Hacking Habits: The science of how to make new habits and stick to them

HABITS HEALTHBEATWe all want to be healthy, live happier and more fulfilled lives, but it’s our habits that will define whether or not we achieve these goals. Habits, rather than conscious decision-making, can shape as many as 45 percent of the choices we make every day.

Will Durant defines it perfectly in his book The Story of Philosophy, when he says: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

Thanks to the explosion of wearable tech and digital health, now more than ever, people are paying closer attention to, and tracking, their overall wellbeing.

For many though, purchasing a wearable device doesn’t ever lead to a positive habit or change of routine, and after a while good intentions can easily fall to the wayside.

So, how can we form good habits and actually make them stick? Let’s take a look.

7 most desired habits
The 7 most desired habits are: Exercise more, read, floss, be asleep by midnight, eat breakfast each day, save more money and eat more fruit and vegetables. What’s your most desired habit? Tweet and let us know.

The habit of tracking

2014 is predicted to be a big year for wearable technology and tracking devices. In 2013, around 1.8 million smart bands, such as those used to monitor fitness, were shipped and research from Canalys suggests that over 17 million wearable bands are forecast to ship in 2014.

“Though currently a relatively small market serving fitness enthusiasts, wearable bands represent a massive opportunity in the medical and wellness segment. 2014 will be the year that wearables become a key consumer technology,” Canalys

Recent research also shows that one in ten U.S. consumers over the age of 18 now owns a modern activity tracker and if Canalys’ predictions become a reality, then this figure will also show huge growth in 2014. Tracker_ownership

Has tracking become a habit?

With sales of wearable and tracking devices on the rise, you’d expect tracking and self-measurement to have become a habit for a large percentage of those who purchase devices, right?

Well, the figures aren’t so good on this: according to Endeavour Partners research, one third of U.S. consumers who have owned a wearable product stopped using it within six months. Worse still, more than half of U.S. consumers who owned an activity tracker no longer use it. Decline of use Why is this?
Some devices simply don’t work well enough: the batteries run out too quickly, they break easily or they don’t sync with your smartphone or computer.

For other devices, the ones that get the above aspects and product design right, they simply don’t become part of everyone’s habits. Studies show that the majority of people who continue to use their wearable device past the initial 3-6 months  are already in great or good shape and highly motivated to stay healthy.

If you’re one of the people who owns and rarely uses their wearable device, don’t worry you’re not alone and the reasons you’ve stopped using the device are probably down to human nature, rather than your own lack of will-power or motivation.

Many devices provide data and insight, but they don’t have a meaningful impact on the consumer because they don’t inspire action or give back enough reward to become part of our habits.

Hacking habits for a better you

For those of us who already use wearable devices, and those who will purchase in the years to come, a huge part of our product buy-in is that we want to become healthier and we have a set of goals that we want to achieve. To achieve these goals, we need to make tracking a part of our habits, and unfortunately, creating a new habit isn’t as simple as popping out to the local store and buying a Fitbit or Jawbone Up.

Habit loops

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) discovered a simple neurological loop at the core of every habit. This loop consists of cue, routine, and reward. As Charles Duhigg states in The Power of Habit:

First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.

For example:

Here’s a cue, routine, reward breakdown for running in the morning…

  1. Leave your running equipment out the night before (Cue): As soon as you wake up you will see your running equipment and your mind will focus on going for a run
  2. Going for a run (Routine): This is the behaviour. When you see your running equipment, you go out for a run
  3. Feeling good (Reward): The reward is the benefit gained from doing the behaviour. After a run you feel pleased with yourself and will feel good throughout the day

If the reward from your routine is positive, you’ll want to repeat it the next time to cue happens. With this example, you may not go for a run every day (rest days are important), but you’ll know that each time you see your running equipment in the morning and go out for a run, the experience will be rewarding.

Setting the right cue

Selecting a good cue is the first step to making changes. Your cue shouldn’t be something that you have to remember or need a reminder to do. A good way to come up with a cue is to think of activities you do on a daily basis and use those as the trigger for your new behaviours. For example: “After I shower in the morning, I put on my Fitbit” and, “After I eat dinner, I check my daily activity figures.”

It might take more than 21 days
One of the big myths around habit formation is that if you do something for 21 days it will become a habit. Research shows this to be untrue. How long it takes to form a habit depends on the individual, the habit being formed and a number of environmental factors.

Set the bar low

Make it so easy you can’t say no. —Leo Babauta

Getting in the habit of wearing your Fitbit (Jawbone Up, Misfit Shine, etc) is one thing, but making sure you set yourself realistic goals is also key to making your habit stick.

Maybe you want to get more sleep, be more active throughout the day or you’d like to relax more and stop letting work take over your home-life. Whatever you want to achieve, you need to get the balance between dreaming big and your daily activities correct.

A study on motivation found that ‘dreaming big’ and aiming for high goals can be an effective way to stay motivated. However, many of us can also find it daunting to chase a lofty goal and if something doesn’t feel achievable we can lose interest and fail to achieve it.

That’s why we should set micro goals to help us achieve our overall goals. Let’s say you want to take more steps each day and be more active:

  • Your overall goal might be to take 15,000 steps per day and you could achieve this by walking to work instead of driving
  • Your micro goal could be to park slightly further away from work each week and gradually build up to walking in and achieving your 15,000 steps goal

By making the changes smaller and gradually build up to your overall goal, you can continue to reward yourself and feel good about your achievements each day. Instead of looking at your 15,000 steps goal and being a long way off it, you will look at the daily improvements shown by your device and feel better for your efforts.

As another example, take Stanford psychologist B.J. Fogg, and his experience with starting his flossing habit:

For me, cracking the code on flossing was to put the floss right by the toothbrush, and to commit to myself that I would floss one tooth — only one tooth — every time after I brushed. I could floss them all if i wanted to, but the commitment was just one tooth. [This works] because I was training the behaviour. Maybe once every few weeks, I’d only actually floss one tooth, but a majority of the time I’d end up flossing them all.

The next steps

Habits don’t form overnight and it may take some time before tracking becomes a part of your routine. However, if you stick at it the rewards can be amazing.

Understanding your body and the correlations that affect you are what we’re all about at Addapp. If you’re looking to lead a happier, healthier life or you would simply just like an extra hour-or-two of sleep each night, tracking can be key to understanding all the factors affecting you.

It may take some time to experiment and find the right cues for you to make tracking a habit. It may also take some time for you to find the right micro goals as you pursue your overall dream. It’s all a process of self-discovery, and even when experimenting, you’ll learn new things about what motivates you, how your body works and how to improve your wellbeing.

The good news? We’re here to help. If you have any questions about tracking, quantified self or starting a new habit, Feel free to leave a comment below or send us a Tweet.

Thanks for reading, please share this article if you enjoyed it!

Image credits: Endeavour Partners, Charles Duhigg, NIH

Community Manager at Addapp. I love sports, fitness and tracking. Outside of the office can often be found on a basketball court or football pitch.

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