Your habit app is killing your habits!

Your habit app is killing your habits!

Thank you to Kathy Stawarz and Ian Renfree at UCLIC for carrying out research to inform this post.


It’s only January and already you’ve failed your New Year’s resolutions. Perhaps you even took the next step and downloaded a flashy habit tracking app. Chances are, you were hoping for a roadmap for your journey to a better you, but ended up more lost and frustrated than ever. Let’s have a look at a few common features of habit apps and how to get around their limitations.

a) Reminder notification

They don’t work. One of three things is going to happen:

  1. The notification gets lost amidst all the other stuff going on on your phone
  2. You’re be mid-conversation or mid-task and just ignore it
  3. You get used to the notification, Pavlov’s dog style, and then you get a new phone or stop using the app and it’s bye bye habit

The solution?

Rather than setting a reminder as a specific time, use a space or an activity as a cue. For example, I’ll meditate once I’ve brushed my teeth or I’ll call an old friend once I’ve gone through my emails. I’ll do a separate post on how to automate this. Otherwise, you could have a physical object in your house that begins your habit – e.g. a whiteboard in the kitchen or a meditation cushion you can see when you sit down on your bed zxpjnxz. NFC tags or smart buttons can also be useful here.

You can add more complex cues through smart lights like the ORBneXt – combining time and location cues. For example, it could turn blue when it’s time to meditate and it could do this at 7pm every night or only when you’ve done an hour of work (through RescueTime). Don’t put the cue in your work space or you’ll just run into the same problems.

b) Your list of resolutions

Most habit apps invite you to input five or more habits. Fans of the movie Airplane! And anyone familiar with ego depletion knows this is a bad idea. The idea behind ego depletion is that we have a certain amount of willpower to spend in our day and if we’re running a mile after work, we’re a lot less likely to resist that doughnut or Facebook binge when we get home. Starting more than one resolution might mean that they all fail when one fails.

If you focus on one key habit, you might find that others come along for the ride without your conscious intervention. For example, only you have a daily gym habit, you’ll naturally prefer healthier food and find that you have the willpower to focus better when on your laptop.

My favourite app for tracking a habit is Pledge. It has a big simple display and also makes great use of streaks. If you tell yourself you can’t break the chain (I’ve meditated 56 days in a row. I’m allowed to skip one day but not two), this seems to motivate repetition.

c) Reward and punishment

Thanks to Pavlok, you can now electrocute yourself every time you misbehave. Or why not fine yourself with Beeminder whenever your habits get off track? These are innovative and engaging ways to get you thinking about your habits but they’re unlikely to work in the long term.

  1. Once you become reliant on the punishment/ reward, if the conditions change, you’ll become like a kid in a class where the teacher’s just gone out the room.
  2. The theory here is that it has to be automated: a digital teacher/parent. An algorithm isn’t going to be able to accurately track if you are indeed doing what you intended as you intended it. The false positives will make you quit.
  3. You’ll be reinforcing the outcome, not the habit. After a while, you’ll just get bored and cheat. I pay 10 p every time I open the cookie jar? Well, there is just this one cookie still in the packet…

Make your rewards and punishments obviously lame. If you consciously know that there’s no way you’re actually doing this for the reward, you’re more likely to use the reward as a cue to reflect rather than a passive reinforcer. If you’re a total reward junkie, try to link the reward to the activity e.g. every time I finish meditating I can go and have a nice long shower; every time I’ve read an essay, I can read my trashy vampire novel.

My favourite app for motivating me to stick to my habit is Habitica (This is probably one of my all-time favourite apps and I will do a separate post about it). I stick to just one habit, then break it down into to-dos on a daily basis where appropriate. My avatar loses life if I don’t stick to my habit and there are many other retro game features that give Habitica the perfect balance between extrinsic reward and intrinsic reflection.

The good news is that you can turn anything into a habit eventually. The bad news is that the 21/30 days number is a myth. Kathy Stawarz suggests some complex habits take half a year to encode. An app can help to offload some of that willpower an thinking and could even make the work fun and social.

So give your resolutions another go!

Let me know if you’ve tried a habit app that actually works.

FacebookTwitterGoogle Classroom
FacebookTwitterGoogle Classroom
FacebookTwitterGoogle Classroom

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *