Groundhog Day, Gamification and Commitment Phobia

A belated happy Groundhog Day (February 2nd)!

I would also like to let you know that today we are 10% through 2017.

Or, 20% through the first half of the year.

How is your year progressing? Anything you wish to achieve this year personally or professionally — new adventures and exciting experiences?

If you are like the vast majority, you are a procrastinator. Waiting for the right time to get cranking and make the tough commitment, thinking “365 days a year gives freedom to procrastinate” (more in my previous post Procrastination and predicting the future).

If you hit the new year motivated and are already well progressed with your new year good habits — ‘GOOD ON YOU!’

But, I don’t wish to deflate you, there is still 90% of 2017 to stay motivated.


You will most likely slip into your old ways, bad habits and the same time next year, you will be back at the same place again.

A bit like Bill Murray’s hilarious movie Groundhog Day (hitting cinemas way back in 1992). In Groundhog Day, Bill’s character meteorologist Phil Connors re-lives February 2nd (Groundhog Day), the same day again and again, and again, and again.

And, with this he gets better and better.

But, life ain’t like the movies. Human nature is to procrastinate a long time, then relapse back to the same bad habits, again and again.

Most people are procrastinators, with the vast majority of the remainder unable to commit before relapsing to old ways, again and again. All but a few rare exceptions of us are procrastinating commitment-phobes.

Don’t feel bad, you are not alone. It is science, more precisely behavioural psychology. People typically move slowly from starting to think about a behaviour change (precontemplation to contemplation), balancing the pros and cons and risk-reward to trigger a desire to change (preparation), typically after much procrastination they start the necessary action to change their behaviour, then attempt to commit to maintaining the positive behaviour, typically relapsing back to old comfortable ways … hmmm.

How frustrating this can be. No wonder most people simply give up on such self improvement — even if the benefits far outweigh the downsides.

Think of the social and economic consequences of such procrastinating commitment-phobes. Social and commercial entrepreneurs making the commitment to innovate to make the world better, leaders committing to critical strategies in the short, medium and long term, those with bad habits committing to make positive change to their health and addictions, and the general populous making critical purchase decisions with minimal delay (from small retail purchases, to larger property and other investments).

In my research over 22+ years, people struggle to commit to change. Be this, the desire to swap banks, as it is better the devil you know, or postponing and not committing to elective surgery that would make their life much easier. It is often only when, the pain physically or otherwise gets unbearably bad, that the commitment is made.

On the hard core issues I’ve researched over the years, as diverse as problem gambling, relationship abuse to a diverse range of addictions, there is almost always a deep desire to change. However, even with the very best intentions for themselves and the people they love, over many, many years, often with many failed attempts and much help easily available (from friends and formal help services) it is just too hard to commit. It is typically only when they hit rock bottom (e.g. relationship breakdown, financial collapse etc) that people start taking positive steps, which even then can sadly relapse, again and again. The addiction to our current behaviour is comfortable.

“Bad habits are like a comfortable bed, easy to get into, but hard to get out of” Proverb

There are surely lessons in the things you like to do that you find easy to commit to — e.g. laughing with friends and family, a nice wine at the end of the day, shopping, exercise (for some), chocolate or listening to music. And, perhaps lesson in why social and digital media such as Facebook and your favorite Apps have become so addictive and compulsive.

  1. Easy to do — low cost of entry and simple to understand.
  2. Positive emotions — escape from reality and mental stimulation.
  3. Addictive — difficult to switch off, and spend time non-digitally.
  4. Social — ability to interact with friends and others.
  5. Clear progress — success is measured in likes and endorsements.

Research illustrates the growing epidemic of digital and social media addiction. And conversely, digital and social media provides opportunity to change behaviour.

Since 2015, I have been experimenting with a few Apps gamifying aspects of bahaviour change. This lead to me going from a spasmodic level of weekly exercise early 2015 to walking / running around an average of around 15 kilometres per day within 12 months (Runkeeper and Breeze). From considering meditation to now having 673 sessions, 109 hours and a record streak of 245 days (using Calm). And, even moderating my consumption of fine South Australian wine (DrinkControl).

Recently, I purchased a Fitbit and also attempted to commit to learning French (using Duolingo) and mastering the guitar and ukulele (using Yousician) during 2017. It is amazing to watch the power of wearables and Apps such as Fitbits in monitoring our steps, cardio health, quality of sleep and setting goals, targets, competitions with friends and family et cetera. Language Apps such as Duolingo access the microphone to test your pronunciation and allow for text based education, testing and rewards. Music Apps such as Yousician similarly use the microphone to allow easy tuning of the instrument, checking that your chords are on chord and strumming is in time.

No longer can the excuse be used that time and money associated with a formal teacher, is reason to procrastinate and not commit. Such Apps are providing the basic tools required for behaviour change.

  1. Easy to do — technology such as Fitbit, Duolingo and Yousician are free to use, and costs for higher level usage and new features.
  2. Positive emotions — tend to incorporate positive messaging to users — “well done”, “you’re doing well,” “that was a great day!”
  3. Addictive — incorporating points, scores, competitions with friends and family, push notifications via phone and email, ‘day streaks’ — “better not miss a day!”
  4. Social — ability to interact with friends and others, as well as keeping each other motivated, competing with each other, making commitments
  5. Clear progress — easy ability to track progress, leader boards, level achieved, health progress, performance, day streaks and more

Many behavioural economics triggers are embedded into such Apps. Providing clear ‘defaults’ to allow self-improvement to go with a flow of pre-set options, programs, progress levels and push reminders to your phone and email — “don’t forget to practice today!” Wearables are starting to become the social ‘norm.’ There is clever incorporation of ‘incentives’ to allow the gamification of self-improvement — badges, psychological rewards, progress updates, day streaks etc. Provides mechanisms to allow pubic promises and ‘commitments’ to be made that we then wish to keep. And, they are smart positive stroking our ‘ego’ — “well done, you’re smashing it today!” (More here — How to change behaviour)

Technology is providing a solid foundation for the deliberate practice necessary in building expertise in anything from building proficiency in a musical instrument, or speaking a foreign language, becoming a master chef or triumphing in surfing, cycling or tennis. (refer to my article Overcoming ordinary for more).

The mind boggles when one starts to think about the opportunities of technology in helping procrastinating commitment-phobes.

There are Apps emerging constantly with this in mind. Incorporating tools to make change easy. From interventions to help people to quit smoking to saving money, sleeping better and simply achieving the goals we’ve always desired.

Think about the possibilities in overcoming the procrastination and inability to commit preventing behaviour change. Fitbit is already talking about being able track more in our level of health (such as detecting the flu). There is opportunity for banks to more mark their performance on their ability to help people achieve their financial goals then just fighting in the red ocean of home loans, credit cards and savings accounts. To getting people to commit to big and small purchases. Or, even more advanced tools to build superpowers from musical instruments, to languages to that skill you’ve always wanted but you just cannot commit.

Imagine a world in which technology creates an addiction to positive behaviour change, good habits and, like Groundhog Day, getting ever better and better, rather than finding it too hard to commit again, and again.

Thank you.

But, wait your want more?

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