“Run. Work on the doctorate.” So begin all my to-do lists but progress is elusive. With New Year’s resolution season here – perhaps technology can make me into a more productive machine.

“An extraordinary amount of what we do is a habit,” says Brendan Kelly, professor of psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin.

It is estimated that between 45% and 95% of what we do is habitual, “but I’d reckon towards the higher end of that range,” says Prof Kelly.

We act according to our habits, “from the time we rise and go through our morning routines until we fall asleep after evening routines,” says Ann Graybiel, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

We develop those habits by encoding them in a part of our brain called the striatum, which deals with reward and releases the “feel-good” neurotransmitter dopamine, her research shows.

Now a new cohort of apps – with names like SnapHabit, Habitica, and Strides – reckon we can reprogram our habits to improve our lives and be happier.

Professor Brendan Kelly, who is professor of psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin

An ‘extraordinary’ amount of what we do comes down to habit, says Brendan Kelly
SnapHabit, for instance, arrives with two default habits: to take a daily walk, and ring a friend.

At the bottom appear “guided journeys”, or sample practices you can select to exercise in the habit app gym. For example, becoming a more committed opponent of racism is one, doing 100 press-ups a day is another.

Or, you can choose your own. I add “Run for an hour”, and “Colour two boxes” on the days I selected. It is strangely satisfying.

Short-term rewards like this are important for changing our habits, says Prof Kelly. Doing physical exercise just to be healthier “is not enough to sustain a daily habit”, he warns.

And to get a new habit or change an old one, the change “needs to be small, should ideally be tied to an existing habit, and must be rewarding in the short term,” Prof Kelly adds.

Jake Bernstein, SnapHabit’s co-founder

Changing habitual behavior is the ‘hardest thing’, says Jake Bernstein
So, apps can help contribute toward short-term rewards. And also tie our new habits to existing ones. Like checking our mobiles, or sharing things we’ve done with our friends.

Telling people in our lives about our attempts to change a habit can also make us work harder – because we then have friends to hold us accountable.

“We did a correlation analysis. How many friends you had on the app was correlated with how successful you were in changing your habits,” says Jake Bernstein, SnapHabit’s co-founder.

Similarly, Habitica, another app, includes “a quest function that incorporates social accountability,” says Vicky Hsu, who was an early user of the app and then became chief executive of the company behind it.

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