How Your Phone Can Help You Set Better Habits

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We often blame tech for our worst habits, like a distraction or bad spelling. But our phones, computers, and gadgets can just as easily help us build good habits — if we understand how habits work and the right technology to use. Devices can even help us break bad habits if we use them to create new habits that replace the bad.

After all, a habit is just a behavior that becomes a pattern: something we’re so used to doing that it becomes baked into our subconscious. That’s what makes bad habits so dangerous (we can’t stop doing them!) and good habits so powerful (we don’t have to decide to keep doing them — at a certain point, they become automatic).

As Charles Duhigg points out in The Power of Habit, a habit “loop” is made up of three pieces: the cue or trigger (whatever prompts you to engage in your habit), the routine (the habit itself), and the reward (the payoff that rewards and reinforces your habit). Your tech tools can help you with each of these components.

Triggers

Tech is most useful with the first part of this loop — creating a dependable trigger that prompts you to follow your routine. To set up useful triggers on your devices:

Pick your context. To develop an effective habit, consider where and when you want this pattern to happen. If you want to start flossing your teeth every day, for example, decide when you’ll do it (After dinner? Before bed?) and where (Powder room? Master bathroom? In bed, as a romantic overture?). Create a formula like this: “At (time and/or location) every (hour/day/week) I will…”

Select the right trigger type. Once you have this formula, build a trigger for it. You probably know your phone, computer, watch, and other gadgets can set reminders for a specific day and time. For a great many habits, that’s the right kind of cue: When I got tired of getting reminder calls from my bank, I asked Siri to “remind me to pay the mortgage at 7 PM on the 15th of each month.” But timed reminders aren’t the only kind of trigger available. Your phone can also cue you based on a specific location. For example, if you are trying to make mindfulness a habit, you can create a location-based reminder to take three deep breaths as soon as you get to the office.

Choose your device(s). A lot of the time, your phone may be the right tool for the job. If you always have it nearby, a pop-up notification (possibly accompanied by an alert sound) may be your most reliable trigger, whether it’s your phone’s reminder function or your preferred task manager or calendar app. Many of these systems sync between devices, so you’ll see your notifications in as many places as you can. If you have an Amazon Echo or Google home device, consider using it to trigger habits that you want to engage in when you don’t have a device in hand — or to prompt other members of your family to do something.

Get creative. Sometimes you need to build a habit that’s a little less predictable. Maybe you want to start eating a high-protein snack mid-morning, or promote your latest blog posts on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn as soon as they get published. Or maybe you want to build a daily practice (like journaling) but can’t to commit to a specific time each day. There a few types of tech triggers that can help with these situations:

  • Workflow apps like If This Then That and Zapier allow you to set up reminders based on more-complicated triggers that you define. For example, get a reminder to turn your meetings into “walking meetings” on any day when it isn’t raining, or a reminder to leave the office early if you worked too late the night before. Here’s a list of health-based examples from IFTTT and a longer, more general list from Zapier that includes some ideas about creating habits.
  • Streak apps take their inspiration from Jerry Seinfeld’s “chain” technique: To motivate himself to write every day, Seinfeld marked a big X on a wall calendar after every writing session, and promised himself he wouldn’t break the chain of X’s. Consultant Vida Morkunas recommends the Chains.cc app as a way of tracking any behavior as a chain. Put your chain app on your phone’s home screen so that it can prompt you not to break the chain.
  • Logging apps make it easy to record information like what you’ve eaten, when and how you’ve exercised, or when you’ve completed work tasks. While using a log is a habit unto itself, once you get into the rhythm of logging, the log itself can become a trigger. For example, logging your food consumption might trigger you to schedule a workout (if you notice you’re approaching your daily calorie limit); logging the work you completed today could be a trigger for writing a daily end-of-day plan for what you’ll do tomorrow.

Routine

Once you’ve figured out how you’re going to trigger or prompt your habit, it’s time to think about how tech can support it in the longer term.

Building Good Habits

Address your obstacles. One way that tech can be very helpful in developing new behaviors is in overcoming the obstacles to habit formation. For example, I recently decided to make my once-per-decade effort at knitting: I wanted to get into knitting while watching TV, instead of playing a mindless mobile game. Every time I’ve tried to knit, I’ve become discouraged as soon as I made a mistake or ran into something I didn’t know how to do — but in the age of YouTube how-to videos, I was able to get over that hurdle. Whatever change you’re trying to make, think about the obstacles to habit formation, and consider how to get online information or support that can get you over that hump.

Guide your habit. More and more people use apps to guide or structure their habit routines, particularly when it comes to meditation and exercise. If you’ve always intended to meditate, but don’t know where to start or how to stick with it, apps like Headspace, Insight Meditation, or Calm can talk you through each meditation session. If you’ve always wanted to become a runner, an app like Couch to 10K can coach you through a gradually ramped-up running program. Even apps like Google Inbox have implicit habit-formation tools: If you resolve to answer each email as soon as you read it, Google Inbox’s prefab, clickable responses will support you in that effort.

Do it in public. If the habit you want to form is creative or professional, you may find that a social networking platform is the best context for executing your routine. Channing Rodman, a social media consultant, developed her writing practice by posting daily essays to Facebook. If you’re trying to write more, photograph more, or connect more often with colleagues, finding a social networking platform you like using — and a mobile app that makes posting easy and enjoyable — can help build that routine of sharing and connecting.

Get encouragement. Sometimes habit formation is difficult because the habit itself is something we dislike doing, especially when it’s new and challenging. At these times, technology can help us access the real-time encouragement to keep going — perhaps by scheduling a daily Skype date with a friend so that you can do the tedious work of filling in your time sheets “together.” Some apps bake the encouragement (or competition!) right in, like fitness apps that encourage you to see how your weekly steps or activity compare with what your friends are doing. Sometimes the technology itself can provide that encouragement: The minute-long beeping of the quip toothbrush is designed to prompt us to brush longer.

Get distracted. Sometimes we need to develop habits that are really boring. A tech-enabled distraction can be your best friend if your routine bores you to tears. If it weren’t for Netflix, I would never live up to my resolve to do weekly invoicing for all my clients, and finding an addictive audiobook has always been my best way of sustaining a regular exercise routine.

Reward

The reward is what turns a repeated action into a habit. By building an association between doing something and getting some kind of immediate payoff, we train our brains to crave that habit loop. Tech helps here, too, either by providing an immediate reward or by offering other kinds of reinforcement. The key is to know what motivates you, so you can select a tech-enabled reward that actually works.

See your progress. The same logging apps that can serve as triggers may also serve as a reward. If you were the kind of kid who loved collecting gold stars on your classroom chart — or if you’re the kind of adult who loves crossing out tasks on your to-do list — the sheer act of recording your activity may give you a rush of satisfaction. There are a lot of habit-logging apps that can work for this purpose (find a list here), but if you’re using them as your reward as well as your trigger, take the time to test out a few until you find one that is pleasurable to use. You need to get a rush from logging your latest routine if you want this to reinforce your reward loop.

Level up. Enthusiastic video gamers (or Dungeons & Dragons fans) may find one app particularly rewarding: Habitica is a task manager and habit tracker that is designed to feel like a role-playing game. You earn virtual gold for completing your tasks and routines, and you can use the gold to buy various in-app rewards. My 11-year-old loves it, but I know plenty of adults who swear by it too.

Collect praise. I’m basically a Labrador retriever: There’s nothing I find more rewarding than a pat on the head, which is why I reward myself for tackling tough tasks by celebrating them on Facebook, where I can get my friends’ applause. Crafting guru Kim Werker uses this strategy whenever she’s trying to develop a new creative practice, by posting photographs of her work-in-progress on Instagram; the enthusiastic reaction and encouragement of fellow crafters is the best way to reward and reinforce her progress. If you find praise to be a motivator, build social sharing into your routines so that you can collect adulation as your reward.

Indulge yourself. All those online activities you think of as guilty pleasures? They can actually be productivity enhancers — if you use them as rewards. Trying to empty your inbox every day? Give yourself five minutes of Instagram scrolling whenever you hit inbox zero. Working on the goal of getting to the office by 8:30 AM every day instead of 9? When you show up early, reward yourself by spending the first five minutes of the day looking at the latest funny memes on Reddit. Whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of thinking of these rewards as “wasted” time: If they help you develop and sustain a valuable habit, they are well worth your time.

Breaking Bad Habits

The tech tricks that can help you form good habits are just as useful when it comes to breaking bad habits. That’s because, as Duhigg outlines, the best way of breaking a bad habit is to replace it with a good habit. Are you trying to cut down on alcohol? Create a tech-enabled loop that prompts you to make a smoothie instead. Want to stop being late to meetings? Use your devices to trigger or reward yourself for arriving five minutes early.

The reality is that technology is now central to many of our habit routines. The whole reason we spend so much time fretting about our phones and computers is because technology makes it so easy to develop new, undesirable habits.

But the same qualities that make tech a hazard zone for the development of bad habits also make it a very promising ally for the development of the habits we want. Learn to use technology to trigger, enact, and reward your habits, and you can become a habit-forming machine. Maybe your tech can even help you develop one of the most powerful habits of all: using your phone, computer, or other gadgets more intentionally and less compulsively.

Alexandra Samuel is a speaker, researcher and writer who works with the world’s leading companies to understand their online customers and craft data-driven reports like Sharing is the New Buying. Alex is the author of Work Smarter with Social Media (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015), and her new class, Work Productivity: Work Smarter with Your Inbox, is now available on Skillshare. Follow Alex on Twitter as @awsamuel.

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