This article first appeared in Alpha Efficiency Magazine: Issue 10: Habits & Rituals
Habit forming products are designed with the sole goal of getting us “hooked”. Often these behaviors are subtle and pass our radar, hence you don’t even notice yourself getting addicted. By reading this article you will be able to understand the entire habit forming process and learn how to defend yourself against experiences that are designed to subvert you from your attention. By understanding these principles, you will learn how to utilize these principles in order to create habits that will move you closer to your goals.
My experience with habit-forming products
I admit, I have been a victim of habit-forming products and I am aware of their disastrous effects on productivity. For me, justifying my addiction to social media channels has been relatively easy, as social media has been a part of my job and my life for the past 5 years and counting. This enabled me to justify my faulty behavior and deepen my addiction.
However, social media is not the only wave of habit-forming products we use in our daily lives. The grandfather of social media – email – can equally be blamed for taking control over our lives. Let’s not even mention Candy Crush Saga and the applications that are consistently pinging us to come back to them, shifting our focus towards the pleasurable, yet artificial, experiences that they provide.
Empowering The Addictive Habits: The Hooked Model
Perhaps you’ve wondered how these seemingly innocent applications are capable of capturing our attention, and attention of our loved ones, to such an extent that we prioritize them above human connection and touch? How have these applications insinuated themselves as a surrogate of reality to such an extent that we consider them more enjoyable than reality itself?
The answer lies in the reward pathways located in our brains, our primal connection to them, and the way we are wired to repeat those actions that provide us with an immediate gratification.
The dopamine release cycle has shrunk from hours in the physical world to seconds in the digital, locking us into a vicious cycle where our brain is trained by our actions into having a limited attention. “You are so poor, you can’t even pay attention.”
How have these applications insinuated themselves as a surrogate of reality to such an extent that we consider them more enjoyable than reality itself?
This cycle is enforced with a four-step process famously described by Erin as Hooked. The stages of this cycle are:
3. Variable Reward
In order to understand how to fight this manipulative behavior model, you need to fully comprehend its aforementioned components.
Triggers are internal, and they are a hooking point for habit-forming products. They symbolize our needs and wants. Usually, they are already-established reward patterns, that, fulfilled, your brain constantly seeks new ways to re-initiate them. Some examples of basic triggers are hunger, thirst, physiological needs. These are on a more primal level.
A bit higher level are those needs that you don’t really see on the superficial level, such as the: need for validation from your peers, necessity for human interaction, curiosity and the pursuit of novelty. Satisfying these needs digitally has similar effects to indulging yourself frequently with junk food. The gratification is rapid, but short-lived. Frequent exposure to it diminishes the enjoyment of your life.
Aside from the internal triggers that these apps hook onto, there are also external triggers that they facilitate in order to establish a longer lasting connection with their product or service. Usually, we witness these in the form of various email and push notifications prompting us to get back into the app.
Dealing with external triggers is a tad easier, as we can assume full control over them. We can filter email notifications, completely shut off push notifications, as well as opt-out of advertising with Ad Blockers. At Alpha Efficiency this is something we encourage all our readers to do in order to live more meaningful lives.
Action – The Ritual Based Action
Triggers by themselves aren’t sufficient to form a destructive behavior, but consistently acting upon that trigger can. Repeated actions become habits; Each time you repeat a specific action pattern, you establish a neural pathway upon which habits are built. With every repetition, you become better at using the habit forming product.
There are numerous different actions that users can perform inside of an app. One will consist of performing an action, others will be related to consuming the content.
Apps like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter reward user behavior through the system of likes, favorites and retweets, propelling users to perform more actions in order to be rewarded with further, more meaningful engagement. The more you invest, the more you are rewarded.
Variable Reward – Ever Changing Candy To Pique Your Curiosity
Without the reward, there is no driving force for the action. In order for a product to be habit forming, every action needs to be followed with a probability of receiving a reward. Social media and other applications are becoming better at serving you partially related content and learning more about your online habits.
But if the reward was predictable every single time, there would be no excitement. So in order to easily form a habit, the apps are designed to give you a reward sporadically, sometimes more, sometimes less frequently, so you develop a usage pattern that transforms into a lasting habit.
Investment and IKEA effect
With every action you partake of inside the app, you are slightly improving your experience with the product, deepening the relationship with it. Status updates, likes, retweets, pins, or various game improvements that require the investment of your time, are vesting you not only with improved service, but also with your emotional investment into those products. If you take a look at FarmVille, that is exactly the case. You start out, you build out your farm empire, than you have a sense of accomplishment and then the whole thing is not just a video game anymore, it’s a farm you’ve built out. It’s better than other farms, because it has YOUR personal touch added to it. It is YOUR farm, so it has to be good, right?
This occurs because of a cognitive bias called the IKEA effect. Every time you build something by yourself, you feel that it has more value than if you’d just bought it. There was a study group evaluating the price of products, and it indicated that people evaluating products that they’d built themselves were estimated them to be worth more .
That is why so many of these products start out as free and, once you are vested into them, you become willing to pay for the “free” product, in order to improve your experience of it. The game becomes essentially a part of your extended identity.
My own personal case of severe addiction towards a habit forming product was my investment in World Of Warcraft. I was emotionally invested in my character, as it was an embodiment of my in-game identity. Other players knew who I was because of my character and my constant work towards improving it. Within a year, I’d accumulated more than 100 days of constant screen-on time. I was capable of playing 16 hours a day. This got me in a very bad habit cycle, where my school and social life suffered tremendously. (On the positive note, I’ve learned English, and set myself to build a website for the guild, so that we can be more organized as a guild).
But eventually, I broke the spell. It was a willful effort, that left me a bit lost.
Actionable steps towards Divorcing yourself from habit forming products
Breaking out of any cycle of addiction is not an easy endeavor, and will require changes. Pushing yourself away from any status quo is a challenge. But the first step is recognizing its existence. If you aren’t aware of your addiction patterns, there is no possible way of breaking out. You can’t solve a problem that you don’t admit to yourself.
Dealing with triggers
Shutting down external triggers is probably the easiest way to eliminate the external hooks that might bring you back to the habit forming products. we’ve written a lot about the benefits of turning notification off. Personally, my phone is always on silent, and I am very deliberate about the things that can send me notifications.
However internal triggers are a bit trickier to deal with, as we don’t notice them. Internal triggers are a part of our thought process and dealing with them requires for us to be present in the moment, mindful of it
Dealing with Action itself
When we are consciously trying to eradicate negative behavior patterns, we will often notice that we “failed”, and somehow our habit took over our lives on a kind of autopilot. when you come to see yourself abusing the habit forming product, you can stop and become aware, observing yourself as if it was not you doing it.
Often just the act of self-observation and self-questioning your desire to actually perform the action you are performing is sufficient reason to stop acting on it.
Getting stuck inside of the action can be a devastating experience, but it is a consequence of the lack of a strong motivator and the creation of comfort zone that contributes nothing towards your real life; It accomplishes quite the opposite. When you continually repeat the negative behavior pattern, the best way you can deal with it is to focus on substituting that specific behavior pattern with something meaningful and value-creating.
Dealing with Variable Rewards
The more addicted you are to habit-forming behavior, the more likely you are to experience the lack of reward within the system. Finding an activity that is delivering the dopamine rush with more reliability will override the habit, and form a new one.
Whenever you don’t encounter the reward at the end of the path, you need to question your behavior pattern and try to see what kind of trigger you are actually trying to substitute.
Detaching yourself from your “Investment”
Perhaps the most difficult part of abandoning habit-forming products is the separation from your own identity. Some addictive behavior patterns become part of who we are. The best example for this are smokers. I quit smoking 4 years ago However, a part of me still holds the identity of the smoker. There is a voice inside of my mind that tries to pull me back, and reflect on the fact that I should enjoy yet another cigarette. After all, “it’s who I am”.
The biggest problem with stopping smoking wasn’t the addiction itself, it wasn’t the nicotine craves, it was departing my own self-image of being a smoker and abandoning all those pleasurable rituals that I’d established around this product. The investment into smoking was so significant, as well as entrenched within a social activity that was dominant in my culture.
Quitting some of these investments that profoundly affect who we are, leaves a dramatic impact on our self-perception.
Another example is the departure from social networks. This is the reason why people can’t just “quit Facebook”, or keep coming back to it. Because Facebook and social networks became such a big part of who we really are, quitting these networks almost feels like abandoning a real-life community.
As with all habit forming apps, once you entrench your identity with massive investment, it’s hard to just quit. But there are ways to go about it. If I could stop playing World Of Warcraft and my 10 year long smoking addiction, I am certain that you are capable of achieving bigger wins with lesser addictions, like Candy Crush Saga or Twitter and Facebook.
Leveraging the Hooked Model for self improvement
The hooked model of trigger, action, variable reward and investment can be used for greater good. If you start to observe its components and you internalize your triggers and connect them with positive behavior patterns and habits, you will be able to turn your life around. Formation of habits that have desirable effects, and have a lasting impact can turn your whole life around.
Getting rid of negative behaviors won’t only impact your productivity, it will lead to more purposeful and comfortable lives, making you happier, liberated from repeating the artificial actions to fulfill your real needs. Time to get yourself hooked on living!