Measure your way to a new habit

habit lppoI just finished reading The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. In short, the book uses new brain research to explain how habits are created and how one should go about changing personal or organizational habits (anything from eating a dessert after your meal to produce products of higher quality…). The book is worth reading: the short of it is simple- habits are automatic stored procedures  in our brain. They start with a cue, and end with a reward (cue-finishing lunch, habit- eating dessert, reward-sugar…). I will stop at that- read the book if you are interested…

What the book only touched on briefly is measurement as a way to build or modify a habit. Say that you live half a mile from your local grocery store and you go there 3-4 times a week to buy fresh produce. You know that walking there will save you money and add some points into your health jar but than again, you still get into the car and drive there since it is easier. Now, I am walking around with a fitbit (high end pedometer) and ever since I got it, when I get the cue (need vegetable to make salad), I changed the habit of getting into the car since the reward of walking is getting me closer to making my 10,000 steps a day goal. If I didn’t have my fitbit, these steps were not measured and reported back to me and the old habit (car) would have taken over.

Now let’s take a social example: we all know that it is better to buy from a store in our town- tax money goes to our town which in turn improve roads and schools we all use. This is why almost every city has a Shop Local program (see San Jose as an example). Nevertheless, no matter how much money San Jose is spending on this program, it does’t change the shopping habits of its residents. When they want to go out to eat, their cars will auto drive to Los Gatos or Palo Alto, although there are some really good choices in San Jose. There is no problem of awareness or motivation- there is simply not a mental reward for doing in town since no one recognizes the effort one made to change the habit of dinging out of town. But what if San Jose and other cities convinced the credit card company to report back on local shopping? They know where we live and the address of the business- they could easily show us on our statement the percentage spent in our own town and perhaps the city could have recognized top local “investors” this way and give them local points. All of a sudden, the reward of shopping local will be the recognition and after few months of active local shopping, one will not even think of driving out of the way to buy a shirt.

There is a silver lining connecting the two examples: being measured can modify the reward that can change an old habit. In order for it to work, measurement need to happen in the background (fitbit, credit card) so we don’t end up asking people to build a new habit just to change an old one.

Can you think of any other examples?

Measure your way to a new habit

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