by bsrubin on January 26, 2013

Being able to change habits offers the key to living fulfilled lives.

After reading The Power of Habit we began to understand how habit formation works in the brain, in people’s lives, and in society.  About a million product ideas popped into our heads.

Accumulating small habits is how you win at life.

Can we build tools to help people take control of their habits?  First step – customer interviews!

Problem Interviews

We followed the problem interview format from Running Lean.

Here were the falsifiable hypothesis we decided to test:

  • Understanding: People regularly have new habits they want to form or bad habits that they want to break.  They act on this.
  • I just don’t know how to get started on a some habits
  • I commit to a habit – but then I forget.  
  • I remember what I’m supposed to do – but I lose willpower and give in.
  • I do well for a while – then self-sabotage when I’m feeling a bit down.

We interviewed 14 folks (to whom we are very grateful!)  We tried to go wide and broad – but folks were generally within our networks or one step removed.

The True Power of Habit

We knew we were on to something after hearing how folks answered this key question.

What would be different if you could reliably break and build habits?

  • “Ohh wow – if you could do that… at the end of your day you can make your life look like anything you want to.”
  • “I would … wow … would have some more stability.  Would feel at less of a risk.  Would feel more secure – personally and professional.”
  • “Life would overall feel a bit better.  If I can get myself to habits faster… I can be more efficient at work … sleep less, be awake more, make more out of the hours of the day.”
  • “Would be more productive, happier.  Upside would be tremendous.”
  • “Feels like I would be closer to self-actualization, that vision of balance.  This would be the thing that would get me there.”

Those are powerful benefits.  Happiness, security, life balance.  Good stuff.

How do People Think About Habits?

Key customer personas emerged around habit change.

Process Driven Self ImproverFrequently reflects on life, decides to implement new habits.  Has a process for doing so and is reasonably effective at making changes.

Frenetic Self ImproverAlways working on lots, has tons of ideas for how to improve their life – but no structure within which to make fast progress.  Often over-commits.  Doesn’t establish behavior change triggers, lets life get too ‘crazy.’  Big swings of up and down – do really well for a while, then lose willpower and backslide.

Focus Area ImproverGenerally has a small list of items that they are ‘working on.’  The list changes occasionally upon self reflection or facing new challenges in life.  This persona really varies in how effective they are in making habit changes.

Changes only with PainPersonal development and habit change happens after a looong accumulation of pain.  Sometimes a change is brought on by a life transition like a move, new job, break-up.  Not structured and typically fails to build new habits.

See any of these in yourself?  Did we miss any?

Customer Problems

This led to an articulation of what key customer problems exist in this space.

Conviction + Belief: I lack true conviction in why I need to change and true belief that I can change.

Life Fit: I’d like to change, but I can’t find a way to fit the habit into my life given many other priorities.

Lack Habit Practice: I know I’d like to make a change – but I can’t seem to get started or establish a routine.  Person has a low ability to establish a realistic routine and then has predictable trouble on willpower/follow-through.  Doesn’t set good triggers, etc.

Lack Willpower: Energetically lacks the willpower to follow through on commitments.

Comparing this list to the hypothesis we came in with is instructive.  Only one hypothesis remains untouched (Willpower).  A few hypothesis were combined into Habit Practice.  Conviction/Belief and Life Fit emerged as key problems.

Two Core Problems in Habit Change

I’d like to make a radical suggestion.  There are only two key problems in habit formation.  Lack of Conviction/Belief and Lack of Habit Practice.

Both Life Fit and Lack of Willpower are primarily manifestations of these two deeper problems.

A few examples from our interviews.

K. Has a young family which pulls most of his attention.  He would like to build an exercise habit.  At it’s core this habit could be accomplished in less than 15 minutes a day.  What stops him?  Whenever he thinks about exercising he feels simultaneously the prospect of pain (exercise isn’t always easy) and deep guilt (that he should instead be doing something for his family.)  He prioritizes family.  Why?

  • Exercise for K. is a big, long process of heading to the gym.
    • At it’s core this is a Lack of Habit Practice.  If the goal is to keep in shape – K. could accomplish that with a 10 minute body-weight exercise set at home conveniently tied to a trigger that happens everyday.  Would actually be easy to involve the family if that helped.
  • K. worries that he really doesn’t have time to exercise – and that he should either be earning $ to support his family or spending time with them directly.
    • At it’s core it’s a lack of Conviction.  K. doesn’t truly believe that building a must-do exercise habit is key.  (and maybe it isn’t…)

T. is trying to quit smoking.  She has tried off and on for years – and this year it’s one of her top 3 priorities for change.  Ultimately she wants to quit so she doesn’t die early and can be there for her family.

  • At it’s core it’s a lack of Conviction.  T. admits that even though she knows she should quit – she enjoys smoking and doesn’t want to give it up.  Secondarily – excellent Habit Practice would offer ways to ramp down without undue cravings and pressure.

Let’s Talk Product!

Most habit change products on the market work on the mechanics of habits.  Reminders and encouragement, data tracking and visualization.  Lift, Runkeeper, Beeminder.  Fundamentally these are tools that make it easier to build a good Habit Practice.

Tiny Habits is an experiment designed to go even further – by coaching you directly on Habit Practice it becomes easier to identify good habit change principles and then apply them in your life.  Leo Babuta has another great program called Sea-Change.

So there are good emerging tools that help you build a good Habit Practice.

The gap seems to be in Conviction and Belief.  This is something that heavy-weight social support like Alcoholics Anonymous groups do an excellent job with.

Product notion: Building Conviction that change is a must and Belief that change is possible is key to habit formation.  Start with a goal of yours – exercise, meditation, inbox zero.  We’ll help you build conviction by giving you timely and relevant reasons to change.   A quick text ’10 minutes of intense exercise a day increases your testosterone 50%’ or a short article in your inbox on ‘How meditation makes you a better parent.’

Product notion: There are certain principles that make habit change more likely to be successful.  Create a software environment where these principles are embedded.  1. Pick a habit. 2. Make sure it isn’t too hard (give examples – no 100 pushup habits before 50 pushup habits). 3. Rehearse possible failure points and what they will do. 4. Pick support partners. 5. Pick a reminder system. 6. Make a conviction statement. 7. Sign up for conviction building, 8. etc.  Don’t make it lightweight.  Make it heavy.  Want to dick around and maybe make a change in your life?  Use something else.  Do you really fucking need to make this change in your life?  Signup here.

What about Willpower?

OK – now I’ll contradict myself.  Willpower may not be as key as Conviction/Belief and a solid Habit Practice – but it can make things easier.

Someone with relatively low stores of willpower will have to start smaller, build a relatively larger amount of conviction to  make a change, etc.

So it’s worth thinking about how to deliberately build the willpower muscle as well.  Build comfort with being uncomfortable.  My friend Todd has a whole blog – Getting Stronger – dedicated to building this skill.

Product notion: Doing things that are slightly uncomfortable helps us build willpower – which has impacts across our whole life.  Discover what people find comfortable and uncomfortable.  Ask them to push through a little bit of discomfort ever day.  Focus on stuff that builds willpower – like holding your breath or squeezing a door handle until you can’t – without having the mental/cultural baggage of challenges relating to food, exercise, etc.

Killer Idea or Kill the Idea?

There are clear problems in the space with really deep benefits for consumers.

Current solutions are an excellent start – but there is tons of good work that can be done here.

But… we aren’t that excited about any of our product notions.  Not sure why – but we’re not jumping with excitement to go build.

So for now we are going to keep learning until and if we come up with something really worth exploring.  The most exciting way to learn more is by trying.  Derek and I are each picking up a couple folks who could use coaching on habit change.  We’ll help some people out and see what we learn.

We remain excited about this space.  By learning these principles I’ve already made a few key tweaks to my world.  I established better triggers for when I give Lyra (my dog) her meds and a bath.  I’m having some success using the trigger of ‘Hello/Hi’ to practice empathy by thinking or asking genuinely ‘how is your day going?’

  • http://twitter.com/DailySuicide Jscott

    This will not answer any of your questions.  At least, not directly.  

    I could use something that runs an algo on my goals/awareness and corrects for it. (Maybe that is getting to much into AI/transhumanism.)

    I once made it a habit to game Google.  There was a time where much money was made easily doing such.  Then the Google update labeled ‘Florida’ happened.  Things went south FAST.  It was still possible to do so for several years later but it became much more difficult and profits were short lived.  It took a while but Google got better at gathering and analyzing data.

    What if there existed a product for “Self” akin to Google Now?  

    Sensitivity to reality can be tuned.  The speed of the tuning is part of the issue.  

    I need my feedback sped up and my blind spots illuminated.  I do not always form goals properly.  I also do not evaluate why I failed accurately.  

    Tenacity seems to be important when starting or stopping a habit.  There are many moving parts to a habit.  Few things do I tackle that I think will be nailed on the first few attempts.  That is why importance of feedback loops and tweaks are heavy on my list of wants.

    And I rambled.  Again.

  • Anonymous

    Ramble welcome :)
    I’d don’t think that the idea of a meta-program/AI ontop of consciousness is a bad idea… we will see it eventually!

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