The rise of programmable self

January 11, 2012

Quantifying your changes + motivational hacks = programmable self.

Programmable self is a riff on the Quantified Self (QS). It is a simple concept:Quantify what you want to change about yourself + motivational hacks = personal change success.There are several potential “motivation hacks” that people regularly employ. The simplest of these is peer pressure. You could tell all of your co-workers every morning whether you kept your diet last night, for instance. Lots of research has shown that sort of thing is an effective motivator for change. Of course, you can make peer pressure digital by doing the same thing on Facebook/Twitter/Google+/whatever.

Peer pressure has two components: shame and praise. It’s motivating to avoid shame and to get praise. Do it because of a tweet andviola, you have digital peer pressure motivation.Several books have recently popularized using money, in one form or another, as a motivational tool. There is some evidence, for instance, that people feel worse about losing $10 than they feel good about earning $10. This is called loss aversion, and it can easily be turned into a motivational hack. Having trouble finishing that book? Give 10 envelopes with $100 each to your best friend. Instruct them to mail the envelopes to your favorite (or most hated) charity for each month that you do not finish a chapter. Essentially, you’ve made your friend a “referee” of your motivational hack.So, is there any potential to automate this process? To use software to hack your own motivation? One of the coolest applications that does just that is, which is designed to electronically manage contracts you make with yourself.But that, by itself, is not programmable self.

Programmable self is the combination of a digital motivation hack, like StickK, with a digital system that tracks behavior, like Fitbit (that’s the Quantified Self part). You have to have both. Recently, for example, Stickk started supporting the use of the Withings Scale to support weight entries. Withings is a Wi-Fi-enabled scale that broadcasts your weight automagically to the Withings servers. From there, Withings will send your weight generally wherever you want: HealthVault, other personal health record (PHR) systems, or over to With that feature, Stickk became a programmable-self platform.Stickk is pretty old, and Lose it or Lose It, which is focused specifically on losing weight, is also ancient in Internet time. It launched in 2009. The site requires you to take a picture of a weekly weigh in (you actually photograph the scale) and send it in. That counts as digital tracking, but I wonder if it supports Withings (or if it will).

In October 2011, Beeminder launched, billing itself as a direct Stickk competitor, but “for data geeks.” Indeed, it is a little geeky: Beeminder is focused on weight change and other goals that are numerically similar to weight change. The notion is that there is a proper path for the improvement of certain numbers — as well as a little “data jitter” to eliminate — in order to improve. Beeminder also refers to the classical term for the lack of self discipline:akrasia — so bonus points for that.Last November, The Eatery launched from Massive Health.

Massive Health is a massively funded dream team, and their first app is a classic programmable-self experiment. You simply take pictures of your food with your camera (digital tracking = photos) and let others rate your food choices (motivation hack = praise/shame). It’s a good idea, and you can expect lots more from Massive Health that qualifies as programmable self.Recently, GymPact made a big splash, even ending up in a New York Times blog post. Gympact is an iOS (soon Android) app that lets you check in at the gym. If you fail to check in, you get charged a fee. If you do keep your commitment to go to the gym, then you also earn some of the money from all of the people who failed to go to the gym.Finally, Buster Benson and Jen S. McCabe are working on, which might be the first of the programmable-self platform plays.

All of these count as programmable self. I seriously doubt that any of these companies were aware of my original interview about programmable self or would even be comfortable with the term, which sounds pretty geeky and devious. (Which is, of course, why I love it.)Other friends of mine in the serious games/games for health/gamification movement would probably count as programmable self, too. But some of them seem convinced that “fun” can have a deeper component in motivation than some of the more aggressive techniques that I, and other programmable self people, seem to favor.

I should also mention that I am hardly the only one in the QS movement stumbling in this direction.I will be writing about programmable self on Radar occasionally, but there is a lot more going on than I can track here . That’s why I’ve also made a Tumblr about the subject and filled it with all of the “software for behavior change” goodness that anyone can take. My@fredtrotter Twitter account is mostly focused on programmable self as well.Most importantly, I want to hear about what you have tried to do with your own personal change hacks, especially those that impact your health in one way or another.

For that, I have set up a Programmable Self Google Group. Please join us. Some of the top minds in behavior change are already subscribers.The Quantified Self movement is not primarily about the “tool creators” who make stuff for people to use, but a movement of users who defy the boundaries of tools and manage to create innovative quantification tools on their own. Many of these efforts also count as programmable-self approaches. No discussion of programmable self can ignore the work of individuals, so here is a decidedly non-exhaustive list of people innovating in this space:

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