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January 20, 2011 | Written by: Sharon Suchotliff, MPH

SXSW Report: Tracking Data. Changing Behavior.

Everywhere you went at South by Southwest this year, someone was looking to show you how to track and see your data for something—exercise, sleep, calorie intake, blood pressure, and even brainwaves. Going beyond apps, these trackers now take the shape of clothing, watches, kiosks at your supermarket, and brainwave tracking headbands. The premise behind these wearable technologies is that if you are aware and engaged with your body’s data, you’re going to take action and change your behavior. And to some extent, that’s true.

At our panel at SxSW, “Sitting Will Kill You. Can Mobile Save Us?”, we discussed what it is about wearable, personal, data-collecting technologies and mobile apps that motivate us to change. Partly, it’s that feeling of excitement you had as a child when you got a new toy for your birthday. This toy instantly became your favorite, you cared for it, took it with you everywhere… that is, until the next thing shiny thing came along. There is also the element of competition, trying to beat yesterday’s number of steps taken or your husband’s record for eating healthy meals.

This is all great—and helpful motivation at the start of your tracking and changing adventure, but for many, it’s not sustainable.

Knowing and understanding is not necessarily what helps us change. At his SXSWi talk, BJ Fogg of the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab, explained that it’s not about motivating behavior change—the key is in triggering behavior change. To trigger change, you need to start small, in fact, Fogg believes you should start tiny. Instead of committing to drinking 8 glasses of water, Fogg recommends placing a glass of water on your desk each morning. The key is to cycle this ritual until it becomes second nature. Once you have formed that habit, you can build up from there. Fogg’s program, Tiny Habits, helps people do just that.

This idea of training yourself to do something is not new—think about the experience of leaning to ride a bike, for example. Interaxon brought their Muse brainwave monitor to SXSW to demonstrate how they are taking this idea to new levels. Imagine being able to train your mind to have better focus or keep stress at bay by playing a video game based on your personal, instant, brainwave activity. The future of products like Muse is not merely the suite of apps that will help you train your mind and create new habits, but also the ability to train your mind to control things– like turning off the toaster oven.

But at the end of the day, we’re social animals. Training our mind and ourselves may not go far enough to impact a change that sticks. The group at the Designing Habits: From Big Data to Small Change panel discussion cautioned that social systems cannot be left out of the equation—as the saying goes, “If everyone else is doing it then…”

For example, in a California State University study on why people choose to be more energy efficient, over and over, the most powerful force was to let them know that their neighbor cares about energy efficiency. Then demonstrate how much energy their neighbor uses or saves.

Furthermore, the emotional level must also be considered. According to panelist Stephanie Habif, Stanford behavior scientist, we need to “stir up the desire engine” to impact change. Emotion is the reason gamification works. In games, you become emotionally invested in a goal or action, which actually induces chemical reactions in the brain stimulating the desire to keep playing.

We can’t rely on merely willpower and motivation to help us make a change that sticks. Making a change is complicated. If it were easy, we would have solved the obesity problem by now. Although no one has fully solved this puzzle, there are a few things you can do to set up for success: Start small and train consistently to form tiny habits you can scale up, bring in your social circle to support and keep you on track, and tap into the desire to stay engaged.