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.

About Mark Feinholz

Digital Health Product Manager. Inspired by technology to help us live happier and healthier lives.
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