What wearable tech brands need to know about the science of habits

Cue, routine, reward, repeat
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Everyday we hear about habits in a negative context: a gambling habit, a smoking habit. But if you're keen to take your mental and physical wellbeing into your own hands, it's the positive habits you need to form in order to achieve success.

Whether it's vowing to run everyday, eat more vegetables or just walk to work, habits are the lynchpins of many of our biggest achievements - and biggest downfalls.

Read this: How to set your fitness goals and actually stick to them

Many industries are built around habit-building, from snack companies at one end of the spectrum to gyms at the other, and wearable fitness tech has plenty to learn from all of them.

Wearable tech brands want us to build habits towards healthier, fitter goals, stick to these goals, check apps for our progress and turn the act of actually putting on our wristband or monitor into a habit in itself.

However, and it's a big however, there seems to be a disconnect between brands wanting their products to be part of the habit-building process and research about wearable tech adoption rates. A study from Endeavour Partners last year found a third of people who bought a device had stopped using it after six months.

Either the bold claims just don't add up in the real world. Or there's some other barrier between wearable tech and what's going on in our brains when it comes to habit formation. So we decided to take a closer look.

Understanding habitual behaviour

What wearable tech brands need to know about the science of habits

In his popular book, The Power of Habit, investigative journalist Charles Duhigg writes, "Habits can be changed, if we understand how they work." Yet so many of us know nothing about what's going on at a deeper level when we vow to eat more fruit or say we want to cultivate better habits.

Read this: The best fitness trackers you can buy

I spoke with Professor Andrew Lane, a sports psychologist at the Centre for Health and Human Performance about habits, which he described as, "A learned behaviour or thought that occurs automatically." He told me that, on a neuroscientific level, "the pathway for habitual movement involves consistent messages, these messages are strong enough to stimulate action."

But how do they form? Well, many would argue the process is extremely complex, but Duhigg writes that generally there's a three step loop when it comes to forming a habit:

"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."

The more times this loop is completed, the more likelihood the loop will become habitual and second nature.

Although it's rather basic, let's assume Duhigg's loop is what happens when something becomes habitual. So how can wearable tech tap into this?

Creating wearable tech built for habits

What wearable tech brands need to know about the science of habits

We spoke to Fitbit, Jawbone, Moov, Fitbug and Basis about what part habit forming played in the creation and design of their products and ecosystems. It seems that many different stages of the habit loop are being considered, but it's only just the beginning.

All of the brands have moved on from passively tracking what we get up to throughout the day. And it's no surprise that kind of tracking wouldn't work - it's not setting off the habitual loop and would put all of the responsibility on the individual to take action.

This would likely help some people to change their behaviour, because they'd be incentivised by seeing charts and graphs go up and other metrics, like weight, go down. But they'd have to make the first move and come up with rewards themselves. That's not ideal and if you've been using a wearable device and not been seeing an results, this might be why.

Instead of settling, brands are getting focused on using data in order to fire the initial signals to nudge people to begin the loop. For example, a spokesperson from Jawbone explained that SmartCoach, a feature which learns your habits and gives guidance and suggested goals, has proven to be successful:

"People who accepted a 'Today I Will' challenge to go to bed on time got an average of 23 minutes extra sleep and 72% met their sleep goal for that night. Another 'Today I Will' challenge saw participants taking 1.5k steps (23%) more on average at Thanksgiving."

But one off goals aren't likely to become habitual. So as well as that, SmartCoach also sends prompts for people to complete the goals they've committed to, which is an attempt to fire the cues we saw above in the loop.

The problem here is how subjective these cues are. A key component in developing a habit is that it's easy to integrate into your normal routine. So a prompt to run might be great before work, but not at the end of the day for certain people. Although the SmartCoach does learn more about its users, it seems focusing on the first bit of the loop is a little tricky. Prompts and push notifications can be annoying, ill-timed and their effectiveness subjective.

And this is one of the reasons that many of the companies I spoke to are choosing to incentivise users and focus on the end goal. The reward.

Receiving a badge with a Fitbit device, reaching the end of a Kiqplan with the Fitbug platform and smashing a goal with a Jawbone UP24. All of these incentives add an extra layer to data tracking by gamifying the experience to some degree.

What wearable tech brands need to know about the science of habits

And this is a valuable second component to Duhigg's loop, he writes:

"Studies have shown that a cue and a reward, on their own, aren't enough for a new habit to last. Only when your brain starts expecting the reward – craving the endorphins or sense of accomplishment – will it become automatic."

Again, this presents another challenge. What reward will your target users come to crave and depend on each day? Will it be a colourful badge? A chance to beat others? Or something more?

Erick McAfee, MOOV's global sales director, said the reward for the brand's target market is the feeling of advancement rather than a badge or a goal. "It's a proven fact that the feeling of advancement is one that humans thrive on," he explained. "We're looking to capitalise on motivating our users to advance themselves."

And this idea of advancement, of building rewards and craving positive feelings is what life coach and therapist Michael Carthy believes is what gives wearable tech so much potential.

"Set a single goal. If people do a series of different behaviours that involve self-control, this uses up resources."

"Our motivation to change is either based on fear, an example would be someone trying to lose weight for a big holiday because they want to look good on the beach," he said. "Or the second type of motivation is what we call a towards motivation. Which is based on a loving or compelling vision of you in the future because they want to feel better, happier and healthier.

"This kind of tech creates a towards motivation in the individual," he continued. "It sets realistic and meaningful goals and helps people work to a vision of themselves that isn't steeped in fear, but instead has feelings of advancement, accomplishment and pride at the end of the cycle."

Read this: Moov review

Carthy believes that focusing on this end goal and making it meaningful, not fearful, is the foundation of a positive habit and a healthier lifestyle.

When I spoke to Andrew Lane, the sports psychologist, he told me that his one piece of advice for forming habits is "set a single goal". He explained to me that, "if people tend to do a series of different behaviours that involve self-control, this uses up resources and performance deteriorates."

This is sometimes hard to rein in when you're feeling motivated by a new goal or a new gadget. But the key is to focus. And this is an idea that Basis decided to build on with its Healthy Habits programme. Jef Holove, general manager at Basis, an Intel company, told Wareable, "Our system rewards users for doing small things regularly vs. large endeavours done infrequently."

But it's not just about small goals, the Basis ecosystem is built around many different stages of the loop:

"Principles we've applied are making goals or new habits initially very accessible, creating feedback loops, using a light amount of gamification to offer some extrinsic motivation, and adapting difficulty to actual performance, to slow the wagon, down if a user has fallen off."

Holove focused on this flexibility when it comes to habit-building a lot throughout our conversation, which proved one thing: Basis had actually tested the system on real, fallible people rather than solely relying on the science.

"It was user testing before our initial launch that led us away from a core focus on data and charts and graphs to behaviour change as a thesis for the product experience," he said.

The habit of wearing a wearable

What wearable tech brands need to know about the science of habits

Michael Carthy, the lifecoach we spoke to, pointed out that the act of wearing a wearable could also help us develop habits. So the wearable itself, regardless of the goals it sets and the metrics is tracks, could trigger a good habit or feeling.

"We are creatures of habit and familiarity," he said. "The old adage of out of sight out of mind means that we habitually fall back into our automatic pre programmed behaviour. Having a tangible object, which we could call an anchor, is extremely powerful, not only to remind us to take action, but to engage the imagination and the emotional motivation to continuously move forward."

He explains that many successful sportsmen and women have these physical anchors, whether they're actual objects or just places on their body they can touch and engage with to illicit the right types of feelings that allow them to easily achieve peak performance.

"Having a physical anchor on your arm allows us again to remember our towards motivation," he said. "To engage the imagination and to fire all of the emotions that allow us to take action, which through repetition can work to fire the loop. Or at least set it off."

So the challenge for wearable companies is to make wearing the wearable, and using it as an anchor and becoming a habit, as easy as possible. Which is what many of the brands we spoke to seemed to be aware of.

Jef Holove at Basis believes battery life is one of the most important factors in this case "The more you ask a customer to take the band off and charge it, the more likely they are to not put it back on," he noted.

Jawbone's focus was also on battery life but firmly planted in design: "We strongly believe wearables have to be designed to work in your life so you will want to put them on and keep them on," a spokesperson told us.

We've only really touched the surface of habit formation in a world increasingly interested in wearable tech. What's important is that people feel empowered to figure out what's happening at a deeper level, make better, longer lasting decisions using the right kind of tech, not just the latest gimmicky gadget. Wearables are better than that and so are we.

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Becca Caddy


Becca has been writing about technology for nearly ten years. In that time she’s covered topics from robotics and virtual reality to simulated universe theory and brain-computer interfaces for a wide range of titles, including TechRadar, New Scientist, Wired UK, OneZero by Medium, Stuff, T3, Metro and many more.

She’s passionate about helping people wade through tech jargon to find useful products they’ll actually use – with a focus on health and wellbeing.

Becca is also interested in how scientific developments and technological advances will impact us all in the near future. Many of her features ask big questions about what’s in store for wearable technology, especially the potential of virtual reality and artificial intelligence.

She spends a lot of time interviewing researchers and academics to explore the ethical implications of a world increasingly filled with tech. She’s a big fan of science-fiction, has just traded in her boxing gloves for weight-lifting gloves and spends way too much time in virtual reality – current favourites include painting in TiltBrush and whizzing through space in No Man’s Sky.

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