Forming a new habit or reaching a goal is hard. Data can help. So can other people. Neither one is nearly as powerful as combining them.
As we’ve been working on WeAchieve for over a year now, we’ve been immersed in the world of motivation, habits, and change. Using WeAchieve as a personal playground, we’ve explored many aspects firsthand, alongside reading the latest research.
One of the biggest issues has been dubbed “The Ostrich Problem” by leading behavior change researcher Dr. Thomas Webb. The Ostrich Problem is the act of someone facing adversity while reaching for a goal putting their head in the sand in order to avoid the reality of a situation or failure. By doing so, we fool ourselves and avoid an unpleasant truth about our progress toward reaching any goal.
Ostriches aren’t pretty, but they are important for the analogy, so let’s run with it.
Have you ever found yourself doing this? Fortunately there’s hope for you. Copying the ostrich is human nature, but research is uncovering techniques that you can use to combat your natural tendency.
When it comes to any habit, the research is clear: if you don’t track it, you have little hope of making it happen. Of course that tracking can be as simple as checking off a calendar if you, say, meditated for 10 minutes each day. Without doing so, it’s simply too easy for your brain to stick your head in the sand and plead ignorance rather than face an uncomfortable reality. “Am I doing better at keeping to my morning routine? Yeah, it feels like it!” Would be a common mantra you could feed yourself that, without data, isn’t likely to change if and when you do start falling behind.
As noted, research backs the power of tracking as a way to combat the Ostrich Problem. A large meta-analysis of over a hundred goal attainment studies found that recording progress made it 39% more likely that the subject would achieve a goal, and that more frequent tracking was also correlated with more success.
While this shouldn’t shock anyone, it is a good reminder that you aren’t alone in needing help to stay on track. Adding data is one powerful step, but it doesn’t solve the ostrich problem. You can simply choose to stop tracking your progress and bury your head right down into the sand. What can one do to solve that?
As Webb notes though, tracking alone can still be subverted. Anyone falling off track of their goal can simply stop tracking it. Out of sight and out of mind, it soon becomes an afterthought. So what else can be done to solve the Ostrich Problem? We don’t need to over complicate this one: you need to have other people around to pull your head out of the sand!
Again, research backs this assertion. Multiple studies have shown that selectively sharing a goal or habit increases the likelihood that you will achieve it. This small group should be people who have a vested stake in your success: this can either be because they care about you (friends, family, significant other), or because they share a similar goal.
Groups like Alcoholics Anonymous rely on this and keep a mentor-mentee structure within the group to further enforce the power of other people to help you stick to the targets that you set for yourself.
Taken alone, neither data nor other people fully solve the Ostrich problem. Tracking alone is not too hard to just stop doing, and simply telling a white lie to friends or family “Yes, I’ve been meditating regularly,” is also a bit too easy to do relative to the work it takes to build a habit.
But put together, it’s a lot harder to bury your head in the sand. You’d have to fake the data and lie to your friends. For most people, that’s a bit too much (and if not, it should be too much!).
Indeed, the power of this effect can be seen in some areas. Strava’s social features are a proof point of social and data being combined in an additive way. And from personal experience I can attest to pulling up Strava on a Saturday morning to say “well, Kevin has already run 18 miles and Will has run 25, so I guess I should get out there and run at least 9 for myself.”
But even with Strava, there’s still a gap to what can be done to merge data and people in order to increase goal attainment. And of course there’s a huge subset of habits and behaviors we can hope to develop outside of running, biking, and swimming.
Long story short, we believe there’s still a lot of work to be done in bringing data and people together to achieve goals. Small groups can be created to share goals around any subject. Games and contests can be introduced in order to incentivize people further. This should link to various data sources and any goals that you do wish to keep private. And so much more!
We started WeAchieve (and named it as we did) because we believe that bringing people together with data can yield incredible results. What we’re finishing up now will be the most powerful way yet for people to unite around achieving goals. Stay tuned for more!
A fun fact to close: Ostriches don’t actually bury their head in the sand! But it’s a good analogy so we’re running with it.