Replacement Habits: out with the bad, in with the not so bad

by Charles Epstein

It turns out that that the answer to our over-dependence on cell phones, tablets, smart watches and personal assistants — all the “modern inconveniences” — is to make them a bit more inconvenient.

This is apparently what Palm had in mind when they introduced a small form factor phone and touted its limitations (smaller screen, less processing horsepower and functionality) as a way of replacing one very bad habit — cell phone addition — with a less bad one. As Ezra Klein tweeted, “This product makes no sense in a consumer goods framework of smartphone use but perfect sense in an addiction framework of smartphone use.” The idea behind the phone is to make it just a bit less useful and a bit more inconvenient than the all-in-one, all-consuming, always on device that we can’t live without, not even for a second. The more limited phone will command less of our attention and time and, like methadone, wean us from one addiction to a less pernicious one.

The new Palm is essentially a replacement habit and a nudge in the right direction, which is not necessarily a small thing as we know how effective a well-placed and timed nudge can be. Behavioral psychologists and economists advocate nudge techniques — design tweaks to the “choice architecture” that prompt people to adopt behaviors that are in their best interests. While it’s too early to tell how successful Palm will be in curbing cell phone dependency, we don’t have to wait to test the central premise ourselves. There are any number of bad habits that we can nudge into less bad ones, simply by replacing one usage option for another less convenient or absorbing one. I’ve tried some nudging myself — here’s a brief sampling of the results and some preliminary conclusions:

From TV to Tablet: I don’t spend an inordinate amount of time in front of the TV, but I figure even a little less time is a good thing. Plus, I wanted to break a habit that I didn’t realize I had until my significant other mentioned it: I watch far more sports commentary than I watch sports. I was definitely investing unhealthy amounts of time listening to Charles and Kenny and Jalen and Chauncey, Tennis Channel commentary, and pre-game analysis. On one hand it was kind of healthy — I was more a meta sports fan than an actual one, which meant I didn’t have to deal with the headaches of having an actual rooting interest. Still, not the best way to spend one’s downtime — so anytime I found myself drifting into another Charles Barkley riff, I made a point of reaching for my tablet to stream it. Likewise with Better Call Saul, the Shape of Water, or even the daily news shows, which I now viewed on my tablet. Its smaller screen and the intermittent buffering did have the desired effect of reducing my time watching this specific content. But I was still spending a lot of time in front of a screen, albeit a smaller one, and would often wonder how I could have just spent the last two hours watching old Connie Hawkins footage on YouTube. I then realized I was better off just reading a book.

From epub to book: the main attraction of ebooks is that you can take your entire library anywhere, you don’t need another light source, and if you’re in public you don’t have to worry that anyone can see what you’re reading. The downside is that when you’re reading something that you can’t put down, it’s very very hard to put down. If you’re in bed with a (hard or soft cover) book and a significant other, at some point you’ll need to shut the light and slide it onto the night table. With an ebook, you can dim your device, angle it away from your partner, and read for another hour. Or two. And when you return from your 3 am trip to the bathroom, it can take every ounce of will-power to not flip it back on and read another 5–8 pages. For about a week I limited my book reading to bound tomes. While I slept better, I read less, and it took longer to finish each book. I liked feeling fresh and perky in the morning, but not at the cost of adding another two weeks to finish Ron Chernow’s Grant.

From standard utensils to chopsticks: One of my main goals in the new year is portion control. First, I need to stop with the buffets, that’s not good, after I eat I need to do a couple of laps around the parking lot before I can lower myself into my car. The replacement play here is to switch from standard utensils to chopsticks. The trick is to not over-correct by eating lots of burritos or foot long subs. But for most everything else — apart from breakfast cereal or a bowl of ice cream — I’ll try using chopsticks. I’m semi-proficient, but it will definitely raise the level of difficulty, which will kind of make everything like peeling shrimp…after a while you give up.

There are a number of others I’m tempted to try: going from FLAC (a lossless music file format) to LPs in order to spend more quality time with fewer artists (changing the LP should force more selective and focused listening), and going from Twitter to Google alerts for my morning injection of news (this one will be especially tough — I’m not optimistic this will last more than ten minutes, but I’m hoping it will put something of a brake on my 40 times a day Twitter habit).

As the year progresses, we’ll see if I’ve managed to adhere to these replacement habits, and assess the benefits. If all goes as planned maybe I’ll take it a step further and move beyond a nudge to a push, perhaps even a shove, and if the situation requires, maybe a swift kick in the ass. If I report back by February you’ll know things went off the rails, so here’s hoping it will take several more months to report the results. In the meantime, here’s wishing you all a year of productive replacement habits.

Charles Epstein is President and founder of BackBone, Inc., a public relations and marketing firm specializing in technology, healthcare and workforce management.

Tech, Workforce and Healthcare PR, marketing communications, bus development.

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