Last month I read a great book, The Power of Habit, which explores the neurological science behind habit formation. There are a lot of interesting tidbits in the book—the most frequently cited (and somehow least interesting) one I’ve seen is around whether Target can predict you’re pregnant. The book tends to have a bit more focus on marketing than I’d like, but the angle of how marketing can be used to drive habit formation does offer some insight. The author shares an example of marketers creating a habit for millions of people to brush their teeth every day by connecting a behavior (brushing one’s teeth) to a rewarding feeling (smooth teeth, clean of film). Brush teeth, get reward—no more film!
But the most interesting insight in the book was not the need to have a reward for habitual behavior, but the insight that habit formation requires inserting a new behavior into an existing routine. The author uses Febreze as an example of how (again, marketers) made this connection—the P&G marketing team was able to turn Febreze into a success once they connected a cue behavior, in this case making the bed, with the new habitual behavior, here spraying Febreze onto the sheets. In other words, they injected the new habit into an existing routine.
I may find the routine aspect of this so interesting for personal reasons—creating a routine in my own life proves to be an ongoing challenge, and this may be the elusive input to my creating new habits. But is also suggests something interesting to me about the limitations of technology to help.
This weekend I signed up for HealthMonth, a neat little tool out of the folks up at Habit Labs in Seattle. I’ve been curious about Habit Labs for a while, and figured it was time to try out one of their tools. The secret to HealthMonth seems to be gamification of challenging goals—winning the game involves sticking to new behaviors, at which point you give yourself a reward. Along the way, you get little rewards as you record your progress—more points for performing against your challenges, social feedback, etc. All this is well and good, but what it is missing (at least for me) is insertion into an existing routine. I can play the game all I want, but until I find a way to make 30min of daily exercise part of a daily routine, I’m going to have a hard time making it into a true habit.
Which leads me to wonder where technology could really help me create new habits. Perhaps I need technology to help me understand my routine better, so I can identify opportunities to inject new behaviors. For example, maybe if I monitored my detailed location history for a week I’d see that every morning at about 11am or so I wander into the microkitchen at work and grab a snack (maybe I do!?), and instead I could choose a different behavior to insert at that time. The book describes an example like this, but the individual only identifies the routine through careful manual monitoring—something that almost requires a habit of its own! But I wonder if this is a limitation, where technology can only do so much to help change our behavior, or if it’s just an opportunity that remains open for grabs.