Sunday, June 30, 2013

Need Some Will Power? There's an App for That!

By Stacy Braslau-Schneck

Reprinted with permission from

Sometimes, the hardest animal for a behaviorist to train is one’s own self.  I’ve been experimenting with three programs that are supposed to help with that.

App #1: Funl

The first one I tried is a website called Funl, at  In Funl, you set up any number of Habits and you give each one a dollar value or “financial incentive”, then you set up any number of Rewards, and you can decide which habits will feed into which rewards.  In other words, you can assign “Go to the gym” a dollar value of $5, say, and pick a reward of “Buy new shoes” which cost $90 (I’m making this up; I neither use the gym nor really buy shoes).

Of course, the money you’re dealing with is all yours – Funl is not actually paying you for your habits, but instead giving you a way to “monetize” your habits.  When you do spend your own money to splurge on your reward, you at least feel like you’ve earned it.  Funl’s creators are also hoping to reduce “the world's reliance on credit card debt…. [and] decrease impulse buying behaviour.”

Funl does not as yet have a dedicated smartphone app, but you can put a shortcut to their website on your home screen to take you there to easily check off the habits you’ve done that day – helpful for immediate reinforcement if you’re on-the-go and forgetful.

Set Attainable Goals

I started by setting a low value of $1 on one habit, Practicing Buugeng (Buugeng are s-shaped staffs that are spun around while dancing – see, for example, the master/inventor demonstrating here) and the goal of saving towards a big ticket item – in this case a $98 Laser Star Projector (that I’ve been coveting for a while but couldn’t justify spending my money on).  I figured that if I practiced daily, I could earn this toy in three months.  However, this was a dumb starting move – it was lumping, not splitting, setting a high criteria before reaching my reinforcement. Having a low-probability behavior (one that you’re not likely to do anyways) priced at a low value, combined with a high-value reward is a bad combination to start with.  I would recommend, going forward, starting with a behavior/goal combination that can result in a small reward with five or fewer repetitions.  If I were starting over, I’d probably say something like 5 repetitions of this habit would earn me a nice new purple Sharpie pen or something like that.  Nothing too extravagant, but I can easily afford it, I wouldn’t be buying it otherwise, and when I used the new pen I’d be reminded of how I earned it.

Group Only Similar Habits

Another option is to combine the habits – you can have more than one habit that can feed into the same Reward.  You could “earn” money towards your goal by any of the habits you might do, for example, practicing a dance, weighing yourself, drinking 8 glasses of water in a day, and replying to all your emails.  This would get you to your goal much faster.  However, I have a feeling that this would “dilute” the value of each practice.  With just one habit, you’d know that you’d earned your reward due to your diligence in that behavior.  With several habits feeding into one reward, you might think, I don’t need to do this one habit, because I’m still earning my Reward through all these other habits.  However, I can see combining various habits within a category, such as “dance practice”, “physical fitness”, “good business practices”, “family time” etc.

Habits Must Be Measurable

Funl doesn’t really give advice on what kinds of habits to use, so you have to have some awareness of what does and doesn’t work.  With any behavior, it’s important to quantify it.  You want to avoid vague behaviors like “eat less” or “exercise more”; you want something that you can say without question that you did it (or not), such as “eat less than 1500 calories a day” or “walk for 20 minutes”.  It’s OK if the habit that you write down is vague (like “Process Daily Folder” or “Practice Buugeng”) as long as you know what that means (going to each day’s “tickle file” folder, taking out all the paperwork that’s in it, and process them, refilling any pages that need it; or “practice spinning Buugeng for at least 10 minutes”).

Funl tells you your overall total for each habit; it does not tell you your frequency.  So if you’re doing your would-be daily habit only once a week, it will still add up (slowly) and you won’t really be shown the difference.

Identify Affordable Rewards

One of the problems with self-reinforcement is finding a reward you can afford – either financially, or in terms of time, or in terms of letting go of other priorities. After all, if it was something you could easily give yourself, you’d do it already.  On the other hand, if the reward matches the habit, it could work out.  For example, if the Habit is “stay under calorie goal each day”, and you have to do a week’s worth, and the reward is “reasonably-sized bowl of ice cream”, it might be a good rare reward, rather than being counter-productive.  If the goal is a financial stretch, habits that help you save money (packing a lunch instead of buying it, ordering water instead of drinks in a restaurant, planning a week’s purchases) might in fact earn you the reward. Of course you can put a dollar-value on an otherwise free indulgent experience, such as “take a bubble bath”, “take a day off of work and go to the beach”, or “watch a trashy TV show”.

Social Component

One disadvantage of Funl is that there does not seem to be a social component.  Although there’s an option for each habit to make it “public”, I didn’t see any way of accessing other users’ habits or giving them feedback.  This means there’s no one to hold you accountable if you haven’t practiced your habit in a while, and there’s no one to give you props when you do.   Social support can also be a vital component of non-financial rewards, such as someone agreeing to take your kids for a few hours so you can indulge in a bubble bath, or a circle of friends who offer to buy you lunch if you reach your goal.

App #2: Lift

This social aspect is the advantage of Lift.  Lift is a website and a smartphone app.  You can pick a habit that others have created and join in, or create your own.  Plenty of people have already put in things like “weigh daily”, “go to the gym”, “inbox zero”, and practices of various sports and musical instruments.  I added “Practice Buugeng” to this app, too, as well “Weight Daily”, “Process Daily Folder”, and “Go to sleep by midnight” (this last one should actually be more like “Be in bed with the lights off by midnight”, in my opinion, so that’s my description of it in my head.  I can’t actually control if I’m ASLEEP by then, only if I’ve made a good faith effort to get off the computer and put down the book).

Lift shows you an accumulation of what you’ve done, but it doesn’t have a way of showing that you’re approaching a goal the way Funl does.  Of course, you can still say “once I’ve done this 45 times, I can indulge in this particular reward because I’ll know I’ve earned it”.  In Lift, you can connect with friends and follow their progress, and anyone sharing the same “goal” (habit) can also give you feedback.  Lift itself will prompt you to do at least one of your habits daily, and will give you little R+ messages like “you’ve reached a mini milestone” and “Way to go!”.

App #3 MyFitnessPal

One other program I’ve been using for a over a year (with great results) is MyFitnessPal.  This is a website and smartphone app that tracks one thing: your calorie accounting for the day.  You can put in what you’ve eaten, and what exercise you’ve done.  It will give you several metrics, including whether you are over or under your goal, and how your intake breaks down in terms of protein, carbohydrates, fat, and even a few vitamins and minerals; it tracks your weight as you input it, and will announce when you’ve lost weight and how much you’ve lost overall. It will note how many days in a row you’ve completed your food/exercise diary (although if you skip a day it resets so you don’t get a cumulative count or a count per week, month, or year).

It is also a social app; you can connect with friends and they can see when you’ve completed your accounting for the day (and if you choose, you can even let them see what you listed that you ate), when you’ve logged for a milestone number of days, how much weight you’ve lost (but not gained!), and if you’ve been absent for a few days – presumably so that they can encourage you to get back to it.  While it’s sometimes tedious to write down everything you’ve eaten, a lot of brand name foods are already programmed in (chain restaurants, supermarket foods) and you can even scan the barcode of packaged foods.  It will also remember your frequent meals and what you’ve eaten recently, making the logging of leftovers or habitual meals very easy.

It’s easy enough to say to yourself, “When I reach X weight, I will reward myself with Y”, but it would be kind of nice if MyFitnessPal did this the way Funl does.

In short, I’d love an app or system that combines all three – the multiple behaviors of Funl and Lift, the social components of Lift and MyFitnessPal, and the counting towards a reward of Funl.

Then I’d have no excuse for not achieving all of my behavioral habit goals!

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