Since quitting my job about a year ago, I’ve enjoyed a lot of travel, made new friends, and done a lot of cycling and hiking. But I’ve been lacking any real structure in my life. Having a job provides structure; it’s the big thing in life around which everything else has to fit. And having constraints makes it easier to be creative and to get things done. It’s been easier for me to get things done in the gaps than when time stretches out endlessly in front of me. If I have too much time on my hands it’s easy to say to myself that I’ll do it later.
So I wanted to add some structure and discipline but you know how it goes, why bother if you don’t need to? I wanted to get some structure around the different aspects of life: fitness, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual, and decided that the way to do this was to develop some new habits.
I’ve previously written (on another blog) about two techniques for developing habits. One is to create Tiny Habits: commit to flossing one tooth, doing one pushup, writing one sentence, dusting one picture frame, cleaning one square foot of kitchen floor. The goal is just to get you started. It’s much easier to continue something you’ve started than it is to start it. By making a tiny commitment, Tiny Habits makes it easy to start.
The other technique is to commit to something for 30 days. Write a journal, do fifty pushups, meditate, no alcohol, write three new things you are grateful for. The idea behind the 30 Day Commitment is that it ends. It doesn’t go on forever so it’s not as daunting as a lifetime commitment.
These two techniques sound great. Unfortunately I haven’t had any success with them, mainly because I haven’t committed to the Tiny Habits, and didn’t even start a 30 Day Commitment.
But then I heard about another technique that I’ve actually started using. It’s one that Jerry Seinfeld uses to make himself write every day and is called Don’t Break the Chain.
- You choose the thing you want to do every day.
- Get yourself a calendar, preferably one that shows a year at a time.
- Every day you do that thing, you put a red X through that date
The idea is that once you have a chain or sequence of red X’s, you want to keep it going. You don’t want to break the chain.
But, you are saying, I want to do this on my phone. Well, there are quite a few little apps that allow you to do exactly that. I found a web page that talked about several apps. Unable to choose one, I chose 6.
The six I chose are Goal Streaks, Chains, Habit List, Lift, Way of Life, and Don’t Break the Chain! They are all slightly different, but the basic functionality is the same: create a habit, then each day tell the app that you did the habit activity for that day.
So what is my conclusion after using these apps? They work. I’ve very definitely changed my behavior because of them. Because of wanting my streak/chain to remain unbroken. Before using these apps I would never floss after a couple of cocktails. Too much effort. Now I floss every night. Before using these apps I would skip meditation if I didn’t do it just after getting up in the morning. Now I’ve meditated after getting back after 10 pm from dinner with friends, got up early to meditate while camping, and meditated in a busy airport.
Not only do the apps work for me, but I’m tracking several habits at once. Prevailing wisdom says to only take on one new habit at a time, not starting another habit until this one is firmly established, which seems to take an average of 66 days. But I started several habits at the same time, and, using the Don’t Break the Chain technique, I have no problem doing all the activities. Although I’m not sure that any of them are true, ingrained habits, because my motivation to do them is very tied in with my motivation to not break my streaks. But since I’m doing the activities, does that matter?
Some of the apps I’ve used allow you to specify which days you want to do your habit activity; some allow you to skip a day; some give you reminders; some allow you to create notes. For me, besides visual and usage appeal, the key things are:
- How flexible the schedule is
- Whether you can easily see the length of the chain
- Whether you are allowed to skip a day without breaking the chain (although I’m a bit ambivalent about this last one.)
Skipping a day
I don’t want to break the chain. Which is why I’m not sure I really like the ability to skip a day. I understand that sometimes things are beyond one’s control. You might be traveling, or spending time with friends, or on a camping trip, or …. But. But.
Having the ability to skip a day makes it too easy to break the commitment. I can always find a reason to say I’m not really breaking the chain this time. When I started doing 30 pushups, after 3 days my pecs were really sore so I took two days off. With apps that don’t allow skipping, I’ve broken the chain. With apps that do allow skipping, I chose to skip those days because I had a good reason.
Some activities require the ability to skip, but not all do. If you want to write every day, or meditate every day, is there really ever a good reason to justify skipping a day? On the other hand, if you want to do a blog post every day, perhaps you should be able to skip days when you are camping in the wilds.
So I think what I’d like to see is the ability to skip a day, but also the ability to specify whether each individual habit allows you to skip. A skipped day would not count towards the length of the chain but nor would it break the chain.
Only two apps allow skipping: Way of Life, and Habit List. The other apps require you to do your activity, break the chain, or create a schedule that gives you enough flexibility.
Maybe you want to do your activity every day – for example flossing. Maybe every other day – for example running. Maybe only weekdays; maybe four times a week. It all depends on the activity and your goals. Three of the apps: Lift, Way of Life, and Don’t Break the Chain!, want you to do the activity every day. Chains allows you to specify which days of the week to track; Habit List and Goal Streaks allow very flexible schedules.
Note that I’m using an iPhone 5. Using a larger phone may well allow you to see more than I describe here.
This is my favorite app, and the one I will keep using. I like it because it’s visually appealing, simple to use, it shows the length of each chain, and has a flexible schedule. It doesn’t allow skipping a day, which is something I agonized over but in the end decided that not being able to skip a day means that I will try extra hard to make sure I do the activity. And if not, I can often solve the problem of not being able to do something every day by saying that I’ll do the activity five times a week, but try to do it every day.
On the initial screen, I can see a connected chain for the last seven days, for three habits. Scrolling up or down shows me additional habits. If I touch the name of the habit, I get to see a scrolling screen that shows me over a month of connected chains. On both screens I get to see the counts of the current streak and the longest streak so far. It’s these visuals that make me want to keep the chain unbroken.
In the Settings page (press the icon in the top left) you can set the week start – Monday for me (I can never understand why anyone would start the week on a Sunday, which is part of the weekend), and there is a brief Help section. Pressing the pencil in the top right lets you delete a habit, reorder them (touch to the right of the habit), edit a habit (touch in the center of the habit), or add a new habit (goal).
Adding a habit allows you to give it a name, an optional description, set a reminder (my only complaint about the reminder is that if I create a habit for Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, it still goes off on Tuesday), and create a schedule. The schedule is very flexible: you can name specific days, every day, every other day, every 3 days, etc., or every week, twice a week, three times a week, and so on. And after all that, you can specify exception days, days that you don’t have to do the habit. You can add a note to any day for any habit by holding your finger on that day. A note indicator will appear in the top left corner for that day.
One thing it does wrong is that it miscounts the number of days in partial schedules. For example, if you set a schedule for Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and check those three days, it will give you a streak count of 5 rather than 3.
Don’t Break the Chain!
This is the simplest, most brutal of the apps. I like it for its simplicity. Basically, you create habit, then do it every day. There’s no schedules, no skipping of days, no notes. You can set a reminder, but it’s a single reminder for all habits, and will remind you if you haven’t done the activity by that time. It’s the app that most closely follows and looks like the Jerry Seinfeld Don’t Break the Chain technique.
You only get to see one habit at a time, but can see the list of habits by either swiping right, or touching the three lines at the top left. It would be nice if the list of habits also showed the length of the chain, but you have to go to the individual habit to see that.
You can add habits, then edit the name or delete the habit by touching the habit name. You change between habits or change settings by touching the icon at the top left, or by swiping right on the habit.
Chains is a visually appealing app. You see all your habits on the front page, then you swipe right on the habit to say you’ve done the activity today. If you make a mistake, swipe left to unset.
For the habits you have completed today, you get to see the length of the chain, but for uncompleted habits you are told how long it is since you did the activity.
The app has no notes; there’s a simple help manual; you can set alarms for each habit, although unfortunately they go off even if you have done the activity for that habit.
One of the features of Chains is that it’s integrated with chains.cc, a web page, and the two are automatically synchronized. On chains.cc you can add notes for habit-days.
If you rotate the phone to be in landscape mode, you can see the chains themselves, and you can scroll left and right to see the actual history. From this screen you can easily mark or unmark the activity for any day. You can set the “skin” of the chain, and the color of the chain changes based on how long the chain is.
Chains has a simple schedule, only allowing you to specify which days to perform the activity, which can be restrictive. For example, you might want to run four days a week, but the days may not be the same each week.
Way of Life
I quite like this app visually, despite its limitations, although its limitations exceed its virtues.
Its unique feature is that when you create a habit, you specify whether the habit is good for you or bad for you. It’s cute but not really necessary. You could say “Evening drinks” is bad for you, but you could equally create a habit called “No evening drinks”. So it doesn’t seem particularly useful.
Way of Life allows you to skip days, but there is no schedule. You can do as I did and create a habit where you will do the activity on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, then press Skip for the other days. It’s a bit clumsy though because you don’t get to see the genuine skips where you really couldn’t do the activity. (Update: I received an email from Way of Life on 12/15/14 saying “A way of setting up an automatic skip pattern for an activity is in the works. This will allow you to specify the recurrence of an activity much like you do in a calendar app, i.e. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday or every 1st and 15th in the month, etc.”)
You can create notes by swiping left on the panel that has the Erase, Yes, No, Skip buttons, then to save the note you swipe right in the note. Days that have notes have a little indicator for that day. There is a 7-day view and a 31 day view and the latter view gives you the best idea of how long the chain is.
A big limitation for me is that the app doesn’t show you the length of the chain, although you can swipe right and left to get a visual impression of the chain.
At the bottom of the screen are buttons that allow you to see trends, or see a consolidated view of all your notes. You can set reminders for each habit but it’s a bit unintuitive as, rather than setting them with the habit, you set them in the general Setup screen. You can also specify the start of the week (Monday for me). The app has a badge that specifies how many habits still need to be performed for today.
This is a strange app for me. I initially disliked it, but in fact it provides all the functionality I’d want, but not as elegantly as some of the other apps. You can create complex schedules, see the length of the chain, and skip days. So even though I’ve had a visceral dislike of the interface, I also admit that it’s perhaps the most complete of the apps.
The main page shows all your habits, and the length of the current current streak (although sometimes the count appears to slightly off.) There are three ways you can interact with the habits on the main page.
- You can swipe right to mark the activity as done.
- You can touch the habit and will be taken to a page where you can see the chain for the current month, as well as the length of both the current and longest streak.
- You can hold your finger down on the habit, and you’ll be presented with a choice of Skip, Miss, or Complete. This is where you can choose to skip a day. The day will not be counted in the streak, but neither will it break the streak. (You can also mark the days in the full month page.)
So I’ve changed my mind about this app. I still am not as fond of the interface as some of the other apps, but it does do the three things I think are most important. I think this would be my second choice.
This is my least favorite app. It’s heavily geared towards social networking, allowing you to create habits that already have hundreds or thousands of members. You can create private habits, and you can invite friends to join you. Having friends support you as you strive towards goals is supposedly a good thing, but I’m quite happy with the motivation that comes from trying to avoid breaking the chain.
Since it’s a social media app, you get to see all sorts of comments and questions from other people. The company also tries to sell you coaching. You can turn the notifications of various types on or off depending on whether you find all this useful or irritating.
Another of my dislikes is that you have to be connected to the Internet to do anything with this app. You can’t even say that you’ve done the activity today without being connected.
Another dislike is the interface – I find it clunky and awkward and difficult to use. It’s based on a weekly view and shows you which days you’ve done the activity, but doesn’t easily show you how long your chain is. To make matters worse, the week starts on a Sunday and there’s no way to change that 🙂 And you can’t even create schedules.
As I said, I don’t like this app. But if you love social media apps, you might enjoy this one.
Links and other clicks
Here’s an article about how to use the chains technique. And here’s an article that describes Jerry Seinfeld’s productivity secret.
Here’s the main article I read when deciding which apps to get. Here’s another older article which has some additional apps that I looked at. Note that the prices are no longer accurate.
How long does it take to create a new habit?
There’s a whole habit framework you can read about called Cue-Routine-Reward. To create, change, or eliminate habits you look at the cue that triggers the habit activity, and the reward that the activity gives.
BJ Fogg has a tiny presentation about starting habits with baby steps such as doing two pushups or flossing one tooth. You can go to his web site, TinyHabits, and sign up for a tiny course that helps you develop tiny habits.
30 Day Commitments
Matt Cutts gives a 4-minute TED talk about doing things for 30 days. As he says, those 30 days will pass whether you like it or not. So why not do something new for those 30 days? Matt gives examples like riding to work for 30 days, taking a photo a day for 30 days, or cutting out TV for 30 days.