Sunday, March 9, 2014

Micro-Habits


In several posts recently, I have discussed the potential benefits of transforming personal information tasks into microtasks (called selfsourcing). It seems picking up habits can likewise be facilitated by transforming the desired behavior change into micro-habits.

According to B.J. Fogg (via an NPR report I listened to recently), there are three steps you should follow if you want to pick up a new habit:
  1. Small: Choose a habit to pick up that only take a few seconds to complete.
  2. Routine: Place this new micro-habit within an existing routine.
  3. Celebrate: Physically celebrate the completion of your new habit whenever you do it.
On the radio he made it sound so easy that I decided to give it a try. For years I have wanted to get in the habit of drinking more water, but I never really got anywhere just telling myself, "Drink more!" So I decided to follow Fogg’s three steps:
  1. Small: I decided I just needed to take a single sip of water,
  2. Routine: I decided to do this during breakfast in the morning, and
  3. Celebrate: Every morning after taking my first sip, I would do a little dance.
A sip of water (Step 1) hardly seemed likely to change my water consumption, but at least it would be a step in the right direction. Fitting that sip into my morning routine (Step 2) made perfect sense, but Step 3 seemed quite silly. What role could dancing possibly play in getting me to drink more? Regardless, I started with all three steps about two months ago. And thus far I have managed to take a sip of water just about every morning. To my surprise, the dancing ended up being valuable. Some mornings I find that I first remember to do the dance, and this ends up reminding me to pour myself some water. Additionally, my children laughed at me when they first noticed my dancing, but as a result they now all know what I am trying to do and help me remember.

Note that I don’t really have to drink very much water as part of this routine. I just have to get a glass from the cabinet and fill it with enough water to take a sip. But, honestly, once I have made myself go through the effort of pouring myself the water and decided to dirty the dish, I find that I pretty much always drink the whole glass. When I get down to breakfast it is easy to tell myself that I just need to take a sip of water, and then once I have the glass it is easy to do the whole action.

I wonder if we might be able to likewise use small, easy-to-complete tasks to help people actually do large, hard-to-complete personal information tasks. For example, I often find it hard to start editing a paper draft sent to me by a colleague. There's a lot of text to read and synthesize, and getting started is overwhelming. But if I tell myself I’m just going to re-word the figure captions, I can get started with that, and I often find that this little task draws me into the larger task of editing the whole paper. Perhaps selfsourced microtasks could be used as a way to motivate people to start large tasks, and not just as a substitute for them.

Related paper:
J. Teevan, D.J. Liebling, and W. Lasecki. Selfsourcing Personal TasksCHI 2014 WiP.

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