Habits - Change yourself, one day at a time

Work in progress | Bachelor final project in Design of Interactive Media, Faculty of Digital Arts

How might we help people change themselves?

The answer is simple - helping them form strong, positive habits. But forming a habit is hard work, especially when you are trying to do something you have never done before. How do I meditate? For how long? What do I focus on while doing it? What's the best thing I could do to improve my health? There are too many unknowns that make it hard to start and very easy to quit. There are already many ways to track single activities like running or calorie intake, but they often focus too strongly on a single thing.

The bigger picture

There is a gap that Habits is trying to fill. How does individual activities fit into the context of a persons life? Accomplishing long term goals like having more energy or writing a book requires complex personalized journey if we want them to be successful. How would a solution based on research and human-centered design process look like?



Experience map

Currently I’m conducting ethnographic interviews to find out how people have succeeded, how they have failed, what were main difficulties, which methods they used to motivate themselves and stick to such habits. What did they rely on for the support? How did they get up when they failed?

What’s a habit?

A habit is learned behavior that becomes automatic when repeated regularly in the same context (every day after lunch, etc). We use them all the time as a way to save the willpower for other tasks. Remember how, in the beginning, it was impossible to use clutch, stick-shift, mirrors, concentrate on the road and drive at the same time? After all the actions became habitual, you would no longer notice them. Unfortunately, this system can backfire and create bad habits, which often clash with our goals and then everything gets more complicated.

Habit formation

To learn a new habit we need several factors aligned:

  • Repetition of wanted behavior
  • Non-changing context (repeating in the same space, time, or other stable cue)
  • Cue that responds to only one action. If there are multiple possible responses to single cue, a habit can not be formed

Habit-goal interface

Wood and Neal (2007) have created a framework that tries to explain how habits are linked to goals. Main premises are:

Time needed to form a habit varies greatly

In a study done by Lally et al. (2010), time needed to reach maximum automaticity (habit strength) varied between 18 and 254 days, with the average time of 84 days. Related, the 21-day for creating a habit is a myth. (Forbes, 2013).

Habit characteristics

Things get a bit more complex when we consider a conflict between existing and wanted behavior, and willpower depletion.

  • Weak (and new) habits depend on willpower to be performed (higher willpower leads to better self-control). Strong habits are performed with automaticity and don’t require willpower
  • When goals and habits are misaligned, self-control is needed, otherwise existing habits will prevail (Neal et al. 2013)
  • One miss won’t disturb the habit building (Lally et al. 2010)
  • Cue avoidance is one of the most effective strategies for habit change
  • External awards are not very effective (Wood and Neal, 2007)

Habit characteristics

There is a multitude of solutions people use to create habits – from personal coaching for exercise and diet related habits, to self-tracking mobile apps, to calendars and to-do lists. While researching existing solutions, patterns started to emerge:

  • Most popular approach to habit tracking and building is based on “don’t break the chain” method, where the goal is to create a continuous streak without skipping an entry. This method is potentially a double-edged sword, and can lead to the additional demotivation once the chain is broken
  • Goals are used to spur habit formation, with mixed results
  • Community and gamification are often employed to motivate and stimulate users
  • Personal trainers use personalized approach to maximize success

Identifying people

I have identified several groups of people for the ethnographic interviews. Main group consists of people who are aware of need for some change in life, have already tried to stick with a habit like stretching-out daily, but haven't achieved the wanted outcome. They may have tried some of the solutions for habit tracking and goal pursuit, but found most of them burdensome and unhelpful.

The second group I want to interview consists of people with successfully formed long-lasting positive habits, such as studying every day or practicing piano regularly.

The third one consists of people who failed and quit. What are the obstacles they couldn’t overcome and why?


Until ethnographic interviews are done and analyzed, no great value comes out of speculation. However, some additional questions emerged that affect the interviews and open up new possibilities.

Open questions

  • How can we motivate people who perform badly?
  • How can we educate people to link the cues to behavior they are trying to adopt?
  • How can we recognize behavior patterns and use them to increase the opportunity for success?
  • How is the community support connected to success? Can we use that?

Potential directions

Although it is too early to choose an approach, there are already some potential directions that need to be tested with prototyping and other means:

  • Stimulate and reinforce cue-routine connections
  • Accentuate cue avoidance as a mean for habit change
  • Be sensitive to context (be empathic to the user)
  • Dynamically balance difficulty
  • Enable and encourage persistence
  • Use goals as a starting point
  • Gamification and community for motivation (when willpower is low)
  • Educate the user
  • Break big goals to smaller chunks (eating an elephant one bite at a time)
  • Reinforce intrinsic value
  • Focus on the positive


Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C., Potts, H., and Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.674

Selk, J. (n.d.). Habit Formation: The 21-Day Myth. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/jasonselk/2013/04/15/habit-formation-the-21-day-myth/

Wood, W., & Neal, D. T. (2007). A new look at habits and the interface between habits and goals. Psychological Review, 114:843–863.

Neal DT, Wood W, Drolet A. (2013) How do people adhere to goals when willpower is low? The profits (and pitfalls) of strong habits. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 104(6):959–975.

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