I’ve experimented and had some success with many habit tracking applications. One of my favorite over the years was Coach.me (use to be called Lift). I noticed that when using habit tracking apps there was potentially a problem in the way your mind molds habits for the long term. Follow me..
Note: this post is only about habit tracking applications, not other tracking applications – running, weight-lifting, etc.
The App Becomes the Reward in the Habit Loop
In the book the Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg breaks down the 3 part habit loop. This includes the Cue, the Routine and Reward. These three parts are different for every single habit, both good and bad, that become part of your daily life. Here is are two examples:
Cue: Boredom at work
Routine: Go surf the web for random funny videos
Reward: Satisfied and covering up your lack of productivity
Cue: Tired in the morning
Routine: Go and Buy a Coffee
If you wanted to change a habit you need to keep the reward the same while changing the routine. In the second example i could replace buying a coffee with taking a cold shower. This would create some level of alertness.
Now, lets say I add “cold shower” to my habit application. My habit no longer lives in my head, it lives in an application. It will be complete when i press the check-box. The check-box becomes the reward alongside alertness. This is a problem for 2 reasons.
- The habit lives in the app, not our brains.
- There are now for sure 2 rewards (the feeling of alertness AND checking the box) and potentially 2 cues (if you set a reminder)
Let’s start with the first problem:
If the habit is not 100% part of our brain internally, it is not our habit. In other words, if we can not do the habit without the application than it is not a habit. Forget the application piece for a minute.
Imagine every day of your life that someone had to tell you to take a cold shower and then gave you a cupcake after you were done. Imagine every single day of your life this happened. Problem is, someone is telling you to do the habit and someone is rewarding you with a cupcake. What happens when the person stops telling you to do it and doesn’t reward you? I know i’m not taking my cold shower without a cupcake!!
Jokes aside: For habits to work, they have to be YOURS and live in your brain. You must FEEL the reward INTERNALLY.
The second problem is now your habit loops look like this:
Cue: Tired in the morning
Cue 2: App reminds you to take a cold shower
Routine: You take a cold shower
Reward 2: Checking off your cold shower habit in the app.
The application becomes a habit in itself. This is the goal of most websites and applications so that you become addicted to using them. The problem is you only have so much dopamine and willpower. You really need to decide how you are going to be using it!
My advice to you:
If you are going to use a habit tracking app, only use it for 30 days. Use it as a habit on-boarding process with a commitment to stop using it. If you can, do not use an app at all. Store the habits in your brain instead! Haven’t you been looking at screens long enough anyway 🙂