Slow Habits: How to burst through the “one habit at a time” barrier.

Most of the habit gurus agree, when it comes to habits, the only way to succeed is to do one at a time. We have limited willpower and need all of it to invoke a habit change. I think they all got it wrong.

Ever since I started reflecting daily I’ve been experimenting with the idea of “slow habits” and I think it’s a far more natural way to form habits than the current paradigm. I’ve been an order of magnitude more successful with it that I have been with the normal methods.


So what’s the different?

Current wisdom:

Pick a habit then invest between 28-60 days concentrating on making sure you apply that habit.

Apply a variety of different techniques (triggers, rewards, starting small etc) to make sure it sticks.

After a certain amount of time (1-2 months) and willpower application,  your habit is effortlessly set for life (yeah right).

Slow habits:

Pick as many habits as you want.

Track how often you perform each one.

Watch as you slowly start to do them more and more often naturally.


The reason I think that the slow (not relying on every day) technique is a more natural way of doing things is that it’s the way most of our current habits have formed. Hit the snooze button 3 times EVERY morning? Regularly eating food that is killing you even though you know you should not? Procrastinating work by checking Facebook, Twitter etc daily? None of these habits are things that you spent 30 days developing triggers and rewards for, or applying all your willpower to. They just happen to you.

The idea with a slow habit is to have that same natural process happen to you, but for good habits.


How to form slow habits:Lift Checked habits

Step 1: Get Lift (or a spreadsheet).

You can do it without Lift, but this is what the Lift app seems to be designed for. It lets you track your habits, keeps track of streaks and provides your with frequency graphs for the habits. If you don’t have an iPhone you can do this with a spreadsheet (I did before I switched to iPhone) or an Android clone (Lift will be on Android and the web some day soon as well), but it’s much less fun.

Step 2: Form the tracking habit – Learn to use Lift every day.

This is the one and only time we need traditional habit theory to form a habit. It is the step that so many of my friends who have tried to use Lift have missed. People use it for a few weeks then forget about it. This tracking habit step is critical for success.

All the traditional habit theory applies here, so it’s up to you how you want to form this habit. The way I did it was to pick an easy habit that I was committed to doing every day. I used meditation, but flossing, “drink water” (don’t even worry about 8 glasses part) and “use Lift” are all viable candidates. Then pick a time (I use my reflection time before bed) and log that habit. Do this EVERY day for 30 days (if you break the streak, start over).

Step 3: Line up your slow habits.

Now that you’re using Lift daily start to add other habits to it. You should be doing this during the first 30 days. Add anything that you would possibly like to have as a habit. As you go through your day notice anything you would like to( or not) do and add it (I’ve added three while writing this post). Don’t stress about ticking them off, just have them there in case you accidentally happen to do them. Have a good mix of easy and hard habits. If you do perform one of these habits, be sure to tick them off at the same time as your first habit.

Step 4: Keep going, enjoy your streaks.

After the 30 days just keep your habit of using Lift (it’s a habit, you can’t stop). By now  you should have enough little habits that there will be something to log every day. There is no work left to do. You will naturally start to do your habits more as you anticipate the reward of ticking them off in Lift. If you start to develop big streaks you will perform the habit in order to stop losing the streak.


How well does this work?

Since January 15th when I started seriously applying step 1 in lift (less than 3 months ago) here are my stats:

I have 16 real habits in lift (not including the 3 I just added).

Over the last 8 days I’ve ticked off an average of 12 things a day.

I have 7 habits with streaks of over 2 weeks (not all of my habits are ones that I want to do every day anyway).


As you can see, this is way better than the theoretical maximum of 3 habits that I should have been able to form. And I am someone who has often struggled with and failed at the traditional methods of habit development despite working really hard at it. I’ve also used the traditional method to form many habits that I lost later on. This way you never lose your habits as breaking the streak after a large number of days would be heartbreaking!


Bonus, because the lovely Paulina asked, here are my “slow habits” in Lift and why I do them:

  • Mediate: My only new year’s resolution was to meditate every day. Willpower, happiness, presence, energy, health, emotional intelligence… I have a list of about 20 things that I think mediation could possibly help with. Worth it if it helps with even a fraction of them.Lift Frequencies
  • Inbox 0: Using my inbox as a to do list sucks and stresses me out.
  • Set priorities for the day: Take time to decide what the most important  things to spend time on the next day is.
  • Daily reflection: Okay, I’ve had this one for months, but there were periods where it would stutter and fizzle and I would prioritize going to bed or forget. This is a habit that would have died like others. The Lift streak feature makes sure that doesn’t happen.
  • Taekwondo training: It’s too easy to get busy and only go twice a week. Having it in Lift lets me pull my average up from around 3 to 4 times a week (any more and I would be overtraining my joints).
  • Don’t oversleep: Being polyphasic I have to really protect myself from falling back into my 26 year old monophasic sleep habit.
  • Dream Journal: I spend 1.5-2 hours a day dreaming. These are real experiences (you experience strong emotions) and a 10 minute dream can feel like it’s lasted hours. Journaling helps you form the habit of remembering your dreams and reclaiming those lost bits of your life. Remembering dreams can also help you make future dreams lucid… which is just awesome.
  • Eat mindfully: I used to eat every meal that I didn’t spend with someone else (and many that I did) in front of a screen. Now I try and just eat while doing nothing else. This habit helps you actually appreciate and enjoy your food. It also helps you notice and react to when you’ve put something poisonous into your body (a McDonalds burger for instance).
  • Wash your bowl: Instead of leaving dishes in the sink to stress me out from afar, I now try and wash my bowl as soon as I finish eating.
  • Floss: The easiest habit that so few of us do. Should save me lots in dentist bills in the future.
  • Stop biting fingernails: I’ve noticed a lot of programers have this habit. I still haven’t come up with a really good strategy for stopping, but it’s in the list so I know I will kick it one day!
  • Study Korean: I’m going to be competing at the World Taekwondo festival in Korea at the beginning of July and would like to have a decent grasp of the language before I go.
  • Stretch in the mornings: This habit will help me to kick people in the head at the aforementioned tournament.
  • 10 minutes of mobility work: Modern life breaks your body and leads to pain (for instance I couldn’t run more than a mile a couple of months ago because of  knee pain). Using Mobility WOD exercises helps fix this.
  • Cold showers: Willpower training (the best way to increase willpower is to train it like a muscle… and jumping into a cold shower is like lifting iron for willpower) along with numerous other health benefits.
  • Use standing desk: Kevin and I built a standing desk at work, but both of us started to slowly drift back toward our normal desks. Sitting kills so I want to use the desk much more.


Hopefully that provides a good start. At the moment, this works in a lab of one, so I can say that I’ve disproved the “one habit theory” by way of counter-example, but there is obviously a long way to go before knowing if this will work for the majority of people. I have a strong hunch that it does though and I’m sure the great team at Lift will back me up with numbers soon enough.




Creating the pull factor needed for a successful social network

TechCrunch just put out an article by Alex Rampell titled “the power of pull”. In the article Alex makes the case that really valuable web applications pull you unconsciously toward them. You don’t have to remember to check them, when you sit down in front of a browser and start typing, those are the URLs that come out.

What creates the pull is a problem that I’ve pondered over for a long time. When BuddyPress functionality was being added to UBC Blogs I knew that it would fail to pull students in, but am still not able to articulate exactly why. It may have had to do with the “silent launch”, but I think the biggest problem was the lack of some key features, those features that provide the pull. Now that Google+ has launched (and I’m really enjoying using it), I’m wondering if it will be able to make the dent that will pull all of the people that I want to interact with into it.

Here are the factors that Alex listed in his article.

Alex’s Factors:

In the article he lists 4 ways to create pull:

  • Plan around events: People will be going to events, so build something that makes them check in with you first before those events.
  • Do something that has an offline analogy: Before Google, people would use phonebooks.
  • Answer Recurring questions: Questions like “where am I going” (Google Maps) and how much did I spend (Mint) answer some of life’s recurring questions.
  • Build brand and familiarity: People shop at because not only do they know it’s big enough to be trusted, it offers a familiar interface.

While I agree mostly with his list, it got me thinking about the sites that pull me and what it is about those sites that create the pull. I came up with my own list.

Here is my list:

Make not visiting your site something that will cause social harm: 

I check my Gmail and Facebook often because people may have left me messages and if I don’t respond to them I will disappoint or anger them. I will respond to Doodle’s for the same reason. Humans love to be liked, so if by not going to the web service a person will be liked less, they will go to it.

Provide Curated entertainment:

I get pulled to YouTube and whenever I want to watch an interesting videos, I get pulled to GrooveShark when I want music that everyone in the room will and I get pulled to Flixter and Apple Trailers whenever I want to see what movies are coming out. Although making a service that relies purely on content only works for a lucky few, any successful service needs to have something interesting to show their visitors.

Provide more than one engaging activity:

This is a piece that I have taken from my game design research. All popular recurring networks need more than one pull. This not only provides multiple incentives for any given individual, but also ensures that it provides incentives for a wider segment of the population. Facebook is an obvious example, but so is an LMS like Blackboard. There are discussion boards, course content and grades to check. One’s own blog dashboard is another, there are posts to write, stats to check and comments to moderate. I understand the problems of features creep and the danger of adding “just one more pull”, but I think there definitely is threshold of the number of pulls that one needs and the application should cross that threshold.

Create something that easily fits into a daily workflow:

Facebook’s big statistic is that 50% of its users check in once a day. An essential social app has to have something new to come back to daily. If you can somehow embed a utility in your app (Google Calendar, Dropbox, Basecamp are all examples of this) then users have to come back into your application. One needs to find a way to be on a user’s mind after they have left your application.


Sure, this list mixes up traditional applications with social networking applications, but I think that is a useful exercise. Just having profiles that others can view is not enough (witness Google Profiles before Google+), I truly believe that there have to be some other pulls. As to what those pulls should be… well that’s the hard part.

[note title=”Bonus Thought: Does Google+ have enough pulls?” align=”center” width=”716″] My hunch is yes. It certainly provides utility with the chat, hangout and photos features. If you add the sharing it had quite a few pulls. The notification icons on top of any Google product also make the daily workflow piece super simple. The sharing and sparks (with a bit of improvement) will lend that curated content. [/note]

Why I think Google Plus is revolutionary

I wrote the post below on July 2nd 2009. It sat in my Evernote for just under 2 years now, but with Google Plus, Google just did so much of what I was talking about that I guess I should share it now. The rough draft that I wrote is below. I’ve put in how Google plus fulfills the pieces below that.


//Stuff I wrote in 2009:

Coming up with the perfect Communication system:

These are all the avenues I use to communicate with others:

  • In person
  • Phone
  • Windows Live Messenger
  • Windows Live Messenger (video)
  • Gtalk
  • Skype
  • Email
  • Twitter
  • Blog
  • Facebook Chat
  • Facebook messages
  • Facebook Wall
  • SMS (text messages)

How can we classify these though?

-Short form: SMS, Twitter, Facebook Wall
Medium form: Email, chat, blog, blog comments
-Long form: Email, Chat applications, Phone, Blog

-Face-to-face: In Person, Video Chat
-Voice: Phone, Skype
-Text: Email, Blog, Chat, Twitter, Facebook Wall

-Urgent: SMS, Phone, Chat applications
-Important, but not urgent: Email, Facebook Messages, direct twitter rmessages, in person
-Neither urgent, nor important: blog, twitter, facebook wall.

-myself: delicious, notes, google tasks, word documents, reminders
-small audience: SMS, Email, Chat, Twitter direct message, phone in person,
-medium audience: Facebook wall, Twitter
-large audience: Blog

-Replies within short time frames
These are my rules for which apps to use, rules that I kind of instinctively obey because they are the most convenient. They are rules that I break all the time. They probably have differences and similarities to your rules. Why is that? Each of the services that we use has different social connotations to us. I might believe a Facebook message is for important things, but you might think it is just for fluff and never check it.

How to fix it?

Here is my proposal for the workflow of my dream communication device:

  1. Choose who you want to communicate with, person, group, all your friends, open internet (Which is what Facebook’s privacy changes have just done)
  2. Choose the urgency (this should probably be more granular than what I just set up).
  3. Choose the fidelity that you require (text, voice or video).
  4. Choose how synchronous you want it to be.
  5. Specify how long you want the message to be (for text this step could be automatic, just letting you know when you start to cross boundaries).
  6. From the receiving side, you specify how you want messages to come to you from certain people.

Now, the critical part of this system is that the receiver gets to define how they are notified about your intent to communicate. These can be rules based on your location, your status, the time, what your calendar says, who is trying to contact you. even who you are with. So for instance, all urgent messages from your close contacts are pushed to your phone which beeps or vibrates. If it is not urgent, it is sent to your desktop, where a popup can appear every hour detailing how many new non-urgent messages are waiting (this stops the smartphone syndrome of constantly checking email, facebook etc jsut to see if something important has come up).

//End of stuff I wrote in 2009.

[/three_fourth] [one_fourth_last]

[framed_box bgColor=”undefined” textColor=”undefined” rounded=”true”]
Some random images from my phone… no uploading required!


Now for how Google Plus implements so much of this:

Choosing who:

Circles is 95% of the way there. Between Circles, individual people, people with the link, public, they’ve really made that part super easy.

 Choose the urgency:

Not implemented by Google Plus… here’s hoping they do.

Choose how synchronous you want it to be.

The difference between the chat and the sharing pieces.
 Choose the fidelity that you require (text, voice or video)

All in Google Plus.

Fidelity choices on Google PlusFidelity Choices on Google Plus

Specify how long you want the message to be:

Google Plus just does it automatically. I’m not sure if this one is relevant anymore.
From the receiving side, you specify how you want messages to come to you from certain people:

Google has at least made a start on it

Settings for recieving posts on Google Plus

The big thing is that Google Plus does this all in one space. No message box, chat box and email inbox, no separate places to rebuild your community again and again, just all in one application.

I think that’s kind of awesome.

Fixing Mac OS

I just got a shiny new 13 inch MacBook Pro to use at work. Now, I feel that debates around the question “which operating system is better” are silly and believe that all of them have pros and cons. To prove it, I run Ubuntu on  my desktop, Windows 7 on my laptop and now Mac OS on my work laptop.

That being said, in my opinion, one of the greatest weaknesses that Mac OS has is its window management. The operating system believes that it can do a better job than me in arranging and sizing the windows on my screen. This fails drastically once you have more than one screen, or have lots of windows to manage.

To fix this I found a great free tool called “better touch tools“. The app works great for its intended purpose of adding more control over trackpad gestures and keyboard shortcuts, but it also allows you to add the window-snapping function of Windows 7. This means that setting windows side by side or making them full screen can be done with a flick of the mouse, as opposed to painfully dragging the box in the bottom right corner.

For anybody who’s work entails looking at more than one application at a  time or who uses multiple screens, this app is a must!

Ubuntu 10.10 Maverick Meerkat, giving the big boys a run for their money.

I have installed every new release of Ubuntu for the last 8 versions (my first was 7.04 Feisty Fawn). I would use each release for a few weeks, get frustrated with the amount of effort it took, then return to Windows. Every time I could see the potential, but Windows 7 was always just a better operating system on average. I think that has finally changed.

After getting frustrated with Windows 7 taking a ton of time to do anything I installed Ubuntu’s Maverick Meerkat and I haven’t looked back. I think the 6-month release cycle has really paid off in a huge way for Ubuntu. All the little improvements over the versions have come together into something that now competes.

So why is it so good?

Continue reading “Ubuntu 10.10 Maverick Meerkat, giving the big boys a run for their money.”

Gmail Pro Tip: List all unread mail.

I don’t know about you, but I am terrible at organizing my email. I didn’t realize that “archiving” was something that somebody should do with email until I had thousands of unarchived emails and decided to come up with a different way of doing things. This is what I do:

I treat unread email as to do items. When I check my email I respond to the things I have time to respond to and the rest I mark as unread so that I can respond to them later. This is a very hassle free system. Except, there is one big problem. Gmail does not have a default “show all unread mail” button. This means that it is hard for me to compare my unread mail (to do items) and prioritize this means that some big tasks end up being buried under pages and pages of emails. Of course, with Gmail’s new addons this is very easy to do. Here is how:

  1. Go to “settings” then “labs” on the top right menu bar.
  2. Scroll down and enable the quick links addon.

    enable the add links in settings
    enable the add links in settings
  3. in the search box type in the following: in:inbox in:unread. Click search mail

    search box
    search box
  4. In the quick links box (middle left of your screen) click “add quick link”.

    add quick link
    add quick link

And there we have it, now your Gmail is set up to list all of your unread mail without the interference of stuff that you have already dealt with.

Microsoft shares its vision for the future… I can’t wait!

Here is a concept video that Microsoft recently showed at a conference. I found the original here (take a look at the comments, it’s pretty interesting).

Although, with all the recent layoffs at Microsoft maybe 2019 might be a stretch.

Maybe it’s time to start backing Aubrey de Grey on his quest to help us all live to be 1ooo years old just so that we can all live the the cool future that is sure to come…

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Apple multi-touch patent is not legal

{{de|Steve Jobs auf der Macworld in San Franci...
Image via Wikipedia

I don’t understand how there can even be any validity to the “heuristic multi-touch” patent that Apple was just granted. Why? Here are the facts as I see it:

  1. In order to obtain a patent you need to prove that you are the original inventor. To quote Wikipedia:

    Section 101 of Title 35 U.S.C. sets out the subject matter that can be patented:

    Whoever invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent therefor, subject to the conditions and requirements of this title.

    This means that someone has to prove that they are the person who invented the technology. So for instance someone delivering a presentation on that technology to thousands of people means that there is no way that someone else can apply for the patent afterward.



  2. The Apple patent states the following:

    A computer-implemented method for use in conjunction with a computing device with a touch screen display comprises: detecting one or more finger contacts with the touch screen display, applying one or more heuristics to the one or more finger contacts to determine a command for the device, and processing the command. The one or more heuristics comprise: a heuristic for determining that the one or more finger contacts correspond to a one-dimensional vertical screen scrolling command, a heuristic for determining that the one or more finger contacts correspond to a two-dimensional screen translation command, and a heuristic for determining that the one or more finger contacts correspond to a command to transition from displaying a respective item in a set of items to displaying a next item in the set of items.



  3. The Apple patent was filed on April 11th 2008
  4. Jeff Han gave this presentation (in front of thousands) at the TED Conference in February 2006:



  5. Jeff Han’s presentation clearly shows all the things listed in Apple’s patent and was produced before the patent application. Therefore the patent is clearly invalid.
  6. Patents have to be non-obvious.
  7. Multi-touch heuristics are obvious. Here is a list posted by Craig Musselman on this post. As you can see multi-touch heuristics are very obvious and have been for a long time (well at least to Hollywood anyway):

    1. gene roddenberry Star trek

    2. Independence day docking tracking screen

    3. jetsons menu system

    4. AI (artificial intelligence) movie

    5. minority report

    6. children of men

    7. Predator



Am I wrong? This seems to be so patently obvious to me. Have I missed something? If I am not wrong, then I hope that Microsoft, Palm and even maybe Jeff’s lawyers are able to prove this and get the patent taken away.

Watching Jeff’s video about a year ago was a turning point in my life. It opened my eyes to the world of possibility that research into human-computer interaction can provide. My life’s goal is now to be a part of that, to be someone who helps to discovers new and intuitive ways to interact with computers. It is such a shame to see his inventions stolen by Apple. I agree that patents are necessary, but   really only for non-obvious things and only when you really, truly invented something yourself. Advances in any field are hampered if people and corporations do not play fair and I really feel that Apple is playing this one really dirty.

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Usability: Can open source software catch up?

Screenshot of kubuntu 8.
Image via Wikipedia

Last week I attended a talk given at the Vancouver User Experience Group (VanUE). The speaker was Greg Bell and he was talking about how in order for really good software to be developed, everyone in the development process needs to have a good understanding of usability. It was a decent talk, although the 3rd year UBC human-computer interaction course had already taught me most of what Greg was trying to get across.

Installing Windows 7
Creative Commons License photo credit: impresa.mccabe

This lecture coincided with me installing Windows 7 on both of my computers and really loving it. Now, Windows 7 is not much different to Vista, except that it is faster and addresses quite a few usability problems. I enjoy it so much in fact, that I will not go back to using the current release of Ubuntu.  Of course, this realization has upsets as it hits home the realization that as Apple and Microsoft (and indeed any big tech company) are starting to see the great importance of usability and putting it at the forefront of their design process, open source solutions (which have just started to catch up to the big boys) might be left in the dust once again. This Article from the University of  Waikato highlights a few of the challenges faced by open source projects when it comes to usability, including (and in my opinion the most important) “Design for usability really ought to take place in advance of any coding”. This leads us back to Greg’s talk at VanUE. I feel that if usability and the importance of design is pushed more heavily in the introductory parts of Computer Science then open source projects can benefit from that usability knowledge being pooled. Until then though, I think that many open source projects are going to start falling even further behind their proprietary counterparts.

This however, does not apply to all open source projects. Those with enough corporate backing (like WordPress with Automattic and Ubuntu with Canonical) are able to forcibly steer their developers towards more usable interfaces. This kind of work has already payed off for WordPress, however, we will have to await another Ubuntu release or two to see whether their efforts to change the way that a much larger (and more traditionally minded) community of open source programmers will actually pay off.

Creative Commons License photo credit: 4_EveR_YounG

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