By mid-January, there's a decent chance your New Year's resolution will be a distant memory. But a new gadget, based on the latest behavioral science about how our brains form habits, might change that.
I started testing a beta version of the tiny robot, called MOTI, last month. It's deceptively simple: You pick a habit and, using a web-based interface, tell MOTI when and how often you want to do it each day. On cue, the device starts to flash and buzz as a reminder. When you've done whatever you're supposed to do—like go for a run—you push a button on the front, and it flashes and buzzes again in celebration.
There's brain science behind why this works. To stick, habits need both a trigger and a reward. Because the robot sits on your desktop—always visible, unlike an app on your phone—it's a constant reminder of your goal. The flashing and buzzing act as the final trigger, and pushing the button provides an immediate (if cursory) reward, something that most good habits lack.
"The moment of 'yes I did the thing' that the push-button provides gives your brain the shot of dopamine it craves," says Kayla Matheus, MOTI's designer. "But, you have to make sure to vary it up so people don't get complacent." Over time, the patterns and colors change, and the company also plans to offer external rewards.
As a robot, it's also designed to add a little artificial social pressure. "This is why MOTI is admittedly cute," she says. "It's why his faceplate looks like an eye (the most important feature for anthropomorphization), and he has little feet. Users need to develop a relationship with their MOTI to get its pseudo-social effects that have been studied in academia for years."
The device also only supports a single habit at once, something that also comes from research. While I was tempted to take on a new yoga routine, overhaul my eating habits, and do some financial planning, I had to pick just one to start.
I started with something simple: After writing countless articles about the dangers of sitting all day at work, I hadn't been able to motivate myself to stand. When I told the MOTI website that I wanted to try standing up, it suggested that I pick specific times—linking the action to a time of day helps make it a routine. The goal was easy enough that it's achievable; instead of trying to stand all day, I just stand up twice a day, and then sit down when I get distracted. So far, it's worked.
By next New Year's Day, the gadget should be on the market. The designers just finished taking the device through a hardware accelerator program called Highway1, and after some final tweaks, they plan to launch a crowdfunding campaign later this year. In the meantime, a few pilot units are available to try out here.