Last December, Jack Dorsey infamously went off the grid. For 10 days, he meditated in silence at a vipassana retreat in Myanmar, where he reported being deprived of devices and even eye contact. During that period, the Twitter and Square CEO unplugged by using his Apple Watch in airplane mode—to record the spikes in his heart rate as he meditated in a cave, at the mercy of hungry mosquitoes.
I also wore my Apple Watch and Oura ring, both in airplane mode. My best meditations always had the least variation in heart rate. When I wasn’t focused, it would jump around a lot. Here’s a night of sleep on the 10th night (my resting heart rate was consistently below 40). pic.twitter.com/9fiz8s8DR5
— jack ???????????? (@jack) December 9, 2018
Dorsey also sported an Oura ring, a wearable device that tracks sleep for those in pursuit of self-optimization. Aside from Dorsey, Oura is popular with the likes of Twitter cofounder Biz Stone and Salesforce’s Marc Benioff. Dorsey himself has become a tastemaker for the tech set—a Gwyneth Paltrow type for Silicon Valley, as Nellie Bowles wrote in the New York Times recently. “I was about to make fun of that article in a tweet,” Stone says of comparing Dorsey to Paltrow. “And then I looked down at my hand and was like, ‘Oh God, I got this ring because of Jack.'”
For the entrepreneur who embraces meditation and extreme dieting, a sleep-tracking ring seems a fitting accessory. “We’re lucky to have [users] like Jack,” says Oura CEO Harpreet Rai. “But we’re also lucky that it’s not just Jack telling people—the majority of Oura users tell other people about it because they start to measure and see the impact. They learn the relationship between some of the decisions they make and their lifestyle habits, and how it’s affecting their sleep and their overall health and productivity.”
Oura has zeroed in on sleep, which Rai believes sets it apart from other smart rings, such as the Motiv, which focuses more on tracking activity. The Oura ring is lined with sensors that measure heart rate and body temperature. (Pricing starts at $299, with a diamond-encrusted option for those looking to upgrade their wedding band.) Every morning, the Oura app gives you a “readiness score,” informed by your resting heart rate, physical activity, and quality of sleep the night before.
The Oura is, of course, selling more than just restful sleep. On its website, the Oura ring is marketed as a “secret weapon for personal improvement.” You, too, can achieve peak performance if you place an order. “The earlier you order, the sooner you’ll start working on better days,” the copy reads. And Dorsey’s endorsement lends credence to the notion that this is a lifestyle choice that yields success.
“People are starting to realize that lack of sleep is having a profound impact on their health,” Rai says. “And I think the whole world is waking up to that and seeing that, unfortunately as a result of poor sleep.” This shift dovetails with the development of technologies that take sleep tracking out of the lab. “To do an analysis on REM, deep sleep, and light sleep, you used to have to go into a sleep ward and have EEGs and EKGs set up overnight,” says HVMN cofounder and CEO Geoffrey Woo, whose startup makes performance-enhancing supplements. “What you see with all these wearables—sleep tracking, continuous glucose monitors—is the democratization or consumerization of what used to be medical-grade devices.”
One of the Oura ring’s biggest selling points, especially for the tech-saturated, is being unobtrusive (as much as a sensor-laden ring can be, that is). Many users prefer the Oura ring to wearing a clunkier wrist wearable like the Apple Watch overnight. “I wear it mostly in the night,” says Karri Saarinen, cofounder and CEO of software development management tool Linear.
Woo agrees. “It’s pretty seamless to just have it on 24/7,” he says. The ring also doesn’t need to be charged as often as an Apple Watch, for example. “The battery can last for a week,” Saarinen says. “Even when you travel, you don’t need a charger. It’s low maintenance.”
Frank Lipman, a sleep specialist, uses the Oura ring but isn’t totally sold on the accuracy of the device, especially with respect to tracking deep sleep and REM. An estimate by Matthew Walker, author of Why We Sleep and a professor of neuroscience and psychology at UC Berkeley, pegs the accuracy of sleep tracker data on deep sleep and REM at about 60%, when compared to lab studies. “I think the technology is early,” Lipman says. “I’m not sure how accurate some of it is. Ideally you’d like to have an EEG, or measure your brain waves.”
But Lipman acknowledges there isn’t a better consumer tech alternative at the moment—”nobody wants to wear something on their head”—and he finds the Oura ring makes its users more mindful and health conscious. “I’m all for people taking control of their health out of the doctors’ office and becoming more proactive,” he says. “I think if these are used responsibly, they can be very powerful tools for making changes in one’s health, and that’s what it’s all about—how we get people to create healthy habits.” He likens founders and CEOs to “mental athletes” who benefit most from cleaning up their diet and meditating.
Rai thinks one reason founders are drawn to the Oura ring, and sleep tracking on the whole, is as a way to exercise control over some part of their day. “Their schedules start to have control over their life versus having control over their schedule,” he says. Oura data fits neatly among a founder’s many dashboards for tracking performance. “You have dashboards for every part of the business,” Rai says. “This is like a dashboard on your life.”
Many Oura users check the app first thing in the morning, which Rai believes helps them make adjustments to their habits or routines accordingly. “Just like you would make different business decisions the rest of the quarter, you end up making different life and health decisions the rest of the day,” he says. Some users find that staying up late on the weekends, for example, can have a ripple effect on how they sleep during the workweek. Rai says Dorsey—who reportedly eats just one meal a day during the workweek—moved up his dinner time because he found he slept more deeply and had a lower resting heart rate. Other Oura users have seen the effects of drinking coffee in the afternoon and altered their caffeine intake accordingly.
Multiple founders told me the impact of alcohol was immediately obvious when they looked at how they slept after drinking. “It has been a shock for me to actually look at my heart rate after I drink a couple of beers or some wine—it almost looks like you’re doing exercise through the night because the heart rate does not drop,” says Amir Salihefendić, the founder and CEO of productivity startup Doist. “That means you don’t get the full recovery you need.” Nixing social drinking altogether is too extreme, he says, but using an Oura ring has encouraged him to dial back his alcohol consumption.
For Stone, the ring jolted him out of a cycle of poor sleep. “Before I had the ring, I was just letting myself stay up way too late,” Stone says. “I was like ‘Okay, the next Netflix show is coming up. I guess I’ll watch it. And you know what would go great with this Netflix [show]? A sandwich.’ Next thing I know I’m staying up until 1 a.m. eating sandwiches—and that’s the last thing I want to be doing.”
His personalized activity recommendations on Oura also prompted him to start exercising more. “My [Oura] activity goal was to walk two miles,” he says. “And I’m thinking, this thing must think I’m a 98-year-old man the way I live my life. So I started working out.” The only other tool that has effectively changed Stone’s behavior like this is Weight Watchers, he says.
Some might call this conventional wisdom. But for a data-driven class of makers and consumers, sleep tracking legitimizes what other people may only intuit from changes to their diet or routine. “I think the biggest factor that is making today’s movement around health and wellness differentiated from a natural cycle of different fad diets and exercises is that this is finally getting more quantitative,” Woo says. “In previous cycles, a lot of the rhetoric was around kind of the intuitive notion of feeling better. And that’s a little bit hazy to me.”
Like other tech platforms, the Oura is also tailor-made to keep users—especially its base of high achievers—coming back to beat their scores. “Both Oura and the Apple Watch include a lot of game mechanics,” Salihefendić says. “It kind of becomes a very addictive experience.” Sometimes Salihefendić wonders if there’s a placebo effect—whether an Oura reading might sway his perception of the day.
Some users beat themselves up over scores that aren’t trending up. Casper CEO Neil Parikh bemoaned a bout of poor sleep in the press recently, recounting uncharacteristically low Oura scores of under 60. Other founders take to Twitter to express their dissatisfaction over their Oura performance.
Just as I brag about getting such good sleep, I got hammered the following night after a 3-hour stint in the dentist chair with loads of ephinerine-laden anesthetics. 16 minutes of deep sleep is ???? and I'm a zombie. pic.twitter.com/ALZ0Eo26gH
— DHH (@dhh) February 13, 2019
That’s why Lipman cautions that the Oura isn’t for everyone. “We recommend it to some patients, but you have to be careful who you’re recommending it to,” he says. “For some people, it can actually make their neuroses worse.” He doesn’t exactly endorse the Dorsey method. “I think the trend at the moment is very masculine and aggressive, and I don’t think that’s good,” he says. “People need to be a little bit more gentle on themselves.” But if emulating Dorsey turns people onto a keto diet or the Oura ring, Lipman is all for it.
Salihefendić says reading Why We Sleep helped him, and many other founders he knows, take stock of their sleeping habits and the exacting standards they accepted as normal. “The culture before this was very toxic—a culture where you don’t really sleep or recharge,” he says. “Even the best athletes don’t practice all the time; they recover, sleep, and eat well. So I think the tech community is just maturing.”
Everyone I spoke to believes the adoption of Oura rings and other comparable trackers is the byproduct of a growing understanding that sleeping well is critically important. But it’s hard not to see sleep tracking as a more enlightened approach to the same end: Boost your “readiness” score, and you can unlock ultimate productivity at work. Whether you sleep more or less, the goal is to optimize work.
Still, the hyper-optimized remain optimistic about the future of sleep tracking. “I think there’s some data porn, or quantified self one-upmanship,” Woo says. “But my speculation is that there is some deep value here, and that it’ll be embedded into normal life—just like microwaves and smartphones are an obvious part of day-to-day productivity and modern life.”