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A Life Coach on Your Phone

Can an app really help you eat more veggies or compliment your loved ones more often?

If ever there were a poster boy for the quantified self movement, Sami Inkinen would be it. For over 10 years, the accomplished triathlete and cofounder of the online real estate website Trulia has been tracking his own happiness, body functioning, and brain performance with a series of hand-drawn and Google-created spreadsheets. He finds that by scribbling down such facts as the number of hours he sleeps, the mood he’s in exactly two minutes after he wakes up, and his daily caffeine intake, he is able to change his behavior. “If you can measure it, you can improve it” is his mantra. 

The idea that closely monitoring your behavior can help you change it is as old as the hills (ask any Weight Watchers devotee); the quantified selfers have simply added gadgets and screens to the mix. For several years now, popular devices like Nike Plus, FitBit, and Jawbone UP have helped people gauge their health and fitness. But a new entry to the field, Lift (not to be confused with Lyft), lets you work on anything that fits the definition of a habit, like how much fruit you eat, how often you loss, or even how many times you call your mom, try something new, or tell your wife that you love her—all of which are listed in Lift’s dropdown menu. You can also add your own habits to track. Cofounder Tony Stubblebine says that one user is monitoring how often he eats at McDonald’s.

Lift is modeled on the theory of behavior change posited by Stanford applied psychology guru BJ Fogg. Fogg claims that he can determine a habit changer’s likelihood of success by factoring in three elements: the person’s level of motivation, the difficulty of the task, and the effectiveness of the reminder system. Many people are very motivated to stop smoking, for example, but it’s really hard to do. Flossing, on the other hand, is simple but not life-or-death compelling. The tasks that fall into the latter category are easier to accomplish, Fogg says, so they’re the ones that Stubblebine decided to focus on—the little things that can make life a lot better.

As with most mobile apps, there’s also a “sharing” aspect to the process. Every time you note your behavior on Lift, an update is automatically generated and added to a feed of all the other users who are working on that same habit. (Nearly 5,000 users are trying to make “calling mom or dad” a regular activity.) You can give other users “props,” and notifications automatically pop up that encourage you to continue your streak.

Sound easy? Not so fast. Lift is up against a depressingly large drop-off rate: Ninety percent of people abandon their New Year’s resolutions, and according to Flurry, a mobile-app research firm, the same percentage stop using an app after six months. That’s why tech companies are racing to find the perfect digital formula to nail the follow-through.

Stubblebine and his cofounder, Jon Crosby, believe they have done just that. Both serious meat eaters, they are convinced that Lift helped them to go four months without consuming any animal products. Stubblebine has since abandoned the pursuit, but only, he says, because “it’s just not ideal socially.”

Originally published in February 2013 issue of San Francisco Magazine.

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