By Vanessa Naylon
Self-tracking is well-suited to self-aware OCD sufferers: people who can stick to the habit of collecting data. (By that definition, I’m a pretty good fit for Quantified Self practices.) But for most people, creating a habit is its own challenge. Gary Wolf of Quantified Self warns that it’s important to track the habits themselves: if you intend to meditate every day, how often do you skip the daily practice? Which months of the year are you most likely to skip meditation?
Naturally, then, some self-tracking discussions discussed the challenge of habit design. Some attendees wanted to find ways to create or break their own habits. Others were more invested in motivating groups of people to create positive new habits with the apps and products they were developing.
One self-quantifier, Mark Leavitt, is a former “comfort junkie” who built a custom chair to change a habit of sitting still too much. Leavitt says, “You don’t have to break every bad habit. Maybe you can hack it into something better.” So his HealthESeat (a personal invention) doesn’t make him spend all day standing but helps him be mindful of how much time he spends sitting.
Why I Needed to Learn About Habit Design
For me, taking a higher-level perspective to think about group habit design was most interesting. I have a vested interest in creating group habits: I work with a small group of friends on setting and achieving goals. Our “To Do List” group kicks off right around the New Year holiday, with everyone dreaming our biggest aspirations for the year. Then we meet every quarter, review progress, and set new goals for the next three months.
People have reported great results, which is why we’re now in our second year. But I’ve also found a few problems with my group goals project. One is that people have trouble sharing goals and achievements with other people, even their friends. Then they get stuck and can’t leave because they don’t feel comfortable officially quitting the group and implicitly turning down the friendship of the other members. Another problem is dealing with failure: when a goal is very important to someone but they’re consistently blocked from achieving it, the goals meetups can trigger destructive feelings of failure.
And the third problem is my own — even though this goals group was my idea, I shy away from letting the meetup invitations feel too emotional (or, for lack of a better word, “hippie-ish”). The consequence is that the overall brand of the goals group isn’t that strong — inviting people to the “Q3 Goals Check-In” feels corporate and uninspiring. It turns out there’s a difficult balance to strike between childlike sentimentality and cold, regimented order when it comes to setting goals, building habits, and recognizing personal achievements. Maybe that’s why so many self-tracker technologies focus their brands on the concept of analytics rather than personal success.
But I hope that if I can better think about habit design and design in general, perhaps I can teach my goals group how to form better habits and deal with habit collapse.
With Groups, Design for Engagement
In one of my favorite talks of #qs2012, David Fetherstonhaugh of IDEO proposed in his talk “The Quantified Us” that to encourage groups to track and improve themselves, you must design for engagement.
Unlike the 600 self-trackers who shelled out money for a conference on self-tracking, most people don’t find measurement inherently interesting. They don’t even find the promise of “better health” inherently interesting. Like kids waiting for the second marshmallow, people often find it difficult to delay gratification. So instead Fetherstonhaugh looks for ways to motivate groups to track themselves by leveraging short-term desires that serve long-term goals.
How could principles of design improve my goals meetup? A few ideas:
- Rename the meetup from “The To-Do List” or “Goals Meetup” to something more fun and evocative.
- Develop and communicate the mission statement of the goals meetup to the members — up to this point, I’ve kept mum on the origin story of my founding the group.
- Use design and branding to make participation more inviting. Look for benefits beyond or tangential to self-tracking to encourage self-tracking.
- Create more frequent, smaller check-ins to supplement the quarterly meetings.
- Leverage the group to reinforce new habits and positive feedback instead of leading the group alone.
I’m grateful to the Quantified Self conference for getting me thinking about this project again. Because my group meets so seldom, it had shifted to the back of my mind and was getting ready to circle the drain. Now I think that it might be one of the most important things I’m working on, and I feel more positive about being able to carry it off as a success.
Read Vanessa’s overview of the 2012 conference.
Further reading about Quantified Self practices:
- The Consciousness Prosthetics by Miko Matsumura
- The Woman vs the Stick: Mindfulness at Quantified Self 2012 by Whitney Erin Boesel
- Track Yourself: a map of digital tracking tools