How to use your smartphone to make new habits stick

By Sloan Schrage, KSL TV | Posted - Apr 20th, 2019 @ 8:06pm

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SALT LAKE CITY — Breaking old habits or even adopting new ones is no walk in the park, but now many people use their smartphones to tackle habits.

Peruse through Apple’s or Google’s app stores and you will find scores of apps designed to remind you to repeat a new habit. Many will reward you, while others hold you accountable. But, can those apps really get you to change your habits?

"I have been working on playing the piano. I've been working on cross-stitch and I try do something that's like 20 minutes of creativity every day," said Alyshondra Meacham. "My day goes a lot better if I can do something like that — making a habit of creativity."

Before, Meacham struggled with making any new habit stick.

"I'm a very free spirit," she explained. "I am not a person who is naturally organized."

That changed for Meacham when her boss recommended the app Habitica.

Essentially, it is a game that turns her habits and daily tasks into monsters she can conquer.

"You have a little avatar and as you complete your lists, as you check things off, you get rewards. You get a panda egg, or like a dragon potion, or a staff. And there are quests you can do to gain more points," Meacham said.

The more positive habits she slays, the stronger her avatar becomes.

"So it's a way to make it fun instead of just: Here's my to-do list and it's causing the anxiety, and I’m going to avoid it and run," she said.

Meacham also has teamed up with other Habitica users online. They help her on adventures and support her on conquering habits. A lazy day for her, however, is a setback for the entire team.

"If you are not checking off your things that you want to do every day, your party will suffer," she explained. "And that’s a really good social incentive for me. I want to make sure that I'm pulling my weight."

Dr. Ky Dorsey explains how repetition helps people change habits. (Photo: KSL TV)

Behavioral experts say incentives and rewards help your brain tag certain habits as worth repeating.

"If you are trying to develop a habit, you're trying to develop a motivated behavior you repeat. The only work you can do is to repeat that habit," said McKay-Dee Behavioral Health’s medical director Dr. Ky Dorsey.

Beka Rayburn is getting help in forming habits from a different app called The HabitHub.

"It wasn't so much of a habit I was trying to break at the time, but just trying to get back into decent habits," she said.

The HabitHub uses chains to visualize how many days a new habit has been successfully repeated. (Photo: KSL TV)

The HabitHub uses visual chains to represent how many days Rayburn has repeated a new habit. If she misses a day, the chain breaks.

"Just seeing those chains keep getting longer, it was a great motivation there," Rayburn explained.

"Reinforcement is important," said Dorsey. "So if you're reinforcing it every day, that brain doesn’t get a chance to lose that momentum."

The HabitHub includes rewards, as well as daily reminders. Its data and charts help Rayburn see both her progress and her weaknesses.

"Just being able to visualize, rather than just have it be a nexus thing in your head, is so much easier to come up with a concrete plan, rather than just, 'I wish I was better at this,'" she said.

Beka Rayburn explains how using the HabitHub has helped make new habits stick for her. (Photo: KSL TV)

While apps can reward you, remind you, or hold you accountable, changing habits still takes willpower.

"We still retain choice, we still retain autonomy," explained Dorsey. "We still have executive functioning. We get to decide whether we act on those impulses or whether we stop those impulses. It’s not easy."

That means Meacham, Rayburn and the rest of us still have to do the work — but an app might make it easier.


Sloan Schrage

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