Shocking Ways to Break Bad Habits

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Whether you’re trying to exercise more, or eat better, or quit smoking, or waste less time online, you’re talking about building or breaking a habit. But changing habits isn’t easy. Competition is one way to get motivated, as are smaller goals. But earning virtual badges or beating your friends on a leaderboard might only get you so far.

So raise the stakes.

Pact ScreenshotsThe Pact app (for iPhone or Android) is designed to help you attain better health and fitness. Rather than giving you a virtual high five for walking 10,000 steps, Pact puts real money on the line. You can make a $5 pact with your friends to go to the gym three times a week. If you fail, you lose the money… which goes to the people that did live up to their promises.

There are some neat twists. For example, the app ensures that you’re actually at the gym and not just tying your iPhone around your dog’s neck and letting it run around the house. Pact uses geolocation to verify you’re at a fitness center, and newly reported gyms have to be verified.

And if you make a pact to eat a salad every week, you can send a photo of your meal to your friends and they will vote on whether it qualifies as a salad or not.

A couple of caveats: the rules enforced by the app are not entirely clear, leading to very mixed reviews. A $5 pact to visit the gym three times a week will penalize you for each time you don’t go (meaning a $15 penalty for that week). And logging and voting quirks are a common complaint. An app crash is one thing, but an app crash that costs money is something else entirely.

There is a FAQ, and the company says its app plays nice with others, but Pact is definitely for people who is serious about building their routines around the app. For the especially organized and motivated, it may be easier for some groups of friends to just put cash in a jar every week and settle up every Sunday.

If you want to raise the stakes beyond cash, there’s Pavlok.

Pavlok is a piece of wearable tech that has a much sharper edge than you mom’s Fitbit. It administers a mild electric shock that, its creator says, connects with your “reptile brain.” It’s just a little insane.

Unable to resist that chocolate bar? Zap! Fail to get off the couch and run? Zap! Basically, the theory is that you can build an base-level association between a bad habit and an unpleasant sensation, to the point where you avoid the bad habit by pure instinct.

Pavlok is the brainchild of author, blogger, and “system hacker” Maneesh Sethi. He took his idea to the people to see if it had any traction, and the Pavlok Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign raised $269,702, over 500 percent of their goal.

And the idea is almost irresistible. Pavlok has been featured in Engadget, TechCrunch, and crossed oceans to the U.K. and Australia. It’s garnered television coverage on ABC News , NBC’s Steve Harvey show, and even Jimmy Fallon. After I saw the great Becky Worley cover it for Yahoo! Tech, I couldn’t resist looking into it. I sent Maneesh an email, and a few weeks later, a prototype Pavlok arrived in the mail.

To be clear, the Pavlok that is now being prepped for sale is far more refined than the prototype I got to play with. The real Pavlok will have a cleaner design, a companion app, and even adjustable intensity settings. The real Pavlok will be able to build up to the electric shock, starting with a beep or a gentle vibration.

I had to manually trigger the Pavlok prototype. In short, I had to shock myself. It took me more than a week to get up the nerve to try it… and only after I put it on someone else, first.

I didn’t use Pavlok often enough to say whether I felt it would be effective in breaking a bad habit. But I did zap myself often enough so that I could trigger a “reptile brain” instinctive response: whenever I would put the Pavlok on my wrist to show it to someone, I got a little tingle deep down inside me that wanted to take it off.

That’s gotta be worth something, right?

To be sure, some feel that the Pavlok is a “shockingly bad idea,” criticizing Sethi for misusing terms like “negative reinforcement” (versus “positive punishment”) and whether Pavlok is an attempt at “aversion therapy” or “just a gimmick.” But the testimonials are compelling. And even if it were just a gimmick, it’s a gimmick with real impact.

I don’t think the Pavlok will sell like hotcakes, but for a specific subset of life hackers, it could be just right.

Here’s our “Geek Beat” appearance on the Hawaii News Now “Sunrise” morning show today, in which we got to electrocute Dan Cooke:

Note: I meant to say I tried using Pavlok to stop drinking soda, but said “smoking” by accident. I don’t smoke… though I admit having days where I wished I did.

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