Slaves of our habits – harnessing technology to implement changes that actually stick

Elina M. Mattila

Habits are a powerful driving force in human behaviour – in both good and bad. But why is changing habits so hard, and how can technology help in building healthy habits? We have developed a digital, evidence-based solution to help build and maintain healthy habits. Unlike most fitness apps and digital exercise classes, BitHabit isn’t primarily designed for people already interested in monitoring their health, but instead, it focuses on providing an easy-to-use long-term solution to support wellbeing and reduce risks of illness.

Habit formation for permanent lifestyle change

Habits are automatic reactions and behaviours triggered by familiar contexts. They are very useful as they help us navigate our everyday lives more efficiently, saving us the trouble of making choices all the time. On the other hand, habits are very strong and resistant to change. Habits are like autopilots for us humans – they tend to take over especially when we are busy, distracted, tired, or stressed – even when they are opposite to our goals. 

The good news is that old bad habits can be broken and replaced by better new habits. And once the initial effort is put in, those initially awkward, new and healthier habits can in fact become just as effortless as the ones. 

Habits are like autopilots for us humans – they tend to take over especially when we are busy, distracted, tired, or stressed

On paper, the formula for a new habit is quite simple:

  • Firstly, identifying the context where the new habit would fit. This needs to be a very specific situation: an existing strong morning routine, such as brushing teeth or a regular occurrence, such as eating lunch or going to a coffee break at work.
  • Secondly, choosing a simple action that can be executed in that situation, such as balancing on one foot while brushing teeth or filling half a plate with salad at lunch; and
  • Finally, repeating the habit frequently and consistently in that context. The simpler the habit and the more frequent the context, the faster the habit sticks. And it also helps if the habit provides some kind of reward – enjoyment, sense of accomplishment or just feeling good about oneself.  

Easier read than done?

Technology to the rescue! Better habits – better health

The market is full of health and lifestyle apps. These solutions tend to serve a user base that is already interested in monitoring their fitness. They are also often tailored for a specific purpose like counting steps or calories, evaluating sleep or collecting data from an exercise session. Although all of these can have positive effects on their users’ health, they do little to help the majority of people that are at risk of developing common diseases like type 2 diabetes, asthma, coronary heart disease, obesity, or depression.

Instead of diets or bootcamps, the most impactful way to improve one’s health is changing behaviours – often through new healthy habits. The BitHabit app has been developed together with partners from University of Eastern Finland and the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare on the techniques of habit formation theory and self-determination theory in collaboration with behavioural psychologists and health experts. The app was first developed in Finland as part of the StopDiabetes project and evaluated in type 2 diabetes prevention for 12 months with nearly 2000 users. It was found to improve diet when combined with group coaching. Nearly all participants (99.5%) were able to start using the app independently, and over 70% of users were retained at 6 months.  Surprisingly, use of the app was more active in slightly older age groups.

The BitHabit app was a good fit for me. The basic idea of small habits is good. Step by step, you learn new ways.
BitHabit user from StopDiabetes project

Whether the user’s individual goals focus on mental wellbeing, healthy eating habits, or increasing physical activity, the BitHabit app allows tailoring habits and their frequency. The app allows the user to browse, choose and plan habits to try out, track habit performances, and get feedback in many different ways. The app also has questionnaires to profile the user to provide personalized recommendations on habits, screen and monitor the status of lifestyles, and collect user feedback. The questionnaires can also be defined in the content management system. 

While focusing on the individual, the app also fosters social relatedness in many ways. Habits selected by other users with a similar profile are recommended under peer recommendations, social feedback messages provide information on other users’ actions in the app, weekly score earned in the app can be compared with others in the leaderboard, and habits can be discussed on the discussion forum of the app.

A platform for evidence-based digital intervention

VTT has developed the software platform to support rapid development of habit formation apps. The platform enables user and content management in multiple languages through an easy-to-use content management system. The end-user app is a responsive web app, which adapts to any browser and screen size, and can be easily used on a mobile device. Reminders are sent via email or SMS, and the user can control the frequency, timing and medium of the reminders. The user can also change the color-scheme of the app. 

The platform was also used for developing a proof-of-concept food waste reduction intervention for young adults in the EIT Food CookClever project in 2020 and tested in Finland and the UK.


Potential for new applications

As such a significant portion of our daily lives is guided by habits, the intervention possibilities provided by the software platform are endless. Think about medication compliance, handwashing or environmental behaviours, such as commuting or food waste management. Habits can also manifest as thoughts, for example, automatic negative thinking linked to stress, anxiety and depression is a mental habit. 

The software platform is built on solid scientific base, and it has been validated in real use. The platform enables building fully customized data-driven interventions for behavioural change. Contact us to discuss how the software platform could be used to develop your intervention.

Elina M. Mattila
Elina M. Mattila
Customer Account Lead
Our vision beyond 2030

Heart rate monitors and smart watches are just the beginning. What if, in addition to your pulse, your smart device were able to tell you the right time to take a sip of your sports drink so that you could ride your bicycle longer?