How can technology help us change our habits?

Despite our complex intellect’s desire to make us think that all of our activities are a result of conscious, well thought-through decision making, most of the activities that constitute our day-to-day are derived of pure, humanly habit. And while these habits are minuscule on their own, over time and clumped together they ultimately shape our long term health and wellbeing. Do you eat something sweet after meals? Do you stare at a screen until the very second you fall asleep? Do you take the lift instead of the stairs?

The thing about habits is that while they are difficult to break, they remain completely malleable for us to play with – if the will is present and the assistance or guidance is there. And here is where we would expect technology and particularly the boom of machine learning personal devices would come in hand, but as it stands, very few smart devices work on true habit changing.

So what is needed for changing habits? Over the past several decades, the neurological understanding of habit forming has expanded. We now know that at the core of every habit is a neurological loop consisting of three parts: a cue, a routine and a reward. For example, a cue can be a repetitive trigger, such as tying your shoelaces before going for a run or opening the blinds of your bedroom at the same moment in your morning routine to boost your energy. The reward can be the sense of accomplishment after exercising, or feeling more energised on days you don’t forget to get a daylight boost in the morning. Technology and personal assistance AI devices that directly address this cycle are therefore able to guide users to form such habits. 

If AI is smartly integrated into the behavioural changing tools we use then it has the power to learn when we normally do something that is a good habit – alerting us to when it is due in the day or the week. And at the same time, machine learning can be used to detect when we do something that isn’t so good for us, and in turn analyse the data and when results are lower than average, it can show us the effects this has on our bodies, therefore working similarly to the ‘cue, routine, reward’.

One of the largest issues we face moving forward with the development of behavioural changing technology is that it needs to incorporate an element that collects data about us almost as – if not more – easily as our body does about itself. How can technology know when the cue is due or even how to give the cue? How can it spur a routine and most importantly – and this is crucial – how can it reward us when we’ve done good and encourage us to continue when we’ve slacked? What we need is behaviour changing technology that is integrated within our infrastructure, understanding us and our body's needs not only our desire to, for example listen to a song or add an item to our shopping list – instead it needs to adapt to us throughout the day while also nudging us towards healthier habits.