How to use your wearable to make good habits stick

Triggers, routines and rewards: understanding the basics of habit-building in the age of the Fitbit

You’ve decided which activity tracker to buy, it fits, it feels good and you’ve already started to tailor your workout gear to match it – that’s totally allowed BTW. But as anyone who’s flung themselves into a new challenge will know, you can’t just buy a bit of kit and expect the rest to fall into place.

As I wrote in my feature about finding the right activity tracker last week, wearable tech still hasn’t got built-in Disney magic. It can’t put your running gear on for you, drag you out of bed, lull you off to sleep or stop you from eating cake.

So what’s the answer to bridging the gap between your piece of wearable tech and your goals? Well, a whole host of stuff actually. The most important one being cultivating good-for-you habits.

According to the internet it may have been Artistotle who said “we are what we repeatedly do”. Which means losing weight, becoming fitter and moving more to make us feel alive and happy isn’t going to happen overnight. It’s the consistent good stuff that equals real, monumental change.

There’s a lot of debate online about the science behind our habits. It’s common knowledge that it takes around 21 days for something to “stick” and become habitual. However, researchers at UCL think that number is all wrong and it can take some people a week and some people nearly a whole year to get into the swing of good practices.

But one thing that most experts who study our habitual, fascinating, quirky little brains tend to agree upon is that the cycle that makes something a habit can be summarised quite simply.

In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg writes that if you boil the complex process down you’ll find a three step loop:

“A cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode; a routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional; and a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering.”

So how does that help us? Well, being aware of what makes a habit form can help us to add certain elements of this loop into our daily routines – and using our wearables to do that can really help.

1. Identify a trigger for your new habit

To ensure you stick to a habit, you’ll need a trigger to begin the loop. Of course you can devise a new one, but a good trick is to attach a new habit trigger to something you already do, something that’s already habitual, like always going for a run after your morning coffee.

You can use your wearable to send you a reminder when that usually happens, if you don’t have one that can set alarms then employ the help of some more tech – like the coach.me app.

2. Be prepared and add visual cues to remind yourself

So you’ve figured out your trigger will be your morning coffee. But wait, twenty minutes has passed and you’ve completely forgotten you were meant to run right after it. Doh!

Make it impossible for you to forget your new, awesome intentions. Get your running gear out next to the kettle, put something on the fridge to remind you or just never take your wearable off.

Since trialling the Withings Activité Pop, I wear it all the time. That alone becomes my visual cue to get out running – especially when its little activity tracking hands are still hovering around the zero mark.

3. Start small

You can’t expect to run marathons from the get-go, smash personal bests, sleep well on the first night after insomnia or drop a huge amount of weight in your first week of calorie-counting. The key is to start small.

Remember that although going out for a 2km run each morning doesn’t sound like a huge deal, if you want to do that every day and don’t workout at all already, it’ll be a challenge. So start with 1km first. You can always add more distance, time and pressure as you go along.

The aim is to make the activity we’re talking about here (whether that’s drinking a great smoothie each morning rather than a croissant or hitting the gym) habitual, not push yourself or work your mind and body into the ground.

With that in mind, when you first get your activity tracker, don’t just passively accept what it tells you. Delve right into the settings and start making some changes. If you barely walk at all at the moment and just want to get more active, set that step goal to 5000 rather than 10. Your wearable is for you, not for anyone else. So don’t be afraid of flipping things upside down and customising the hell out of it to get what you want.

4. Track your motivation to see improvements

One of the reasons many of us don’t stick to new habits is because we start to feel demotivated. You want to lose weight, but you don’t feel different, you want to be able to run a 10km but you’re still out of breath. I hear ya!

But the great thing about using an activity tracker is you can track data down to really specific points, enabling you to see teeny tiny improvements, no matter how small, are likely to keep you on track and stop you throwing in the towel. That’s why it’s essential to commit to tracking what’s going on. So don’t just wear a tracker and never look at the app, get interested in the data and learn to really understand what it means.

5. Think about that reward at the end

This all depends on what you find rewarding. The most powerful visualisation exercise I ever took part in was an adaptation of Tony Robbins’ Dickens Process. It basically asks you to come face-to-face with two different futures. One that’s filled with fear, negativity and old habits. And one that’s filled with new challenge, positivity and good ones.

Granted this won’t work for everyone, but when I imagine what my life will be six months down the line if I do get up and run, take care of myself and put the effort in, it’s enough to give me the motivation to stick to my good habits. That’s enough of a reward for me, to know I’m on the right track.

Wearable tech can give us plenty of rewards, badges, watching charts rise, smashing personal bests and being at the top of leaderboards. You’ll need to play around with certain apps to find what works for you. If the app for the wearable you have falls short, integrate it into another instead – there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach and most wearables and services have third part integration.

6. Become accountable

Most trackers have the ability to share your workouts, runs and daily achievements with friends online. Although this may seem daunting (and not to mention a bit irritating), many people attribute their success to being accountable. To making goals and announcing them publicly. And to finding like-minded people online.

You only have to look at the #BBG hashtag on Instagram and Twitter (that’s in reference to Kayla Itsines’ Bikini Body Guide) to see a whole host of people getting involved in a new fitness community, making friends, sharing stats and achieving awesome stuff.

7. Still not feeling it? Reassess your goals and motivations

If you’re still feeling demotivated and you’re not really getting anywhere, think about your goals and what’s motivating you to change. If it’s not achievable and objective and doesn’t have your happiness at the core then it’s either not going to work or it’ll be extremely challenging.

This means no “I want to look like Rosie Huntington-Whiteley” or “I want to be able to run the Marathon des Sables next month”. Get real. Start small. And think about the kind of feelings you’re working towards.

If it’s just a bikini body to take photos on a hate-fuelled shoot to make your ex feel jealous on Facebook that you’re after, then you’re going to be constantly focused on negative thoughts and fears. No wonder the whole thing seems like a huge struggle that’s not really worth it!

On the other hand, if your end goal is to feel strong and awesome regardless of your shape and be able to run solidly for 30 minutes then it’s a much healthier, measurable outcome.

Too much info for right now? Just pick a small, achievable goal about your health, fitness and happiness. Do something that’s triggered by something else you already do to make it memorable and “sticky”. And use your tracker to stay motivated. Simple.


Main image © Fitbit