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Data on how my habit building app improves several motivational variables (Scientific Study)

A detailed account of a Fastlane process...

MarcoSto

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Hey fellows,

As promised in my intro - you might want to check it - here is some data of my yet unpublished psychological long term study on habit building.

15 months ago, I had...basically nothing but an idea for a study for my doctoral thesis: I wanted to help people build study habits to reduce motivational interference while studying. Motivational interference is a phenomenon that occurs when you basically want to do something else than the current action - we all know that. You study for a test, but want to watch netflix. That destabilizes your learning process (you get into a bad mood, have less persistence, think about other stuff, switch tasks etc.).

I learned app development with udemy and some learning apps and was able to create a simple app that helped students define and track a simple (5-20 minutes) study habit and would give them feedback on how strong their habit has become psychologically (it might read like it was not so difficult, but it was a tough grind). Took me 3 months from zero to app.

Then I contacted several professors and asked them if I could advertise my study in their lectures. After another 4 months, I got around 100 students that took part in my study, which was basically: Use my app for 6 weeks and lets see what happens. The participants could choose their own, individual study habit. Some examples are: lecture summarizing, reading literature, language learning etc.

I collected data on how the habit developed and got more automatic over time. When I first analyzed the data, my feedback loop triggered like crazy. Check this (excerpt of my results mail that I sent to the participants of the study):

The key result: Habits work an make everything better :).

Check out the graph I attached for you. It summarizes the most important trends. Means over all participants over time are plotted.

On the x-axis, you can see the number of habit repetitions and on the y-axis, you can see the different outcome variables. For example, at habit repetition = 40 you can see, that the average score for motivational interference was approx 1,9 (vs. 3,6 after the first habit repetiton).

The variables explained:

Scale 0 (= not true at all) to 10 (= absolutely true)

Automaticity: Habit strength. Describes how automatic a habit action feels. This measure basically shows the habit building process. You can see a continuous, linear growth, which means that the performance of the habit action actually got increasingly easier and more automatic for the participants.

Motivational_Interference: Motivational destabilization during the habit action. If you are in a bad mood, do not persist long and are easily distracted, this value is high. The stronger the habit, the more resilient the habit becomes against motivational destabilization.

Awareness: Awareness during the habit. This measure consists of the two facets acceptance and present-orientedness. A high value here means that one is in the present and feels balanced while performing the habit. Participants became more and more aware while performing their habits with increasing habit repetition.

VA_intrinsic: "I like doing my habit.". With each habit repetition, participants actually liked their habit more and more - a positive spiral.

MC_should: Should conflict. The feeling one should do something else (e.g. going to the gym, do chores) while performing the habit. Should conflicts stayed constantly on a low level during habit performance.

MC_want: Want conflict. The feeling of wanting to do something else than performing the habit (#netflix). The more often you did your habit, the less you feel the craving for other actions that are more pleasant to do - this is huge.

But, check out the graph for yourself.

Habit_graph_Xampler.png

The whole thing took 15 months to complete (idea, planning of the study, app development, testing, getting the participants, data analysis, presentation at the psychological faculty). Now, I'm at the point where I want to monetize this app with a freemium/subscription model. I will describe the value skew and traffic strategy in detail in another post.

If you have any questions about this, feel free to ask - I love talking about this.

Keep up the good work.

Marco
 
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ApparentHorizon

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So your app tracks how many times you do a certain task, in order to maximize repetition. Thus, by being consciously aware of how many times you do said task, you're forming a long term habit. And by the time you reach 42 repetitions, it has solidified.

Taking that feeling of...

"I know I should be studying, and I'm feeling agitated that I'm watching or thinking about Netflix, therefore I can't concentrate on anything. And I don't want to do anything now."

...and helping you attain the goal of becoming more productive, by giving you a roadmap.

Am I understanding that correctly?

If so, what are the mechanisms at play here?

We know repetition is key: The more you do something, the more efficient your brain is at doing said task. (IE the 4 stages of competence)

But we also know how hard it is to stick with a new pattern long enough for it to become a habit.

After all, why let our brain use all of that energy when we can still have food and shelter without the extra effort.
 

MarcoSto

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So your app tracks how many times you do a certain task, in order to maximize repetition. Thus, by being consciously aware of how many times you do said task, you're forming a long term habit. And by the time you reach 42 repetitions, it has solidified.

Taking that feeling of...

"I know I should be studying, and I'm feeling agitated that I'm watching or thinking about Netflix, therefore I can't concentrate on anything. And I don't want to do anything now."

...and helping you attain the goal of becoming more productive, by giving you a roadmap.

Am I understanding that correctly?

If so, what are the mechanisms at play here?

We know repetition is key: The more you do something, the more efficient your brain is at doing said task. (IE the 4 stages of competence)

But we also know how hard it is to stick with a new pattern long enough for it to become a habit.

After all, why let our brain use all of that energy when we can still have food and shelter without the extra effort.

The app helps defining a new study habit (nudging the user to create a habit that is very likely to succeed by implementing several psychological techniques). Here is an excerpt from my exposé that describes the habit definition process - 4 steps:

****

1 What. The participants are asked to describe their new habit here: What shall be the new habit? The two constraints are:

  • It must be for the university
  • It must be a new habit

To clarify this step, the participants are given examples like reading relevant literature and summarizing a lecture.


2 When. The participants are asked to describe when they want to perform their new habit. The two constraints are:


  • It must be performed daily
  • It must be pegged to another daily activity

To clarify this step, the participants are given examples like after breakfast, after coming home from university and before brushing teeth.


3 How long. The participants are asked to describe how long it is approximately going to take to perform their new daily habit. The two constraints are:


  • It must be at least 5 minutes
  • It must not be more than 20 minutes

To clarify this step, the participants are given examples like 10-15 minutes and 20 minutes.


4 Goal. The participants are asked to set a goal for the daily habit repetition. The two constraints are:


  • It must be attainable within the previously defined time frame
  • It must be measurable

To clarify this step, the participants are given examples like read 5 pages and summarize ONE whole lecture.


****

You DO NOT have to be consciously aware of the action in order to form a habit. A habit needs 2 things:

1. A stable context
2. An automated cue-response chain

That means: Reading literature for university at different times in the day and at different places? NOT a habit. Doing so every day at the café after your second coffee - more likely to become a habit over time (if the reading behavior is somewhat automated).

After each habit repetition, you answer some questions about your behavior and experiences during the todays habit repetition. The app then calculates an automaticity score and gives realtime feedback on habit strength (i.e. automaticity).

The habit helps more less with the "I know I SHOULD be studying.", but more with the feeling DURING the study habit: "I so desperately WANT to do something else." by helping to form a stable study habit.

Repetition is key, you are correct. Thats why it is so important to keep the habit very easy, short and simple in the beginning to ensure that the first 14 repetitions are really performed daily. After that, the majority of participants reported significant increases in automaticity.

A mechanism that drastically improves the likelihood of actually doing the habit in the beginning (before it has become more automatic) is implementation intention: By formulating the habit in such a clear manner, pegging it to another daily action with a clear goal for the habit repetition and a specific (short) duration. Implementation intention paired with a relatively easy task is your entry ticket for a new habit that you can then expand and use for more difficult and more time consuming tasks. After the first 14-40 repetitions, automaticity takes over and it will be far easier to start, let alone finish your habit once you started it.

There is no magic involved. Just statistics, probabilities, psychology and TINY steps.
 

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