“If I have an idea, I don’t do a to-do list. I just spend a couple hours building it to see if it’s interesting to me or not,” says Benson.
The former Amazon.com developer and current CTO and co-founder of Habit Labs, 35.96-year-old Benson creates apps that track “habits” and, ideally, help people tackle their big lifestyle hurdles (diet, exercise, smoking etc) that have them stuck. He estimates that he’s created about 30 of these apps to date, including seasonal food-finder Locavore; the list-making 43Things.com; the health-improving game Health Month; online “morning pages” journal, 750Words; the recently launched Gonna Try; and the burgeoning Budge.
His apps are marked by intuitive and fun designs that encourage public pronouncements, community bonding and simple goals.
Case in point:
After seeing Buster speak at Camp Mighty last year, naturally, WYS wanted to dig into the Buster brain. Calling him as he walked to work in Seattle, we asked this humble code-cruncher how he does what he does, and how the heck he stays stress-free while making all these life-improving apps for the rest of us.
In the first of our two-part interview we talked about the healthy benefits of jotting down your behavior. Read on:
Your site, BusterBenson.com, tracks how many emails you’ve read today. So I tried to guess if you’d read the one I sent you just now. It looks like you did? That’s just crazy. Do you have people checking up on you like that?
That’s the whole reason I did it. Generally I’m pretty good at responding to people but every once in a while I fall behind and get really stressed and feel bad about it. This way I can let people know when there’s a little bit of stress in my life. It’s a start.
They say that tracking in and of itself can be a stress-reducing behavior
Taking the time to pay attention to something can be a calming, often enlightening experience. We see this with Health Month: It takes a few months for people to realize “Oh I thought I was having 2-3 drinks a week when in fact I’m having 9-10. ” That becomes their new reality, not the story they’ve been telling themselves anymore.
Hey, it just got a little noisy…
I’m walking over the freeway but I should be over pretty soon [laughs.]
Is that one of your Heath Month goals? Walk more?
Oh no that’s something I’ve been doing for a long time. I’ve been walking to work for 10 years, it’s really one of my favorite parts of the day unless it’s snowing or sleeting. I always need a little bit of time to prepare for the day or wind down after the day.
What made you decide to start Health Month? Were you trying to get healthier yourself?
It came from a bunch of inspirations. The most successful about my previous company, 43 Things, were always the daily self habits. Studies always show the best ways to improve happiness is to change a daily habit rather than take a month off and go to, say, India. A trip might have a short-term impact and a high cost versus something that’s simple like walking to work or having a healthy snack at your desk.
And you come back from India and you have a huge slog of email because you were away for a month!
Right, they seem like great tricks to improve happiness, and it might work for that week you’re first there when you’re on the train with a backpack and you feel like you’re super free, but it doesn’t last. It’s also not something most people can do. So it’s on your list but there’s no way to work towards that goal on a daily basis and you eventually forget it and you feel bad about it and realize it’s been on your list for so long and never did anything about it.
Oh man, that’s my life. Feeling bad about “to do” lists.
Health Month also evolved from a thing a bunch of my friends and I would do every January. We did a really strict version of Health Month where we’d have no alcohol or dairy or caffeine or sugar or wheat and we would all do it as a group. It wasn’t necessarily the healthiest thing in the world, but it was a yearly reset and bonding experience for us. We did that for five years, and in those five years we realized that we’d lose weight and feel crazy and different, but then a month later we’d gain the weight back. We didn’t actually change any habits… I wanted to create a version of what my friends and I were doing, but let everyone create their own rules and their own month to play. You don’t have to wait all year if you want to do it right now. You bond with other people around the fact that you’re just trying to change habits
Choosing to make your mission public is a great motivator, too. What do you think about sites like StickK where you actually pay money when you don’t meet your goals?
StickK raised a lot of money and it worked for a group of people. It hasn’t gained a lot of traction in my opinion because [adding a financial component] makes it even harder to change. People like the idea, but they’re more unlikely to put money on the line because they don’t think they’ll be able to do it and they don’t want to lose money. Loss aversion is one of our most motivating feelings. There’s a great episode on that Ulysses Contract dynamic on Radio Lab — Radio Lab: You v. You
What do you think about the “gamification of health” as noted in yesterday’s New York Times piece “Dieting for Dollars (or Maybe a Movie Ticket)”
I think most attempts are pretty ineffective. There’s just no way to do it very easily without creating more problems than you’re solving. The key is to zero in on something that someone already wants to do, and to help them pay attention to it and remember that they want to do it. It only takes a tiny sprinkling of gamification to get there, but most people like to go way overboard. The fact that none of them (including my own attempts) haven’t really taken off in a big way is sort of evidence that it doesn’t really work.
In Part II I talk to Buster about 750Words, his own daily rituals and when he’s happiest. Track on…