We live in an age where technology-induced work habits dominate our lives.
They’re present from the moment we wake up. They’re why we constantly reach for our pockets to make sure our phone is there. These bad work habits are the underlying reason why we shrug and tighten our shoulders as we lean into our computer to focus. They encourage us to shy away during social events and gaze at our phones to avoid our nervousness.
While some of these personal work habits are ingrained by choice, often they’re a result of private enterprises influencing our behavior to adopt them.
Let’s be clear: not all tech related tendencies are bad. Our habit of obsessively taking pictures allows us to capture incredible moments, and our habit to message friends when something happens to us allows us to connect in a way we never could before. Technology isn’t inherently good or inherently evil – the experiences we design using it dictate its outcome. Good work habits can be transformative, and improve the way we work.
As we understand more about forming habits, many people – often through startups – have begun using them as a tool to improve people’s lives. Nir Eyal’s recent book ‘Hooked’ spells out the steps to creating good habits at the workplace, and now sits on the bookshelf of every nascent startup. eno is no different. We use habit-forming technology to incentivize deep work habits.
What is different is that as a wearable, enophone is uniquely capable of creating profound and lasting habits in a way few products can. We’re incredibly excited about this, and after this post, I hope you will be too.
Our lives are dominated by sparse moments of reflection, surrounded by millions of tiny habitual responses to the world around us
Habits comprise the vast majority – think 99% – of our daily thoughts and actions. We don’t deliberately think to take our phones out, we do so subconsciously. In the same way, we don’t consciously think of how to respond to most emails, prepare most meals, wash our hands, or climb the stairs. These and thousands of other small actions make up the majority of our day.
Good work habits, therefore, are the basis of most of our productivity. The way our brains serve us thoughts of the next word to write, or the next website to visit, or the next person to call are all habitual responses to the day’s work, trained over years of practice and study in our field. This is even more clear when we discuss how we concentrate on our work: we sit down, open our computers, and the rest sort of just happens.
Distraction, unfortunately, happens just as habitually and is the crux of professional bad habits. Sounds catch our attention, and thoughts and emails pull us away from our original focus. For many of us, a single hour of deliberate focus on a single task is made nearly impossible by the office’s whirlwind of distractions, which we’ve been trained to habitually respond to.
Deep concentration just doesn’t come naturally to us for many reasons. For simple distractions, we can seek simple solutions – as we mentioned in post 1 from this series, keeping our phones out of reach or using noise-cancelling headphones with focus music are great starts. But these are merely workarounds. A true fix would involve identifying work habits to break and addressing them, as well as forming new habits that are conducive to deep focus.
This is exactly why we developed the enophone.
From my time spent studying productivity habits, I’ve come up with a model for how to improve work habits. It’s a simple but useful framework for thinking about habit forming.
At its core, a habit is your mind’s response to a particular stimulus. When you feel tired, you close your eyes; when you are thirsty, you seek out a drink. Psychology tells us that these responses are formed through a combination of positive and negative reinforcement – the habit gets stronger when it works, and gets weaker when it doesn’t.
We know from experience, however, that changing a habit is often difficult. This is the brain’s mechanism for avoiding overcorrection of habits: the more strongly the habit has been reinforced, the harder it is to reverse the habit. This is why changing old habits can feel next to impossible. It also explains how despite our awareness that we should all stop smoking, avoid junk food, go to the gym, and meditate every day, we often don’t make these decisions. This is also why replacing bad habits with good work habits can seem challenging.
So how do you overcome a strong habit? The same way you roll a boulder up a hill: either with a single, powerful push right from the start or through a series of small, consistent pushes.
The single push strategy involves an emotionally intense and profoundly impactful desire to change. Addicts often tell stories of hitting rock bottom and only then realizing that they could not continue abusing. Many who have experienced this transformation describe afterward that the change was easy once they had changed their mindset about the problem. The emotional weight of this experience gives the desire to change enough momentum to overcome the habit’s wiring directly.
The alternative way to change a habit is a series of small but consistent efforts. For example, the constant encouragement of a life partner can convince someone to change their diet or start going to the gym. In this case, consistency is the key – both with the boulder analogy, and for the habit forming. A single lapse in focus can cause one to relapse into old ways, and lose the forward momentum of the progress. As with many unsuccessful efforts, it becomes one step forward, two steps back, as building up the desire to restart the progress feels too difficult.
The most successful habit-forming products in the world lean heavily on one of these two approaches. Many diet subscriptions ship you daily meals, constantly encouraging you to stay on the diet just one more day. Tony Robbins’ events, to contrast, provide a powerful 4-day emotional blast of energy directed at your problems. Push notifications in meditation apps take the consistent approach; PETA ads take the powerful and intense approach. Together, these two strategies comprise the playbook for most habit-forming.
The advent of push notifications, has given developers a powerful new tool with which to increase the frequency of their habit-forming efforts. Instead of waiting for you to check their application, developers can now catch your attention and encourage their habits immediately.
This has given birth to an entire new wave of habit-forming products. With this tool, social media apps and freemium games have us hooked in a way that no product ever has. As software often can’t manifest the emotional intensity necessary for single-push habit changes, they opt for consistency – the increase in the frequency of push notifications dramatically increases their efficacy to this end.
However, even push notifications are limited. If an app sent you 10 notifications per day, you would likely get frustrated and delete the app. As a result, optimizing push notifications is now an entire department in many companies.
With wearables, the object itself becomes a reminder of the habit.
Fitbit was the most noticeable company to master this. Wearable technology, by definition, is on your body. It’s right there and you can always feel it. Like my clothing, I adjust my Fitbit on my wrist countless times a day, perpetually aware of its presence. Without a single notification, Fitbit reminds me of its existence hundreds, if not thousands, of times each day. Each reminder serves to reinforce its message: I bought this because I want to get fit.
This is the secret of wearables: they become habit-forming tools simply by their presence. My Fitbit is a physical manifestation of my desire to be more healthy and active. Even without the sensors and fitness tracking – though as we discussed in post 4, these help as well – it’s continuously encouraging me to adhere to my fitness routine. Wearables give developers the holy grail of habit-forming forming: the near-constant ability to remind the user of their commitment to change.
Fitbit was the first major startup to leverage this tool. Now, countless other companies are developing devices to improve good work habits: from Lief’s patch for stress reduction, to habitaware’s band for nail-biting and hair-pulling. Pavlok, perhaps the most extreme, allows the user to project their own intention into the device, providing a sharp negative reinforcement whenever you acknowledge breaking your commitment. Each of these tools, alongside the value-add of their software, manifest your desired goal back to you simply through being worn.
As a noise-cancelling, notification-muting, focus-tracking headphone, enophone has the potential to become the physical manifestation of your desire to take back control of your focus habit. Sitting on your desk, a constant reminder of your commitment to productivity, enophone has the potential to change your distraction habit in a way no other tool can.
* * *
As technology advances, so too does our understanding of how our brains respond to these changes. The last two decades have introduced incredibly powerful devices that have transformed how we interact with the world around us.
Alongside these changes, we’ve undergone the largest psychological experiment in history. We’re bombarded with advertising, entertainment, and communication on a level that our brains are not evolved to deal with. Tens of thousands of people in trillion dollar industries spend their entire careers optimizing products designed to steal our attention. This stimulation is fundamentally rewiring the way that we interact with our world, and ruining our ability to focus.
We’ve entered the attention economy, and there’s no turning back.
At eno, we believe that the ability to focus is the foundation of all creative work. Our vision is to create a world in which all of us can thrive in the attention economy. We’re leveraging biosensing, habit forming, headphones, and music to create experiences that enable people to take control of their mind, and master their focus. After 4 years of development, we’re incredibly excited to share what we’re building with the world.
The world keeps turning, and it continues to get more complex and more demanding. It’s our responsibility to put the technology we create to good use, and to improve the lives of everyone involved.
It’s our hope that with our products, you will do the same.