Staying Engaged: How To Use Streaks and Weekly Goals

Establishing new behaviors that eventually become habits that can lead to a new identity or sense of self can be hard. Two techniques that have worked to help me stay engaged as I work towards creating new habits are streaks and weekly – as opposed to daily – goals.


not wearing a Fitbit!

Just to be clear, a streak is just a number of consecutive times in a row that you have met a goal (I don’t want to get you arrested!)  The typical default step count goal in an activity tracking app like Fitbit for example is 10k steps per day, so a streak of 14 days would be 2 consecutive weeks of meeting the goal every day. Streaks are interesting to me because they leverage this cognitive bias that behavior researchers call “loss aversion”.

From Wikipedia: “Loss aversion refers to people’s tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. Some studies suggest that losses are twice as powerful, psychologically, as gains… Loss aversion implies that one who loses $100 will lose more satisfaction than another person will gain satisfaction from a $100 windfall.”

Nobel prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, describes loss aversion as the most important contribution that the field of psychology has made to behavior economics. I.E. this idea that keeping what you have is a more effective motivator than aquiring something you don’t yet have is a powerful concept that affects us all. And we should use it to our advantage when we are trying to create new habits.

A streak is something you “have”, the longer you have it, the more valuable it becomes and the more motivated you are to keep it going. If you’ve got 14 days in a row of meeting your step count goal, there is an extra incentive on day 15 to get off the couch and get those steps in to keep the streak going.

But streaks can be dangerous and work against you too. The Misfit Shine is an activity tracker like Fitbit that I experimented with for a while. Their app at the time had a streak counter that showed the number of days in a row that I had met my daily goal  (Fitbit doesn’t do this). The problem is, as the daily streak count went from days to weeks, it actually became a growing source of anxiety, and stopped being enjoyable. The longer the streak went, the more valuable it became to me and the more stressful meeting the goal each day became. And stress makes it harder, not easier, to create new habits.

But the Misfit app at the time also had an indicator that showed if you had met a weekly goal total, which was just a simple sum of the daily numbers added up for the week. And even though I had stopped being motivated by the daily streak counter, I noticed in February (2015)  that I had a string of weeks in a row where I had met the weekly goal of 70k steps. So I started manually counting back how many weeks it had been.  Ten! Wow! I had met my weekly goal All the way back to the week starting Dec 15, 2014!

So, of course, by the end of the following week I made sure to meet the goal again – 11. It was fun, and no stress. I could miss daily goals and make up for it by the end of the week and still meet the weekly goal. No anxiety, no stress. The weeks piled up. I switched to using a Fitbit along the way, but here we are, more than a year and half later at the end of July 2016, and I still have not missed a single week since December 2014!

As the weeks turned into months turned into years I have increased my daily goal, I’m now doing 100k steps a week, a bit of a challenge. But my minimum ‘streak’ goal is just 80k – which is by now actually quite easy, so no stress. It became a habit. It’s what I do now, it’s who I am. I walk. If I missed a week right now because of an injury or a lost Fitbit or some other unavoidable event, I would only be mildly disappointed in breaking the streak – but who I am, someone who gets up and walks regularly – that’s not gonna change.

Now, unfortunately, the Fitbit app doesn’t do weekly step count goals and it doesn’t track and visualize streaks so I had to figure this out on my own. It does have a view of the step data though that shows weekly step count totals – so I can page down through the weeks and see that I haven’t missed my goal since I started using the Fitbit last summer – but this needs to be a tile on their home screen!

And to make matters worse, Fitbit has another flaw on the loss aversion front (remember loss aversion, one of the most powerful cognitive biases we have for affecting our behavior?) Currently in the Fitbit app, for every day that you meet your daily step count goal you get a little “star”. I know, it’s a small deal, but as the days turn into years, it is nice to page back thru the calendar and see all those stars. I earned them, they are mine, they are valuable to me. But here’s the problem: if I increase my goal, from say 10k steps per day to 14k – I lose my past stars on the days where I had greater than 10k steps but less than 14k. That hurts. It’s small stuff like this that leads to all those Fitbit trackers ending up at the bottom of the sock drawer!

home0721In this post, I used daily step count tracking with an activity tracker such as Fitbit to describe how to leverage streaks and weekly goals – because that’s how I learned these concepts. But these ideas can apply to any daily habitual behavior that you want to carve into your life. For example, we have incorporated streaks and weekly goals into the user experience of a digital health app I am working on called KeepOnMovin’. KeepOnMovin is a physical therapy home exercise app where we track completion of prescribed rehab workouts instead of steps.

So the moral of the story:

Don’t end up at the bottom of your sock drawer! Instead, succeed in creating new habits that lead to a new you and use weekly goals and streaks to help!

Posted in Healthcare, Healthcare lifestyle, Healthcare technology | 1 Comment

A Small But Significant Patient-Centered Example

Digital health solutions that facilitate patient engagement must put the patient in charge, not the physician. Outside of the clinic, where health happens, in the day-in, day-out lives of people, we have to let the patient take ownership of and decide how they are going to engage and be “compliant” (I hate that word).

Here’s a simple example:

I’m working with a start-up who is shipping a remote patient monitoring and engagement tool. One feature of the experience enables patients who opt-in to be able to communicate with the clinic by receiving text or smart phone push notifications from the clinic with test results and instructions to modify medication dosage regimens. This an on-going, monthly process for patients on this specific long-term therapy.

A physician who recently started using the tool wanted to work through his list of new test please_do_not_disturb_signresults in the very early morning hours before he went into the office for the day – but didn’t want to bother the patients with notification messages before 9am. So, he requested a simple feature to allow him to delay the outbound patient notification a number of hours, depending on when he was working through the list. This way he knows that all of his messages will be received by his patients at 9am or later.

On the surface that makes sense, and sounds very empathetic – let’s give the physician the ability to adjust his workflow to best work with his schedule while not bothering the patient at odd hours of the morning. Providing the physician this lever to make that work sounds kind of patient-centered, right?

But, what if one of his patients gets up at 4:30am every day and schedules time first thing in the morning to focus on her health issues. At 9am she is regularly taking a quick nap and later in the day, at 3:30pm, she is typically walking her grandson home from school and spending quality time helping him with homework. The last thing she wants is to be interrupted from her nap or time with her grandson by a regular on-going management message from her physician about her medication dosage.

The physician’s immediate response to the problem comes from a desire to be considerate to the patient, yes, but also from a familiar paradigm of being in control of the patient and determining what is best for her.

The team’s immediate reaction to this feature request was, yea, that makes sense and would be easy to do, let’s make the doctor happy and implement it. It is very natural to want to make physicians very happy with the software we are giving them, because the paradigm we are all used to is one where the physician is at the center of our healthcare universe, therefore they seem like the primary customer for our product.

The real answer of course is to let the patient set up “do not disturb” preferences in the app. The outbound messages from the system will be queued and only sent during hours that work for this patient, not a generic patient who is statistically likely to be sound asleep at 5am.

The physician mostly gets what he wants. He’ll be able to work in off hours without disrupting his patients at odd hours. But he won’t have complete control for when the days messages are sent for all of his patients. It’s a little more complicated to wrap your head around the idea that some of these messages I send will go out now, some later. There is more cognitive load required to deal with this uncertainty and lack of control.

This is a small, simple and seemingly insignificant example of giving patients the levers that enable and empower them to participate more fully in their health, instead of giving the physician the lever.

There is no silver patient-engagement bullet, it is a concept and a collection of small steps that lead to an overall culture and philosophy of shifting the final responsibility for health and wellness from the physician to the patient.


Posted in Healthcare, Healthcare lifestyle, Healthcare technology

From Tiny Habits to Big Habits – My Five

On my journey to learning some of the neuroscience and behavior science research behind these things we call “habits”, I decided to put the theory to a test and see if I could turn what I considered to be a big, hard to achieve behavior – going to the gym every day – into a habit. Along the way, I found it helpful to distill what I was learning into a few key mantras that would be easy to remember and keep in mind. So here they are, the 5 key principles I used to turn exercise into a habit – I call them “My Five” (warning, I’m an engineer, not a poet!).

1. Not a Freak, Predictably Unique

It all starts with the realization that there is a high probability that my brain is extraordinarily average and that most of this research I was learning about is actually applicable to me too. Leverage the science, don’t fight it.

2. No Pain, All Gain


Do not make the behavior you want to turn into a habit a willpower challenge – which I define as a task that is painful today but will pay off in the future. Instead, completely forget about any future goals or rewards and find a way to make it immediately rewarding on it’s own.

3. Crave The Wave

wave01Consciously cultivate a craving for the behavior. Take time every day to pause and look forward to the next chance to do it again.



4. Get It Done With The Sun


Do it in the morning, before the day gets “started”. The first hours of the morning are the only truly predictable part of the entire day, so leverage that time to create new big, hard habits.


5. Lose the Virtue, It Will Hurt You


It’s just a habit – avoid the dangers of what psychologists call “moral licensing” and don’t brag about it or give yourself any extra credit for getting it done every day.  Just do it and get on with your day.



Those are my five guiding principles for creating big, hard habits. (I warned you… I’m not a poet, but the rhyming thing makes these very easy for me to remember and keep in mind on a daily basis.) Either stop reading now, or get comfortable, because I’ve got a whole bunch more to say on the topic.

 Getting Started With Habits

Before I get into the details of each of My Five, some background on how I got here:

I started  down this behavior science path with BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits program. It was a perspective shifting experience  that introduced me to 2 fundamental concepts: First, motivation, the one thing that I thought I needed more of, is actually an unreliable and unhelpful partner in creating long lasting behavior change. And second, the trick is to start with small, easy to accomplish behaviors and turn them into habits and then build on that success.

flossing_01By following the Tiny Habits protocol, I easily turned flossing my teeth into a daily habit. An unexpected and welcome outcome from this experience however was that with the new flossing habit, a shift in my identity also emerged. I became a guy who takes care of his teeth, not just someone who remembers to floss every day. As a result, today, almost 2 years later, I can’t even imagine not flossing and somewhere along the way I also started brushing my teeth more than once a day. It just came with this shift in my identity.

This emergence of a new identity is a critical concept to wrap your head around. It is the real goal, not the new habit, not the lost pounds, not the bigger muscles. In the words of Senaca from the book Letters from a Stoic: “You have to persevere and fortify your pertinacity until the will to good becomes a disposition to good.”

Your habits define who you are, not the other way around. So get your pertinacity in gear and create some new habits.

Guilt free trips to the dentist are nice, but flossing is indeed a tiny habit. gym_01Exercising for an hour – that’s a big habit. And while the advice to start small when trying to create a new habit is sound, the reality is that I already had a 1-hour routine at the gym and I wasn’t interested in turning that into a 5-minute workout in order to make it a habit.

Could I turn my 1-hour routine at the gym into a habit?

I consider a habit to be a daily ritual that takes absolutely no motivation, Something I do with the consistency and ho-hum-ness of say… taking a shower. But exercise takes an hour of pain and suffering, right? So an exercise ‘habit’ seemed to me to be almost an unnatural concept. This, I figured would be a true test of the theory I was studying.

It’s been more than a year now and the results are in. It took the entire year, but I did it – I exercise every morning, usually 7 days a week.  I look forward to it, I don’t have to talk myself into it, I don’t talk about it, I don’t brag about it, I just do it. And just like with the flossing, my exercise habit has expanded into healthy eating, no longer drinking coffee, and much more. From a health and wellness standpoint, I am an entirely different person today and it all started with establishing my exercise habit, the rest just fell into place.

My story is about creating an exercise habit, but everything here applies to any habit you want to create, any new identity you want to acquire.

Before you can really leverage these 5 principles however, I believe you have to come to the party with a fundamental understanding and belief in the role and power of habits in your life, and you have to really want to leverage that power by creating new “on-purpose” habits. To understand these fundamental concepts better, I highly recommend reading Charles Duhigg’s very engaging book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Bad habits seem to just show up without any real work, but good habits don’t just appear because you do the same thing for x number of days in a row, they require intention and an almost mechanical approach to helping your brain convert your behavior into a habit.

With that said, let’s get into the details of My Five.

1. Not a Freak, Predictably Unique.


Earlier in my career, I had picked up the nick name “Freak” because I had a knack for being able to quickly find and fix bugs in software that others couldn’t easily see, especially when under the pressure of a mission-critical computer system outage. I was proud of that, and I quietly hung on to that Freak moniker as I moved on to other jobs.

I don’t think I’m alone in this regard. In our culture, we are raised to be fiercely independent and to develop a strong sense of a unique self with a keen awareness for the qualities that distinguish us from the pack. I think at some level we all strive for some level of freak-dom.

But after taking a behavior economics class taught by psychology and behavior economics professor Dan Ariely and reading his books, including Predictably Irrational, I slowly came to the conclusion that whether or not I liked it, my brain is probably pretty damn average. Most of the findings drawn from neuroscience and behavior science research probably apply to me too.

A turning point for me came when I was taking a pre-course quiz for a social psychology MOOC taught by social psychologist Scott Plous. I had previously learned about studies that over and over demonstrated something called the “bystander effect”. Essentially it refers to the tendency people have to not stop to help someone in need if others are around and not helping either.  In the pre-course quiz I was posed the question: If someone was having a seizure and you were one of 5 people in the area and none of the other 4 were helping, how likely is it that you would you stop and help? I knew the answer. The probability that anyone would help was very low, something like 80% of the population would just keep walking. So I took a deep breadth and answered – “Not likely” – and in doing so admitted to myself that I didn’t have any reason to justify why I would be one of the few that stopped. Good people fall into this behavior trap, this was not a moral judgement, just a reality of being human.

That was really hard to admit, but it has stuck with me. The good news is that coming to terms with this allowed me to accept that most of this brain science very likely applies to me too and that has left me very open to leveraging it to my advantage.

All 5 of these ideas are backed by research in behavior science and neuroscience – and this science very likely applies to you too. So If you find yourself thinking thoughts like “That won’t work for me, I’m not like that” or “I’m just not a morning person”, then  as hard as this may be to accept, it is essential that you suspend disbelief and come to the conclusion that you are probably not a freak either!  Use the research to your advantage when you can, and also learn to recognize when you might be stuck in a destructive predictable pattern so that you can be the one in the crowd who does stop and help when everyone else is paralyzed by the bystander effect.

2. No Pain, All Gain


The neuroscientists tell us that in order for a behavior to emerge as a habit it has to move from the higher ‘thinking’ part of your brain down to the more primitive basal ganglia where internal or environmental triggers will cause it to be invoked without the higher brain getting involved. For this to happen, there needs to be both a reliable trigger and a reward associated with the behavior. A reward is something that lights up the reward system in your brain. The reward has to be there. Whether you are overtly conscious of those happy bells going off in your head or not, they gotta be dinging if you are going to pull this off.

Clearly I had to stop thinking about exercise as an hour of pain that required extraordinary motivation and willpower to endure on a daily basis. A habit is the exact opposite of a willpower challenge, so in order to turn exercise into a habit I had to find a way to make it rewarding, not painful.

In addition, behavior economists, psychologists and neuroscientists have for decades been studying how we navigate behaviors that generate immediate pleasure in comparison to those whose payoff is in the more distant future.  “Temporal discounting” and “hyperbolic discounting” are just 2 of many fancy terms used in behavior economics to describe how and why we assign more value to immediate pleasure while discounting future rewards when logically the longer term goal would seem to be the preferred option.

Future rewards are behavior quicksand. As I learned more about these concepts I quickly came to the conclusion that my best bet would be to just avoid this quicksand completely instead of trying to navigate over it. My strategy was simple, just completely forget about the future benefits of exercise and instead find a way to do it for today. I had to find a way to turn getting to the gym every morning into an immediately rewarding experience in and of itself.

To pull that off, Dan Ariely suggests “reward substitution” .  An example of  reward substitution in this case might be having some chocolate or other forbidden fruit every time I finish a workout with the intent of  giving my brain something to be happy about right now, instead of 2 years from now. But I don’t think this technique works for very long. You can only keep fooling yourself for so long, eventually the hard work will become more salient than the chocolate. The permanent answer is to stop thinking of the work as “hard”.

I’m suggesting that you go out of your way to make the behavior itself rewarding and desirable, and that you consciously pause during and after to reflect on and reinforce that internal joy. Have some chocolate if you like, but find a way to look forward to the exercise in addition to the chocolate!

Here’s how I do this with my exercise habit.

First, when I get to the gym, I pause,  and quietly reflect on a deep sense of internal gratitude for this moment. My gym is in the heart of downtown, on a corner and has floor to ceiling windows that look out on the streets. It’s first thing in the morning, the sun is not up yet, the town has not yet started to come alive for the day – it really does feel good to be here right now, taking advantage of this precious time in my day. I stop and soak it all in and tell myself to remember how good this moment feels. Then, if i’m between sets and feeling a bit unmotivated to keep going, I no longer try to power through by convincing myself that I need to suck it up and deal with the the pain in order to meet some future goal. Instead, I pause and reflect again on how good it feels to be here right now. I put a huge smile on my face and do that fist-pump thing to reinforce it. That usually works to get me feeling good and moving. But if not, I have permission to end the workout right there and head for the coffee shop across the street – because my goal is to turn this into a habit and forcing myself to suffer through it works directly against that goal.

Second, I go out of my way to create socially rewarding moments while I’m at the gym. I learned in Matthew Lieberman’s book, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect , that the brain essentially can’t tell the difference between a social reward and eating a piece of chocolate. Social rewards come from engaging with people. Getting a smile or compliment or helping someone out without expecting anything in return. These are all examples of social rewards and they all light up the brain’s reward system which is exactly what we need in order to carve a behavior into a habit. The brain has to associate the behavior with a reward.

I’ve always considered myself somewhat of a social introvert, so this doesn’t come super easy for me, but I figured that if this is the way the brain works, I would use it to my advantage. I started going out of my way to stop and say “Hi” to the familiar faces, to offer a hand if someone needs a spot or to start a quick conversation about last night’s Giants game. I’m one of the regulars, we are all here doing this together and it really does feel good to belong. I consciously pause and pay attention to the jolt of feel-good I get from these interactions – unless of course I happened upon a Dodger fan.

I know, it all sounds a bit theoretical and maybe even a bit ridiculous – all this just to lift some freakin weights in the morning?

 3. Crave the Wave


Yea, it seems silly, but here’s the thing, while I’m sitting here writing this, I’m remembering that high I get from being in the gym first thing in the morning, and I’m actually looking forward to getting back there and working out again tomorrow. Ive been struggling to regularly go to the gym for more than 10 years and now I’m looking forward to it?

I’m not a surfer but I’ve been surfing once or twice, and it runs in my family, so I have a bit of experience here.  Surfers who go out in just about anything other than Waikiki conditions know all about hard work, rewards, and craving.  It goes something like this: you get out of bed a few hours before work, drive to the beach, put on a damp wetsuit, get in the cold water, paddle out through waves breaking in your face, sit and wait with a few-to-too-many others for a wave, and then find yourself in the wrong position for the best set of the morning. It’s hard work, not what is best described as fun. But then you catch a wave, all it takes is one, and it’s pure bliss. And then off to work –  but by mid-afternoon, when the day is falling apart, you find yourself remembering that wave, and you smile knowing that the swell is supposed to last for another few days.

That’s where you have to get to with your habit. You have to get to the point where you crave the chance to do it again.

Earlier I mentioned Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit Duhigg dedicates an entire chapter to the role of “craving”. He describes research by neuroscientists that shows that initially the brain’s pleasure response is triggered by the reward – the wave. But over time, the brain shifts that response to the anticipation of the reward. The anticipation actually becomes more rewarding than the actual reward. And this is especially true if the reward is intermittent and not entirely predictable, like a wave (or a conversation at the gym with a baseball fan).

If you don’t naturally find yourself craving the next opportunity to take a spin through your habit loop then you have to explicitly work on cultivating that craving. For my exercise habit, I literally set the alarm on my phone for 3pm to remind myself to stop and ‘crave the wave’. I take a couple of minutes and mentally put myself back in the gym and remember how good it felt to be there with the rest of the regulars… and I smile. in Duhigg’s words: “This is how new habits are created: by putting together a cue, a routine, and a reward, and then cultivating a craving that drives the loop”.

 4. Get It Done With The Sun.


Now that we’ve got the reward and craving for our new habit figured out, all we need to do is link it to a cue or trigger.

I’ve actually been going to the gym for the last 10 years or so. My goal had always been to get there 4 times a week, but I had no fixed schedule. I’d go whenever I could fit it into my day, and usually that meant it waited until the evenings of the last days of the week. Needless to say, I rarely met my goal and it never became a habit. BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habit program taught me that the way to end this daily battle was to simply find a recurring trigger in my day and link the behavior to it. When x happens, do y – simple as that. No need for motivation, no debate, no internal dialog. So I chose my trigger – walk in the door after work, and the behavior – change into my workout gear and fill my water bottle. As it turned out, once I had gotten that far, I found myself heading off to the gym. It worked perfectly for a few days. But I worked for a start-up, some days I’d get home at 7, some days at 9, some days I’d have to jump on a call with the team in India, etc, etc. It seemed like a good trigger, it happens every day, but my days were not predictable enough and my habit didn’t stick.

Picking a trigger for a new habit can be hard and it is critical that you get it right. Triggers have to be reliable and consistent and ideally, the trigger is actually a ‘stack’ of other habits that you already have baked into your life. When you first get out of bed in the morning, before the day really gets started, is without a doubt the single best time of day to find the trigger to attach a hard habit to.

Today, for me, it goes like this: alarm clock goes off, I get up, make some tea, fry an egg, make a smoothie, eat the egg, put on my workout gear, grab the smoothie and drink it in the car on the way to the gym. I’ve got a routine, a series of small habits, one leads to the next. Nothing that may come up in the day can get in the way of that. If I have less time on a particular day, I’ll go for a quick run instead of taking an hour at the gym, but regardless, I exercise.

I could easily squeeze a tiny habit like flossing into just about any part of my day, regardless of what else happened that day, but it didn’t work as easily with a big habit that took 30-60 minutes.

In addition to it being consistent and reliable, the morning has an additional and very important benefit: The day has not worn you down yet so you have fresh reserves of willpower. Willpower? Isn’t the entire point of creating a habit to make a behavior automatic so that it doesn’t require willpower? Yes, but the paradox is that you need willpower to create the habit so that you don’t need willpower to keep doing it. Remember, it took me a year before exercising became a habit.

Roy Baumeister is the willpower guy. Back in the 60’s he used radishes and chocolate chip cookies and geometry puzzles to discover that willpower is like a muscle in that it becomes worn out with use.

Willpower has been one of the most intensely studied topics in behavior science since then. And in Baumeister’s words from his book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength: “The experiments consistently demonstrated two lessons: 1. You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it. 2. You use the same stock of willpower for all manner of tasks. “

Deciding which jeans to wear, choosing to eat a banana instead of a Crispy Creme donut, arguing with your boss, dealing with unexpected traffic… they all deplete your willpower reserves. And when your willpower is drained, your self-control suffers and you give in to temptation. Hard habits don’t form in 30 days, mine took a year, that takes reliable willpower.

The good news is that research has also shown that along with building muscle, regular exercise can actually strengthen your willpower. So if you exercise in the morning, passing up that donut won’t be as hard and you’ll have enough energy left for two fights with your boss instead of 1 – yea!

 5. Lose the Virtue, It Will Hurt You




Think about some of the habits in your life, the ones that you would characterize as good (or at least not bad) habits. Drinking that first cup of coffee in the morning, making sure your kids eat breakfast and get to the bus stop on time, taking a shower before leaving the house for the day. Are these habits the right thing to do and good for you and your family? Of course they are. But do you think of them that way and maybe give yourself a pat on the back for getting them done? Do you ever find yourself bragging a bit to your co-workers when you get to work: “Sorry I’m a bit late this morning but I took a shower and fed my kids today – 3rd time this week. Hi Five!!”

Well, that was me when it came to working out. If I got it done before work, I felt damn good about it and proud of myself and usually found a way to bring it up when I got to work to let at least one other person in on my little success.

And then I learned about some more behavior quicksand, a concept called moral licensing. By attaching virtue to getting to the gym and exercising, I was giving myself license to give in to temptation in other areas of my life, such as being late to work, and, paradoxically, not going to the gym again tomorrow.

From Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal’s book: The Willpower Instinct: How Self Control Works, Why it Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. : “Anything you moralize becomes fair game for the effect of moral licensing. If you tell yourself that you’re “good” when you exercise and “bad” when you don’t, then you are more likely to skip the gym tomorrow if you work out today”. And: “Simply put: Whenever we have conflicting desires, being good gives us permission to be a little bad”

The licensing effect helps to explain why attaching virtue to my habit was self-destructive. But I knew in my gut that if I wanted to turn going to the gym every day into a habit, I would have to drop feeling so good about myself for having done it. It would have to become an every day event that had no more special significance than taking a shower. This was actually quite hard for me to come to terms with and it was an explicit, conscious choice I had to make. Perhaps I would have gotten there eventually, after working out emerged as a habit – but I’m not sure it would have ever emerged as a habit if I had not consciously chosen to drop the virtue as a first step towards that goal.

Attaching virtue to your habit exposes you to another psychological effect known as the what-the-hell effect. It goes something like this: “I wasn’t able to get to the gym Monday or Tuesday, so I might as well just blow it off for the rest of the week and get back on my routine next week.” If it’s not good when you do it then it isn’t that bad when you skip it – and paradoxically, you are more likely to do it after having missed a day or 2.

So, now I’m saying don’t feel good about it, but above I was saying make it rewarding in and of itself. That sounds like conflicting advice, but not really. Standing under that hot shower on a cold morning feels good and is rewarding, but it doesn’t really make you a better person. You can have one without the other.

It may feel like you’re just fooling yourself by trying to drop the virtue of a behavior like exercising – because it really is quite virtuous, right? Estimates are that more than half of the US population doesn’t get the recommended amount of exercise and more than 80% of all healthcare dollars are spent on preventable chronic disease. As a society, we could arguably exercise (and eat) our way out of our healthcare problems, that’s pretty damn virtuous.

OK, but forget about it! It’s quicksand. If everybody exercised daily, then it would be just what you do, nothing to brag about, no virtue – and that is where you need to be in order to make it a habit.

 Wrapping It Up – finally!

And there you have it:

  • Not a Freak, Predictably Unique
  • No Pain All Gain
  • Crave the Wave
  • Get It Done With the Sun
  • Lose the Virtue, It Will Hurt You

The five principles I used to help me turn exercise into a habit. Habits are a powerful tool that can either work for you or against you. My Five help me to create habits that work in my favor.


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Big Data or Tiny Habits?

To repeat the oft-quoted words of Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

I believe that wearable activity tracking devices can be powerful habit transformation tools and I’m frustrated to see instead the huge emphasis that is being placed on the hopes of the “big data” insights to be gleaned from their use.


As it stands, our habits are killing us and leading to a decline in our society. Here’s some big data for you: health care is the largest single category of the federal budget, yet 75% of the $2.8 trillion spent in our economy on health care is attributed to largely preventable chronic disease. In the next 8 years, one in 2 adults in the US will have diabetes or pre-diabetes. In this Huffington Post article, Dr. Dean Ornish describes the problem and the solution very clearly. “…Walking for just 30 minutes/day, not smoking, eating a reasonably healthy diet, and keeping a healthy weight prevented 93 percent of diabetes, 81 percent of heart attacks, 50 percent of strokes and 36 percent of all cancers.”

But if you think all that data might help people change their habits, you’d be wrong. It has instead just the opposite effect by validating that one’s behavior is “normal”.  

Everybody agrees, behavior change is the key. So why is it that there is so much focus on the science of big data and not so much on the science of behavior change? Why are data scientists with PhDs being put into VP and CxO type roles in the companies that make these wearable tracking devices but not psychologists or behavior economists with PhDs?

I get that analyzing huge sets of quantified-self data and correlating it with the weather, the traffic patterns, the sales of bottled water and the diabetes rates will potentially provide interesting new insights – but it is a well established reality that information, data, statistics, and facts do not motivate people to change.


Tina Rosenberg in her book “Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World” puts it this way: “The more important and deeply rooted the behavior, the less impact information has and the more people close their minds to messages that scare them”. There are books full of the research and neuroscience behind psychological biases and various other psychological phenomenon that explain why human beings are so predictably irrational (as Dr. Dan Ariely puts it) and so good at justifying destructive behavior. A new round of big data driven insights won’t change this reality.

The most successful path to establishing new habits is to start small, take tiny, easy steps – but take them every day. New habits build on each other and lead to establishing a new identity. Dr. B.J. Fogg at Stanford has coined the term Tiny Habits and built a concrete program around this concept.

And here is an interesting paradox – once you have really turned something into a habit, is there a need to track it any longer and continue feeding a big data-enabled analytic engine? Do you track how many showers you take every week? Imagine getting to the point where exercising every day was as normal and habitual a part of your morning as taking a shower – nothing to brag about, nothing to track – no need to strap the device on every morning.

But, if we shift the focus of these tracking devices from collecting data to socially connected behavior change experiences then their continued use is actually driven by the growing strength of the new habit and identity and the strengthening social relationships enabled by that experience.

I believe the path to behavior change starts with tiny habits, not big data.

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Step To Give Results: Fun, Engaging, and Rewarding

The Step To Give experiment was fun, engaging, and for me personally it was surprisingly rewarding.  Big smile, very big.


Nine of us paid $10 each and worked together as a team for 21 days to meet the team total step count and therefore make a donation to the Alliance For a Healthier Generation – to help fight childhood obesity.

The total team commitment added up to just over 1.5 million steps and we ended up walking more than 1.8 million steps. That’s about 900 miles!! (read more about the mechanics of the Quest here, and have a look at the team tracking spreadsheet that I updated 3-4 times per day here)

While the donation was meaningful, the thing that surprised me was just how fun and engaging the social experience was. For me, as the ‘leader’ of the team – the one who pulled the team together, posted the regular progress reports multiple times throughout the day, and worked to keep everyone engaged – it was actually more than fun, it was rewarding. It felt good. I was not expecting that.

I approached this experiment from a technical perspective. It was an effort to validate an idea that a team quest like this could encourage continued engagement among fitness tracker users that had lost some interest in daily step count tracking. But I actually came out of this feeling “good” about what we did, and I want to do it again.

The feeling good part was not really because of the donation to the cause, it was because I had organized the effort for the 9 of us to work together every day for 3 straight weeks to help encourage each other to get out and walk and have fun socializing in the group chat app.

The team was very eclectic and geographically dispersed:

  • 2 friends at my previous job who work out of the Honolulu office
  • 2 from that same company who work out of the Palo Alto office here in Northern California
  • A previous co-worker and friend who lives in the Seattle area
  • An old friend who I have not seen in 20+ years and her husband who live in Southern California
  • And my wife and I.

I was the only common connection among the whole group and except for those of us who live or work together, we never met in person during the Quest. Yet everybody enjoyed the experience and for the most part participated in the daily group texting, including posting pictures and links.

Everybody stayed engaged and worked together to meet the team goals. There was the misplaced Fitbit for a day, the unexpected business travel that meant lower step counts for a few days, the broken and then replaced Fitbit – but in all cases when one or more of us didn’t meet our personal daily commitment, others stepped up to walk extra. In the end we ended up beating the total goal by almost 20%.

Prior to the Step Quest, 7 of the 9 team members were not regularly using their Fitbits. And for most “not regularly” really meant not at all! Today, more than a month later, I see that just about everyone on the team is back to “not regularly” or “not at all”🙂

Everyone filled out an exhaustive survey at the end of the experiment, I won’t bore you with the details other than to say that given the chance, everybody on the team would do it again – anywhere from 2-5 times per year to once a month!

There are some tweaks to be made to make it a bit more challenging and add some more friendly intra-team competition; round 2 coming up!

It also desperately needs to be better automated. The collection of team member step counts multiple times through out the day, and the regular progress report messaging can easily be automated using Fitbit and GroupMe public API’s. I’m working on that.

Thanks again to all the team members for playing along, donating to a worthy cause, staying engaged and filling out that long survey at the end!!!

Again, it felt good!! And that is the super power of a small group, relationship building, social experience: it is rewarding.

Our brains are wired to light up the reward center when we connect with others and help each other accomplish goals – that is how the human brain works (more on this in my next post).

And don’t forget – rewards are a key element to forming new habits (trigger, behavior, reward, craving)

Fitbit, Jawbone, Misfit, Basis, Nike – I hope you’re listening. These fitness trackers are not going to change the world and help with starting the movement to wellness that our country desperately needs unless they become viral and habitual. Making the experiences more social is the only way this will happen.

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Step To Give: An Activity Tracker Engagement Experiment

In a couple previous posts  (here and here) I wrote about some ideas for how fitness trackers might leverage peer pressure and intrinsic rewards to keep people engaged with their shiny new wearable toy once the shiny new part wears off (no Misfit Shine pun intended!). In summary, the idea is to form small teams that work closely together on a step quest to meet a team goal. Meeting the team goal for the quest results in a donation being made to a prosocial cause.

To take these ideas a step further (sorry), I am going to run an experimental step quest with a team of about 10 Fitbit users called Step To Give.

Step To Give – The Mechanics and Rules


The Step Quest experiment is going to work like this:

  1. There will be a small group of 10 “volunteers” chosen by me. Most everyone in the group will be friends with at least one other person on the team, but the majority of the team members will be 2nd degree acquaintances that they have not met yet.  I may try to add at least one person who is new to everybody on the team including me.
  2. The Step Quest will last for 3 weeks.
  3. At the start of the Quest, each person on the team will commit to a number of steps they will walk per day for the entire 3 weeks. There will be no pressure to commit to a big number, but it does need to be a bit of a stretch – the idea here is of course to encourage yourself to get out and walk more!
  4. This will result in a team total goal for each week and a grand total for the Quest.
  5. Each player must pay $10 at the start to participate – the money to be deposited in my PayPal account.
  6. If the team meets the grand total goal at the end of the Quest, all of the money will be donated to a childhood obesity charity called Alliance for a Healthier Generation.  (now you see why I chose the fat boy image as the team’s avatar!!)
  7. If the team does not meet the goal, I will give all of the money to the first homeless person I run into in San Francisco – no conditions for what they will do with it. 
  8. Team members can work together to reach the weekly goals, if some miss their goal for a day, they can make it up by walking more on subsequent days, or others can walk over their goals. It is a team effort with individual accountability visible to the entire team.
  9. You can walk over your goal to help out the team, but there cannot be a team surplus of steps at the end of week 1 and 2 that carries over to weeks 2 and 3.  For example, if the individual commitments translate to 500k steps per week for the team and the team walks 550k steps in a week, only 500k will count toward the grand total. This keeps the pressure on for all 3 weeks.
  10. Except… at the end of the Quest, if the grand total of steps for the entire Quest – including any weekly surpluses – equals 150% or more of the goal, the ‘house’ (that means me) will add $50 to the total contribution.  Instead of $100, the donation will be $150.
  11. Each player has to have a Fitbit and they have to be willing to let everyone else on the team add them as a “Friend” in Fitbit, this way everyone can see each other’s daily progress and can use the Fitbit features to communicate with and encourage each other.
  12. This is not a hard requirement, but every team member should also install the GroupMe app on their phones – I will use this for twice daily team update announcements and I hope to see the team use this group text messaging tool for daily chatter to easily stay in contact with each other.
  13. Twice a day, at roughly 3pm and 8pm PDT, I will update a shared Google spreadsheet with individual and team progress for the day. The spreadsheet will show the progress for the day, week and full 3-weeks of the Quest.
  14. I will also send out texts on GroupMe when I update the totals to keep the feedback and chatter loop going.

Those are the rules. I’m putting the team together right now. If anyone that reads this wants to participate, let me know, I’ll consider it, I still have a few open spots.

I’ll write a post or 2 as we progress and will collect thorough feedback from all team members at the end – then we’ll tweak it and do it again!


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Get Smart With the New Misfit Shine

“Don’t tell me there’s another wearable fitness tracker on the shelf”

Guess what, there’s another wearable fitness tracker on the shelf at Apple.


“I asked you not to tell me that.”

I’ve been wearing a Jawbone UP for 6 months now and experimenting with the Fitbit Flex and last week I got my hands on the new Misfit Shine. My first impressions are that the Shine does take a few big steps out in front of the others into a more beautiful and intelligent direction.

First, It Really is Beautiful!


At roughly the size of a quarter in diameter, this thing really is a step above the other trackers that I have used from the standpoint of being elegant yet functional jewelry. 

For the past few months now I’ve heard the often quoted message of Misfit CEO Sonny Vu that wearable technology had “better be either gorgeous or invisible”. And although I’ve seen various photos of the Shine, it wasn’t until I put it on my wrist that Sonny’s vision really sank in for me. Now, don’t get me wrong, I like the UP, it has got a certain athletic yet fashionable style that suits me, but the polished aluminum Shine with its LED lights arranged like a clock face is truly in a class by itself.

Also on the wearable front – my wife won’t wear a tracker on her wrist when she goes to work; the guy at the Apple store who sold me the Shine said he had a Nike FuelBand but was not wearing it because he chose to wear his watch instead on that particular day; for me, if it isn’t on my wrist, I’ll forget about it and it won’t help me on my habit transformation journey. shine_o2Everybody of course has an opinion and even though I’m right😉 with the Shine everybody wins. It can be worn clipped to your pocket or shirt, on your wrist in a strap, or as a necklace. If this thing gains any traction, I could easily see a range of 3rd-party accessories that provide many more wearing options like maybe a protective band for use when playing basketball, or an anklet, or a belt buckle. I don’t care, as long as I can keep it on my wrist!

With all of the pre-launch hype focused on the wearability of the device, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the app is also very elegant and well designed. It feels very light and simple – partly because of the new flat iOS 7 look and partly because it actually is quite simple and lacking some more advanced tracking features – more on that in a bit. I really like the feel of this app, it is now making me look forward to the release of iOS 7. app_home

One feature that gets some attention in the app is the sync experience. In early prototypes, some kind of secret-sauce data transfer mechanism was employed that required the Shine to be physically placed on the screen of the phone to initiate a sync. The original UI is still in place, but in it’s current form, the sync occurs wirelessly over Bluetooth. There is no need to put the device on the screen, or even bring it super close to the phone – you can just tap the screen and it will sync without ever having to take the device off your wrist.

At least part of the elegance of both the device and the app is rooted in their simplicity. The Shine has a replaceable battery and syncs wirelessly so there are no charging cables, no syncing dongles and no need to clutter your brain with the concern for when it was last charged, I like that. Less is more as the saying goes these days.

But it also doesn’t have a vibrator built in, so there is no alarm to wake me up in the morning and no nudge to get my butt out of the chair when I’ve been sitting too long – that’s a big miss for me. The UP “talks” to me throughout the day via the vibrator and that is an important aspect to successful behavior change. So in this case, I’m going to have to say that less really is less.

There are other features that are currently missing in comparison to the UP and Flex such as tracking meals, weight, and blood pressure and community tools. In order to keep people engaged I believe the overall experience has to be simple but also able to expand in complexity based on desired usage. Misfit has already shipped an app update and more than one firmware update, so I do expect the experience to continue to evolve.

There is one other key aspect of the Shine however that sets it apart from and ahead of the competition – it’s smarter.

Beautiful and Smart

“If you don’t mind 99, I’d like to figure this out for myself.”


In addition to being beautiful, the Shine seems to be smarter than the Fitbit and Flex in a few subtle ways. Instead of just translating the accelerometer data into steps, it interprets the data as activities with differing levels of physical intensity – in some cases without having to manually tag the activity. And because not all activities in life translate to steps, and not all steps should be considered equal from an intensity standpoint, the daily goals for the Shine are measured in a point system, not a step count. The step totals are still there to see, but the daily goals are measured in points.

This means that if I was to get up and go for a walk around the block, the Shine will automatically detect that I am taking a walk and tag it as an activity and it will interpret the intensity based on my pace without me having to manually start and stop a timer and then tag the activity like I do with the other devices. This works for running as well. Using the point system, the Shine of course gives me more credit for my run than a walk of the same number of steps.

So if I get out of the office 4 different times during the day to walk around the block, then at the end of the day these 4 walks show up as separate activities possibly with differing intensities – no input required. That’s smart.

In addition to walking and running, the Shine can also track and assign activity points to swimming, cycling, tennis, basketball and soccer. For these activities the user does have to tap the device to indicate the start of the activity and this process can be a bit clunky if for example you ride your bike to the gym to go for a swim and so need to switch between multiple types of activities. But, there is no need to tag the end of the activity, only the start. The Shine will know for example that your swim has ended, because – that’s right, just like agent 99 – it’s smart and beautiful.

Trying to interpret accelerometer data automatically this way is a bit risky, but I like that the Shine is taking a chance to track my activities without me having to remember to start and stop timers and update intensity levels manually. The data will possibly be more accurate if I manually tag it, but I’d rather not bother starting and stopping timers and updating intensity levels if the Shine can get it close enough. I am not using a wearable tracker to help me train for the olympics, just get through my day.

I do like the Shine, but in my opinion (as I wrote about here) at the end of the day the winner will be the experience with the most powerful behavior transformation abilities. Behavior transformation more than anything else requires a strong, viral, peer pressure component. So, to me that means the winning super power will be the experience that does the best at social and community.

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