievable, but are not any worse for your fitness– 3500 calories burned in a week is mostly the same as 500 calories burned in seven consecutive days. This eliminates some of the “failure bracelet” aspect that Lopatto mentioned in her article. Sure there will be some weeks that you struggle to meet your move goal, but there will be a whole lot fewer of those than individual days you struggle to meet it.

I love the idea of the Apple Watch and I mostly love its execution: last year I lost 50+ pounds by keeping a 150-day move streak alive. But guess what? As soon as I lost that streak, I lost a lot of my motivation to work out.

I’m not saying that the Apple Watch needs to go easier on the fitness aspects of people’s goals, but I am saying that the Apple Watch needs to go easier on the behavioral aspects of them.

Jordon Wadlington @jordon