What works in motivation

After playing around with many quantified apps and health services and fitness devices over the years, I’ve come to realize a few things about what works for me and what doesn’t. So I wanted to write these up somewhere, perhaps to keep in mind when designing other things in the space, but also to come back to and see how these rules hold up in future.

• Small groups work.

Social, after a certain point, doesn’t really work. If the full-size of a social graph actually worked, your progress would grow according to how many followers you have. And this isn’t true at all. (If so, my Twitter-backed six-pack would be SO good right now.)

If anything, the “social” that works is your very immediate real-world group. I think this is perhaps limited to four people:

• your spouse or significant other: because, after yourself, you have to look good for just one other person.
• your doctor: he essentially gives you homework and goals to meet.
• your trainer or nutritionist, should you have one.
• your close friend(s) with whom you work out and go for runs and with whom you compare notes.

• A currency for comparison works.

On the topic of social, a currency for comparison works and is more engaging. Activity points of some sort across all activities is the best here: Health Month points. This way you can be good at running and that’s your goal. And my goal is sleep and I work towards that. (Nike Fuel also comes close: my tennis is your running.) And then we can compare progress towards goals without comparing who ran more miles. Because at the end of the day, it just comes down to whether we were active or not.

If we’re talking some specific activity a bike tracker (Strava), then the only currency that matters is miles – the currency is fine being all distance-based for everyone.

But if the service wants to play across activities, then a new currency for tracking and comparison is needed.

• Changing goals every once in a while works.

Goals aren’t forever. Goals aren’t once a year on New Years. Goals are rolling. This is why I felt a really nice connection with Health Month. Even if you never gave it much thought, I’d like to think your goals in life are naturally seasonal. In the winter, you think, “I’m wearing jackets and heavy clothes anyway, so I’m going to eat comfort food to keep warm and no one is ever going to see me.” In the spring, this becomes, “I’ve got to eat a bit healthier and get back into a routine.” In the summer, well, “beach body” mentality takes over.

Health Month happens to make them monthly and asks you to change them on a monthly basis. I love this. What I’m thinking about this month is not what I’m thinking about a couple of months from now. HM allowed me to “roll over” the goals I wished to and allowed me to pick new ones depending on how the rest of my life was going at a particular point in time.

Contrast this approach with nearly every fitness app out there: you set up a single goal or a series of rules on initial launch and then you just go through the same motions for the rest of your life. That just seems broken to me.

What’s worked for you? And what are things everyone seems to be doing that don’t actually work?