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Use your smartphone to help break bad habits (and form good ones)

We've all got a few. Even the most physically-fit and mentally-sound among us carry a few around with them every day. They're bad habits, and the science of understanding the formation of habits and what it takes to break them has been the subject of intensive studies by both academic and corporate interests for many years. Academics want to know for the purposes of understanding how habits are formed and what it takes to break them, while corporate interests are interested in how they can predict and take advantage of them.

The New York Times last week published a fascinating look into corporate data collection that reveals the equal parts impressive and disconcerting efforts put into and results of shopper data collection, in particular the work done by US retailer Target. So how does this factor into habits? Target's analytics work indicated that shoppers fall into very strong habits with regards to their shopping patterns and it generally takes a major life-changing event (moving to a new city, a divorce, having a baby) to put those habits into flux. By analyzing the shopping patterns of their clientele, Target was able to identify female shoppers who they suspected to be pregnant, and within a few-weeks range how far into the pregnancy they were. By knowing this, Target could target specific advertisements (coupons on receipts, mail-delivered flyers) to those shoppers with subliminal hints that they should do their baby shopping, and eventually other shopping, at Target - identify the pattern and manipulate the habit formation.

We all have many habits that aren't bad. Times author Charles Duhigg acutely points out that we learn habits as "chunks" of tasks in response to an input. For instance, backing a car out of the driveway or even a parking spot is a habit. Remember the first few times you tried that? Never-wracking, wasn't it? Heck, the second time this blogger tried he backed his father's car into a ditch (as you might imagine, Mr. Kessler was none too pleased). Brushing your teeth after breakfast is a habit. Reaching for your phone after hearing a tone or feeling the vibration is a habit, even if you aren't waiting for a message you can't help but wonder what came in.

The key to breaking bad habits, Duhigg was told by the habit scientists he interviewed for the piece, is understanding that every habit has a cue and a reward. He cites a study where mice were conditioned to expect a loud click before being released into a maze, with chocolate at the end as the reward. Once the mice had learned the maze and the cue, the click kicked off a spike in brain activity and then they ran the maze on autopilot. Once they reached the chocolate, brain activity spiked again.

That same activity happens in the human brain with regards to habits. Every habit we have, no matter how mundane, comes with a cue, a routine, and the reward. Backing out of the car is cued by you getting in the car and opening the garage door, the reward is the satisfaction and relief (however small) of having completed the maneuver successfully. Brushing your teeth is cued by finishing a meal or taking a shower (or whatever your morning routine is), the reward is a satisfyingly clean-feeling mouth and better breath. Repetition of the task engrains the cue-routine-reward loop in our minds, eventually leading to a craving of that reward. That's not to say that you can't help but badly desire to back your car down the drive for the overwhelming wave of satisfaction that comes from doing so (you're weird, admit it), but that once you get the cue, the habit takes over with the end goal of the reward.

The same goes for bad habits. There's the lunchtime smoke break, the morning doughnut, or that soda you just have to have with dinner. There's a cue, the routine, and the reward. Quite often the reward is something other than the obvious. Duhigg tried analyzing one of his own habits - an afternoon cookie from the Times cafeteria. He tried putting notes on his computer to tell him not to get a cookie, but every afternoon he ignored it and found himself in the cafeteria, munching on a cookie and chatting with colleagues. So he asked himself "What is the reward? Is it the cookie or the conversation or just getting away from my desk? What's the cue?" After going for a walk, getting a coffee instead of a cookie, and then an apple instead of a cookie, Duhigg recognized that it was the chatting with colleagues he craved, and noted that every time he felt the impulse to do that, he was bored. Cue: boredom. Routine: go to cafeteria and buy a cookie. Reward: chatting with colleagues. Now, upon realizing he's bored, Duhigg finds somebody in the office to chat with instead of trekking down to the cafeteria for a cookie he doesn't really need or want.

Identifying the routine of your habit is typically the easy part. All you have to do is stop and think about what you did. The why, well that's another story, and that where your smartphone comes into play. As noted earlier, the why has two parts - the cue and the reward. There are a number of apps you can use for this process, but something as basic as Memos will do the trick. Essentially you need an app in which you can log your habit's cues and rewards - Memos will keep it on your phone, while you can use Smart Office to sync to DropBox or Google Docs a tracking spreadsheet. It's up to you and your comfort level with getting fancy.

We'll start with the cue. Every cue is precipitated by environmental factors and your mental state. When Duhigg felt the urge for the cookie coming on, he logged the following data points:

  • Where are you?
  • What time is it?
  • What’s your emotional state?
  • Who else is around?
  • What action preceded the urge?

It can take a while, but after several days a pattern will start to emerge. It might be your arrival at work that prompts you to go to the break room and pour a cup of coffee. It might be boredom at 3:30 that pushes you to get the cookie for socialization.

With the cue identified, you can do the same with the reward. Knowing that you're feeling a craving for something, take the time to think about the individual aspects of that. Is going to the cafeteria, getting a cookie, and chatting with colleagues about getting up and moving around? Or is it about the cookie? Or how about socializing with friends? The cookie's the only bad part of the routine, and if it's the not the reward, it's not a huge deal to cut out, apart from rewiring your brain to not do it. So the next time you feel the urge to engage in that habit, take a moment and think about how you can change it up.

Once you've changed it up, whip out that smartphone and log how you feel afterwards. What did you try, and are you still craving something or did that do the trick? What should you try next time?

Of course, some habits are harder to break than others. Those that develop a physiological connection - like nicotine, caffeine, or alcohol - can require more rigorous personal discipline and analysis to understand and break. This blogger personally broke a strong caffeine habit and it took the course of six months and conscious acknowledgement of my caffeine intake, its affects, and what I would have to do to stop it to finally break the habit.

Looking back I wish I had looked into the science of habit formation. As it turns out, my cue was thirst, my routine was to reach for a Mountain Dew, and my reward was the feeling of that cool liquid pouring through my mouth. On the side my body had developed a caffeine dependency. Once I realized enough was enough, I began cutting back my Mountain Dew intake and substituting in cold water. If it hadn't been for the caffeine dependency I might have able to pull it off much faster, but when you develop that kind of chemical dependency you have to ween yourself off it or find a replacement to avoid withdrawal symptoms and falling back into the habit harder than you were before.

Where your smartphone can be used to help log and track your progress in breaking bad habits, you can also use it to start forming good habits. Since it's Fitness Month across the Mobile Nations family of sites, let's take a daily workout as a positive habit you want to form. Let's say your end goal is to get into better shape, but since that takes time you need some sort of daily motivation to do it. Go through your exercise routine and use your smartphone to log how you feel afterwards. Chances are after you've caught your breath you actually feel pretty good - that's the endorphins talking. Let them talk, they're telling you good things. Log that feeling and make a conscious effort the next day before you hit your exercise routine to think about how good it feels once you're done. Repeat that, day after day, and eventually that conscious effort can become a subconscious cue and you find yourself in the habit of wanting to exercise for that endorphin rush.

There are a great many ways your smartphone can help you to become a more fit individual. But helping you to identify and break bad habits and form good ones might be the best of all.