Inside the habit economy, an industry built around the promise of a better you

Updated on Jul 30, 2021 07:22 PM IST

Personal flaws and goals are being outsourced to apps, kits, coaches and online bootcamps. A look at the smallest unit of behavioural change, and the industry that’s grown up around it.

 (HT Illustration: Jayachandran) PREMIUM
(HT Illustration: Jayachandran)
ByCherylann Mollan

We all have habits we don’t want and can’t seem to shake.

Promising to help fix this, for a price, is the growing industry nicknamed the habit economy. Habit-tracking apps, habit coaches, boot camps and online workshops offer results within periods ranging from four weeks to 180 days. They use a basket of tools to help users define goals and track progress; some apps offer rewards or punishments to help keep users on track. Creative browser extensions such as Forest and Productivity Pet even offer virtual money as incentives. Mark all the items on a to-do list done and earn virtual coins, for instance, to feed a virtual pet.

It’s an industry that’s been growing through this decade, partly driven by the restlessness of a tech generation with time on its hands, partly by the Instagram effect of needing to impress. And partly by the fact that people are simply more self-aware, and businesses have realised they can capitalise on this, says psychotherapist and relationship counsellor Aman Bhonsle.

“There is a pronounced need to make a good impression, because the individual is a lot more visible,” Bhonsle says. “Scrutiny is a lot more widespread. And with so much money and technology at our disposal, we’re all expected to ‘do more’, ‘be more’, maximise work time and downtime.”

Productivity-boosting apps and courses make a promise that life will improve “and we all secretly want to find a shortcut to improving our lives,” Bhonsle adds. Habit apps promise an improved you, and that’s a great lure too.

A desire to emerge from the pandemic better has led to a rash of new products. Priyanka Varma, founder of mental wellness organisation The Thought Co, launched a Habit Pouch in July. It contains journaling prompts, a habit-loop tracker and a mini hourglass. The journaling prompts require the user to answer four questions that help draw out a personal connection with the desired or undesired habit; and offer to help one envision life with or without that habit. The habit loop tracker recommends a conducive time to implement the habit, rewards for meeting targets, and techniques to help keep motivation up. The pouch costs 750.

Habit-tracking apps such as Habitify, Habitica and Strides, launched between 2013 and 2016, follow similar formats.

HabitStrong, which was launched last year and offers a four-week habit-forming online bootcamp for 3,000, uses rules and regimens to essentially discipline takers into being better. “When it comes to behaviour change, knowledge is not enough. You need discipline, focus and routine,” says founder Rajan Singh, a Wharton-educated IPS officer turned management consultant and entrepreneur. “Once this discipline and focus becomes a habit, it’ll flow into everything else you’re doing.”

Clinical psychologist Seema Hingorrany doesn’t agree. “Habits are very closely tied to self-worth and self-esteem,” she says. People with low self-esteem find it much harder to believe they can break out of bad habits and stay motivated enough to form good ones. “What one needs is to find the emotional root of a habit and work on that,” she says. “Once you start feeling good about yourself, you’ll start seeing a change in your habits. This takes time and hard work. There are no short-cuts.”

Breaking dysfunctional habits is particularly hard, Hingorrany adds. “And that’s because these habits were formed when we were not feeling safe in mind or body. An action or behaviour might have given us an escape or a sense of control in those moments and so we continue to use it, turning it into a pattern or habit.”

What the shortcuts can do, even if they can’t help enforce progress and consistency, is help track it, Hingorrany says.

That’s what worked for Neeraj Shroff, 28, a lifestyle and wellness coach who downloaded a habit-tracking journal last December. Over two months, the journal helped him implement habits he had been working on, like working out daily, eating more healthily and reading more.

Shroff says he no longer depends on the journal to make inputs because these habits have become part of his routine. He does use what it taught him to add a new habit to his existing ones every month. In June, he added replying to client enquiries at the end of each day; in July, posting on social media daily to grow his business.

“One of the rules of the journal was that you shouldn’t miss a habit for more than three days in a row,” says Shroff. “That brought consistency to my routine, and though I track my habits by myself now, I’m still mindful of not skipping any one for three consecutive days.”

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