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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

January 28, 2013 at 11:54 AM

Using tech to change your habits? Lessons from a behavior change fanatic

Buster Benson, a self-described “behavior change fanatic,” has built several apps to help people change their habits and meet goals.

If you look for technology for self-improvement in Seattle, you’re bound to find something built by Buster Benson.

Benson just moved to San Francisco to join Twitter. But after building several health and goal tracking apps, founding a tech-savvy art gallery, starting a couple notable companies and inspiring local geeks with the thoughtful ways he tracks his life (check out his website to get a taste), he leaves a deep Seattle legacy. For a technologist, he’s spent a long time thinking about one particular puzzle — how technology can help us become more like the people we want to be.

And he is his own best lab rat.

“In my life tracking has helped me find meaningful things, things that if I do them, I enjoy life more. They’re really microenjoyments. Walking to work, drinking a glass of water when I wake up, small things,” Benson said.

“I wouldn’t say everybody should walk to work. It’s whatever makes you happy. Ultimately you find your own answer.”

Seven in 10 American adults track a health indicator for themselves or for a loved one, according to a just-released study from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. One in five trackers say they use some form of technology to help.

HealthMonth, 43 Things, PeaBrain and 750Words are among the self-improvement and goal-tracking apps Benson has built that anyone can use — and many do.

All that tinkering has taught Benson some lessons about how technology helps us help ourselves — and how it doesn’t.

Here are a few of them.

Pay attention

The sensors that help you track your behavior — everything from the BodyBugg and the FitBit to the Nike FuelBand — are not prescriptions for health as much as tools to pay attention. To yourself. This is important because despite what much of the self-help industry will tell you, there is no one answer for how you should lose weight, feel better, get happier. We’re too different for that.

“No one thing will work for more than 10 percent of people,” Benson said. The promise of data-tracking technologies, he added, is to help you understand yourself so you can change yourself — your way.

Buster’s latest project, Budge, was a tool designed to create opt-in programs that automatically adapt to your level of interest, skill and even timing. Benson shut down the company, but hangs on to the idea.

Measure what matters

Personal activity sensors tend to track things like the calories you consume (a rough guess at best) or the steps you take. But it’s good to remember that some things aren’t measured because they’re useful, Buster said, but because they’re easy.

So what should you measure? Something that means something to you. Get a hypothesis, then test it by tracking your behavior and your attitudes. Over time you’ll get a sense of what really makes a difference in your day. “We do it in our heads. We make predictions of what makes us happy,” Benson said. “But that modeling is bad. It’s susceptible.” Whether you use an app like 43 Things or Seattle’s RescueTime or just pen and paper, you’re more likely to get it right by tracking than by guessing.

Jumping jacks help Benson get his day going, and I think eating a banana in the morning makes a difference. I’m tracking just to find out.

Be motivated or go slow

Tracking tools help you meet your goals. But they’re nothing if you’re not motivated. If there’s an urgency to your goal — you have to lose weight by the wedding or you have to eat better for health reasons — you can dive into many apps and see some progress. If there isn’t, you’ll have better luck taking it slow.

“People do change; there’s no doubt. It requires a certain level of energy and — this isn’t the right word — desperation. The tool that happens to be closest to you will work,” Benson said. “The thing about circumstances, environment, desperation — it’s either in your life or it’s not.”

Behavior change is about identity change

We don’t often think about this way, but talking to Benson convinced me: Changing your habits really is about changing yourself. Activity-tracking technologies hold up a mirror to who you are. “Sometimes looking at a mirror is enough to spark, ‘That’s not me,’ ” Benson said. Because this family of devices is growing, he said, “there are more and more mirrors.”

What we do with them is up to us.

Seen a story that caught your eye re: digital life? Email me at or reach me on Twitter or Facebook.

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