Commentary

Tech aids to cultivating good habits can only take one so far

The brain needs to be conditioned to desire sense of achievement or to do something good

We are increasingly living in an era where technology can make or break habits.

Last week, I wrote about Timbre+, a hawker centre at one-north which uses a radio-frequency identification tagging system and a $1 deposit to encourage diners to return their trays.

Gadgets such as fitness wearables are meant to aid users in forming healthy lifestyle habits. There are also apps like HabitBull and Coach.me, which are supposed to help people fall into good routines, such as drinking more water and reading, while breaking patterns like smoking and nail-biting.

These solutions may work short-term, to kickstart good behaviour. But what happens when the tech is turned off?

Often, we end up reverting to our old ways. I remember religiously checking my step count when I first got my Fitbit Charge HR, but now the wristband is collecting dust in a box on my table.

And I am not the only one who has succumbed to the inertia of doing nothing. A study by strategy consulting firm Endeavour Partners found that a third of people who bought a fitness device stopped using it after six months.

So, how can we make good habits stick?

What these systems and apps do is to create a link between good behaviour (returning the tray or walking 10,000 steps) and a reward (getting a $1 deposit back or the feeling of satisfaction from hitting a daily target).

It is only when our brains are conditioned into associating these behaviours and their rewards automatically that a habit can begin to form.

These habits can be further reinforced by developing intrinsic motivations in lieu of extrinsic ones. Instead of wanting to earn a badge, fitness tracker users can look forward to the endorphin high from exercise. Instead of striking a book off a checklist, readers can be motivated by the joy of learning.

In an article on www.wareable.com, Mr Erick McAfee, global sales director of sports wearable Moov, said: "It's a proven fact that the feeling of advancement is one that humans thrive on. We're looking to capitalise on motivating our users to advance themselves."

In the case of Timbre+, forming a tray-returning habit has to come from within - wanting to be a more considerate patron, being mindful of others and taking social responsibility.

Hopefully, a simple $1 can kickstart this habit.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 14, 2016, with the headline 'Tech aids to cultivating good habits can only take one so far'. Print Edition | Subscribe