I started 2021 with six habit tracker programs installed on my phone. Not from any obsessiveness, because I discovered something interesting about myself last year: I’m one of those people who is motivated by continuity.
Like a stereotypical urbanite creative, I started meditating recently. To my credit, I actually started before “these trying times” way back in August 2019. And while I was inconsistent in my practice, I did it enough to get a taste. What I didn’t realize is that for me, someone prone to anxiety, it actually does what all those patchouli doused hippies claim meditation does.
It calms me down.
On days when I don’t get my morning routine – which consists of morning pages (thank you, Julia Cameron) and 10 minutes of meditation – I’m like an over wound toy. Jangling nerves and snappish replies, followed by the inevitable guilt and shame which just winds me up even more. In a year when nothing worked right, this actually did.
And the app I’m using, the orange dot one, taps brilliantly into two aspects of human psychology: streak theory (or the theory of sunk costs) and nudge theory.
Streak theory powers every frequent buyer reward program in existence. For continued action – such as buying a certain number of sandwiches – someone gets a small reward. In sophisticated programs, or in certain educational settings, longer streaks earn rarer rewards. Keeping a streak going taps into our desire to make our sunk costs, the money or effort we’ve already put into something, be worthwhile.
Nudge theory, for which Richard Thaler won a Nobel prize in economics in 2017, is a concept that says that subtle shifts in policy are more effective at getting people to make decisions that are broadly beneficial for their lives. Digital apps leverage nudge theory by pinging you several times a day with light touch, often humorous reminders to buy that sandwich or do that meditation session.
In the digital realm, apps use these pings, or nudges, to leverage your working memory. Miller’s Law tells us that the human working memory can hold 7 plus or minus 2 things on average, unless something comes along to push it out of your mind, you’re probably going to do that session, or get that sandwich from that place when it comes time for lunch.
Streak theory and using nudge theory in this way both have a dark side, though. Keeping a streak going can be a form of addiction. It can also lead to paying for things you don’t really need.
There is also a school of thought that says streaks alone, which are neutral, aren’t effective at forming habits. To form habits, we need behaviors to become ingrained. They need to be things we do without thinking about them.
This is where the habit trackers come in. It isn’t simply a matter of getting that badge or seeing that graph add one more point for my completed activity. I also need the reminders. I need to use the addictive, distracting nature of cell phones to my advantage.
If I’m going to look at the thing, it needs to serve me in developing better habits.
The other thing I’m doing is off-loading responsibility to the application for making the decision to spend time on something.
If I’ve got the app nudging me to do morning pages, do my meditation, drink enough water, and take my vitamins then hey, I’m just responding to this thing. It’s not really me making the decision to spend the time on those tasks instead of having back-to-back meetings and working an average of 4 extra hours a week.