The right app for building habits

Habit is one of the most well-known and well-researched psychological phenomenon today. So why do so many people have bad habits? Because the people who understand habits are usually trying to form addictive habits for others in order to turn a profit. Every business model that runs on some form of addiction thoroughly understands the psychological and/or chemical process of habit formation.

The main chemical at play in habit and addiction is the neurotransmitter dopamine. When released in the brain, this chemical produces feelings of reward and pleasure. When the release of dopamine is associated with something, it creates wanting for that thing and readiness to learn how to obtain it. As with everything in the human body, it’s more complex than that, but dopamine is the key chemical in the cycle of want, learn, reward, repeat.

There are plenty of self-interested businesses creating desire by providing direct rewards or associating their product with rewards, and they are all aiming to become your next craving. They are training people en-masse to execute the three simple steps of habit formation:

1) Recognize a cue that signals the availability of a reward 2) Perform a behavior that follows from the signal 3) Stimulate pleasure and reward that follows from the behavior

Here are some easy examples.

Cue: Image of a delicious hamburger. Behavior: Come to the restaurant and order. Reward: Cheese and grease. Cue: Flashing lights on a slot machine. Behavior: Deposit money and push the button. Reward: More flashing lights, blinky sounds and money. Cue: "How are you feeling today?" Behavior: Update your Facebook status. Reward: Social approval.

Oddly, the ultimate failure of gamblers and the occasional silence or rebuke on Facebook can actually be more addictive than a habit that provides consistent rewards. These intermittent rewards encourage us to further heighten our focused dopamine attention in order to learn the patterns that lead to success. In general, our social environment doesn't good habits proper rewards.

What are the proper rewards? In theory, that’s entirely up to you, and depends on your ability to train reward yourself appropriately.

Dopamine provides simple, direct, immediate gratification. If you’re reading this, then pobably most simple gratifications in your life -- food, sexual stimulation and social approval, are easily attained. This contrasts with our business lives, where many goals are complex, ambiguous, and long-term. Finding a new job, learning a new skill and networking all have complex, uncertain and long-term payoffs that, for many people, don’t naturally engage the simple and powerful cue, behavior, reward cycle.

If only there was a mobile app that could help us. Punch “habit” into your app store and you’ll find dozens of apps to choose from. Unfortunately, most of these applications fail to leverage the simple cue, behavior, reward cycle. Every app will provide you cues and reminders, and most contain a place to insert notes about the behavior that you want to repeat. But most applications fail to address rewards. They simply neglect to incorporate rewards into the program whatsoever. Instead, they rely on brute strength repetition to get the habit to sink in.

One app reminds you that it takes 66 days to build a new habit. While it’s probably true that if I went to Burger King 66 days in a row without buying a hamburger, I would be likely to return on the 67th day, I would be a lot more likely to return if I had been fed a Croisan'wich and coffee every morning. Getting the reward is key. I know data science is hot right now, but the following output doesn’t turn me on as much as it needs to.

As you can see, it takes 10 or 12 data points to see a trend. The app relies on your sheer willpower to make sure that trend is positive. If it’s not positive, then you’ve spent 10-12 days sort of pursuing a positive habit and inputting data for a *meh* result that won’t motivate you to continue.

(Stupidly, right alongside this poor habit application, there are thousands of addictive or semi-addictive, habit forming games in the app store that are programmed line-by-line to capture your attention with challenges and rewards) Was it too much to ask for these developers to program a simple “yea :)” banner notification to indicate a reward?

I admit, the image above was selected for its acute boringness, but rest-assured, I’ve downloaded dozens of applications and most of them fail to even attempt to integrate rewards into the platform. For months, I did my best with Habit Pro, a highly customizable application that, with some effort, takes on a bit of personality. I used it mostly as an organizer and data tracker, but it wasn’t particularly enjoyable.

I had to ditch Habit Pro when I switched from iOS to Android, and I decided to try the somewhat cheeky looking “Habitica” app. I had always skipped it because it looks silly and unprofessional, but when I started using it, I found the developers had found some creative ways to reward positive habits.

The rewards from Habitica come in two basic types: in-game rewards and custom rewards. In game rewards include new weapons, armor, pets etc. Custom rewards are determined by the user and pay off in real life. You can set the cost for a particular reward, earn gold by repeating your habits, and buy the reward. The process isn’t perfect, but it has worked on me. I've set up my custom rewards so that a beer costs me 10 gold pieces, or roughly one day of reasonably challenging work. I’ve learned to associate Habitica gold pieces with real life pleasure and rewards, and every time I complete a habit I feel the sweet ca-ching of pleasure in the bank.

I won’t painstakingly detail the features of Habitica vs. other applications, but I promise you that, despite the dorky game look and feel (I personally love the look, if you don’t, then it will probably be a bit less useful to you), Habitica has plenty of graphs and data downloads available. That said, here are a few tips I picked up from my six weeks of use (and 3 years of Organization Development experience):

- Align your habits with your goals.

- Align your goals for a vision of a better future.

- Align your future with your values.

- Review your habits once a week to make sure they are still relevant.

- Make sure you are rewarding yourself for making progress towards the goal, not just going through the motions.

- Measure your progress towards your goals and regularly remind yourself of the real-life benefits of achievement, not just the in-game benefits.

As with any process, it will take time to get it just right. You will have to tinker with some parameters to get the right mix of challenge and reward. If you tend towards flatness and depression, give yourself a few more rewards and feel good about the work you do. If you tend towards jolly self-delusion, dial the rewards back a bit and find more value in the struggle.You can alter your goals or ditch the app once you have started receiving substantial real-life rewards for your behavior.

Good luck!

Your sincere comments are welcome and appreciated.

Ryan Gurule, MAOD Consultants

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