Habit trackers, CES and TikTok cons
Image: Habits

Habit trackers, CES and TikTok cons

Source Code

Welcome to a new-look Source Code Weekend! From now on, in addition to helping you find all the best and most interesting things on the internet from the past week, we’re going to be doing a deeper dive into one of the internet’s current fascinations. Some weeks it’ll be a product everyone’s into; others it’ll be the new Netflix show everyone in tech is obsessed with. (By the way, “Station Eleven.” Incredible, right?) We’ll also be asking you for your input: Keep an eye on Source Code every Thursday to see what we’re looking for, and we’ll be featuring the best answers here every week.

Anyway, let’s get to it! To kick things off, since it’s New Year’s resolution season, we figured it was time to talk about a new way of thinking about habit trackers.

How to hack your habits

Andy Allen spent a lot of the past year trying to design the best checkbox ever. He’s been working on a habit-tracking app, which meant downloading every existing habit tracker he could find to see what needed fixing. He found, well, a lot, but he kept coming back to the checkbox.

“One of the biggest things with habits is being able to cross it off a list,” he said. “People will do things purely for the satisfaction of crossing it off.” But digital checkboxes were so … unsatisfying. You just tap, they just change. Allen, the co-founder of an app development company called Andy Works, spent months working with his co-founder Mark Dawson on a simple question: “What if we made, like, a big celebratory, satisfactory kind of checkbox?”

Habits, the newest app from Andy Works, does in fact have a checkbox like no other. You press and hold to register your task — Meditate, Read, Stretch, No Alcohol, any habit you tell the app you want to create — and it builds in anticipation until, after a moment, your phone buzzes while the checkbox practically explodes with colorful excitement. It’s not quite as satisfying as scratching something out on a piece of paper, but it’s closer than anything I’ve tried before.

The rest of Habits is just as unusual: Rather than rely on guilt-induced “don’t break the streak!” feelings to keep you on track, the app treats building a habit as a game. Every day, when you hit that checkbox, you build another part of a small city; after 60 days, you’ve built the whole thing and completed your journey. (Why 60 days? Because Allen found the whole “21 days to form a habit” thing is a myth, and that actually the number varies enormously, but 60 days was a good middle ground.) Rather than shame you for missing a day — and cutting off your streak, which is when most people tend to quit these sorts of apps — it gives you a reason to come back even when you miss. Allen called it a “habit builder,” not a habit tracker.

Habits is part of Andy Works’ “Not Boring” series, which aims to take otherwise commodified apps — so far Weather, Calculator, Timer and now Habits — and inject them with some design life force. “Everybody’s trying to build the next TikTok, or the next big crypto wallet, or whatever,” Allen said. “And I don’t fault them for it. But I wish there were more people pushing on just making software experiences interesting.”

Even as software becomes more a part of our lives, Allen argued, it has stayed relentlessly focused on function over form. “Imagine if every fashion designer dreamed of, like, designing Walmart clothes,” he said. Everybody’s trying to make things for everybody, trying to build a huge conglomerate in the process. But what if it worked more like the fashion industry, where there can be countless ways of approaching the same things? The Not Boring apps don’t offer new functionality or power-user features; they’re just much nicer to look at and use. And Allen said he’s found a surprisingly big audience willing to pay a few bucks for that.

A lot of the inspiration came from games — Allen’s spent the pandemic playing games like Journey and Shadow of the Colossus — and the surprising fun of pointless interactivity. It’s not about finding the most efficient way to do something; it’s about making it fun and surprising to explore. “Wouldn’t it be magical if you can combine the fun of gaming with the utility products?” he said. The Not Boring apps are even being built like games: Allen and Dawson are modeling things in Blender, and using particle generators to simulate rain in the weather app. There are tiny interactive touches everywhere; does it accomplish anything that you can spin the little structures you’re building in Habits? No. But it’s fun. And that’s the point.

Andy Works releases its apps in “seasons,” another idea borrowed from the upgrade cycle of games like Fortnite. Season 2 of the Not Boring series begins in February, and Allen said it’s upping the ambition of the project. “We weren’t expecting a lot” from the original release, he said. A yearly fee of $15 to replace the apps that come free on your phone seemed like a crazy ask. “But it resonated with a lot more people than we realized.” People are used to paying more for nicer versions of things, from blue jeans to cars, even though they all ostensibly do the same thing. And he’s optimistic that now that the apps we use are as personal and important to us as the pants we wear, the era of high-fashion software may be upon us.

Or at the very least, the era of better checkboxes.


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You tell us

We asked you to tell us how you keep up with your new habits, and you responded! Thanks for all your notes. Here are a couple of our favorites:

“I use Notion, and have a dashboard that I can add quotes to like ‘Expect nothing. Achieve everything’ as well as keeping different pages on it with specific things that I want to accomplish, such as a list of books (I am reading “The Every” by Dave Eggers now) that I want to read in 2022 that I then check off as I complete.” — Pat Byrne

“Google Sheets. Self-made system. Ten years running. Basically Yearly Goals and a Weekly Tracker for Habits.” — Rebecca Kline

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