Hacking your habits

Today’s Lesson is from my daughter, Cheryl, offering her perspective on using technology to form better habits and improve your life.

Stop the habit of wishful thinking and start the habit of thoughtful wishes.
Mary Martin
1913 – 1990

Most of you have probably heard of productivity apps — electronic tools that use reminders and virtual to-do lists to help you get more done. I’d resisted trying these tools because I wasn’t convinced the time and effort to use them would actually pay off for me. Then I read about people putting these apps to other uses: to foster new habits, encourage self-improvement, and further their personal goals. Those benefits were appealing enough to be worth some time and experimentation, so I set up a free app and started plugging in the new, healthier habits I wanted to enforce.

While I’ve only been using this tool for two weeks, I’ve found it to be surprisingly effective — and with good reason. It turns out there’s a lot of psychology behind why these apps work.

First, in order to use the app, I’m specifically defining my goals and putting them in writing: I want to read 15 minutes or more; I want to exercise 10 minutes or more; I want to meditate 5 minutes or more. By writing them down, I’m formally committing to them, plus I don’t have to rely on my memory: I can easily check my list and see what’s left to do on any given day. And by clearly defining my goals, there’s no ambiguity or waffling; it’s easy to determine if I’ve succeeded. (Assigning small amounts of time to each item also helps; it makes the goal a lot less daunting, and once you overcome the resistance to starting, it’s easy to keep going and achieve even more.)

Productivity apps also give you feedback and help you easily track progress, which is important for maintaining the new behavior long enough to make it a habit. The app I’m using keeps a tally of how I’m doing, letting me know how many days my current streak is for each behavior; once you’ve got a streak going, the idea of skipping a day becomes a lot less appealing. The app also color-codes my tasks, with green or blue highlights on the ones I’m doing regularly and yellow, orange or red for the items that need extra attention.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, using an app to guide my behavior has made me much more aware of how I spend my time. Before, I’d waste a lot of time on activities that weren’t terribly satisfying but were easy; at the end of the day, I’d shuffle through social media sites or play Facebook games rather than consciously consider my alternatives. Now, I’ll look at my predefined choices — “read 15 minutes or more”; “play a board game”; “watch a new show” — and I’ll pick one of those activities instead. I may be initially driven by the satisfaction of checking that item off the list, but the result is the same: I end up pursuing an activity that engages me fully and provides much more satisfaction than endless scrolling on Facebook.

Ultimately, you are the only person who can improve your life — but you can certainly use a little technology to make the process easier. If you want to make changes and establish new habits, I highly recommend you give a good productivity app a try. That little extra push may be all you need to change your life, one improvement at a time.

I cannot say whether things will get better if we change; what I can say is they must change if they are to get better.
Georg C. Lichtenberg
1742 – 1799

Author’s Note: The tool I’m using is called HabitRPG, which utilizes a gaming theme to make the habit-forming process more fun. If you want a less whimsical option, I’ve read good things about Coach.me’s Lift and believe it’s a great alternative choice.

Copyright © 2015 Cheryl Chancellor

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