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A Simple, Elegant Tool To Encourage Good Habits, Backed By The Founders Of Twitter

Need some help keeping your New Year’s resolutions? Or doing anything to improve your life? An app called Lift will help motivate you, and track your progress.

Weight Watchers increased the revenue of its online business by over 60% in the fourth quarter of 2012. Weight management app MyFitnessPal recently crossed the 30 million user mark. The reason: online motivation works. Enough of us are sitting at our desks all day or toting our smartphones around 24/7 that it makes sense to seek assistance from our digital devices.

Lift, a smartphone app backed by Obvious—an incubator created by Twitter co-founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams that also backs a plant-based meat substitute, among other things—is angling for a slice of the digital motivation pie. Created by Path veteran Jon Crosby and Tony Stubblebine, the founder of CrowdVine and the former engineering director at Odeo (which eventually gave birth to Twitter), Lift rolled out in August 2012 as an ultra-simple platform to help people maintain habits, whatever they may be. "It’s a new baseline of support for certain goals," says Stubblebine.

I spent the last month playing around with the streamlined app. It’s extremely intuitive: sign in, choose a habit you want to track (the most popular right now are exercise, drink more water, read, pushups, floss, sleep by midnight, run, and take multivitamin), press a giant green checkmark every day that you keep to your habit (you can get reminders if need be), and monitor progress through graphs and encouragement from friends. That last point is important: This is a purely social app, and there’s no way at the moment to keep all your check-ins private. You can use a pseudonym if you don’t want people to know that you’re struggling to brush your teeth every morning, but that’s the only option.

Lift is based on research from BJ Fogg, the Stanford psychologist behind the Fogg Behavior Model—a model of human behavior change. During a visit to Lift’s offices, Stubblebine outlined Fogg’s model on a whiteboard. It all comes down to the formula B=MAT. In order to create behavior change (B), you have to be motivated (M), able (A), and it has to occur to you to complete the good behavior (T for "trigger").

In the app, motivation is provided by community support and data visualizations, ability is bolstered by community discussions that provide helpful tips and tricks (you can chat with other people working on your same goals), and the new reminders feature—just launched in time for 2013—provides a trigger. "As long as motivation and ability are to the right of the line [in the graph], you’ll do it," explains Stubblebine. "You don’t need to make flossing easier, you just need to make it more compelling."

So does it work? Lift’s limited experiences say yes. Stubblebine declined to tell me how many active participants the service has, but users have created over 500,000 habits. In a four-week trial of a Four-Hour Body diet challenge with Tim Ferriss (key habits: cold showers, exercise, no processed carbs, no dairy, 30 grams of protein in the 30 minutes after waking up), 84% of participants who stuck to the program lost weight and 14% of participants lost over 15 pounds.

I personally had trouble using the app on a daily basis, but that’s only because I already use a few other self-tracking apps. Nonetheless, Lift is a useful (and free) one-size-fits-all solution for habit formation. "We’re not gurus, we’re just curious nerds who are trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t," says Stubblebine. "We have this incredible confidence that we can get seriously good data on basically every major diet, every major fitness program, and put it out in a way that’s pretty trustworthy because what I need is to find a diet that works, I don’t care which one. I want to have fitness options that work for people, but it doesn’t matter which one."

But Lift doesn’t plan on mining that data for revenue. The idea is that, much like with Twitter, a business plan will ultimately be built around the service. Lift might build paid add-ons on top of its most popular habits, for example. But charging customers is "not pending," according to Stubblebine. "There’s a lot of patience. It helps to have [Twitter Co-Founder] Evan Williams on our board, who has had great success focusing on building something valuable first and then finding a business for it. There’s like zero board discussion about business, unless it comes from me and someone tells me to be quiet."

Check out Lift for iPhone here. Apps for Android and the web are coming soon.