Here's how an absurdly simple app hacked my brain and made me a runner

For about a month now, something magical has happened in my life: I’ve started running.

Lots of people pick up new healthy habits all the time, so it’s not altogether shocking.

But, even as I’ve drifted in and out of other exercise regimes — and told myself over and over that this is the run that will start a repeating pattern — I’ve never managed to run consistently for even a couple of weeks.

So, what changed? I don’t have more time these days. (If anything I have less.) All I’ve done differently is played with my phone.

Specifically, I download a fairly popular app, Runkeeper.

I’d been wondering what exactly it is about Runkeeper that helps me overcome my overwhelming running inertia when I began reading up on the science of forming habits.

Here’s the thing about habits: They’re very simple in structure. You have a craving. You get a cue. Your brain kicks into a programmed routine. You get a reward. (Charles Duhigg lays this process out in detail in his 2012 book “The Power of Habit.”)

Some habits are small, like spotting a candy jar cuing you to reach in and eat a candy. Some are big and important, like the daily tasks of caring for a child.

But what strings the successful ones together is that cue-routine-reward series; you stick with them because when you don’t your cravings intensify.

In the past when I’ve tried to start running, I’ve only worked on developing a routine. Run x miles a day. Run y miles a week. There was neither a consistent cue, nor a consistent reward.

I’ve used Runkeeper to solve that problem for me.

When I signed up, I selected a particular training regime, designed to get you from beginner level to running a sub-65 minute 10k in about 4 months. There’s a set schedule, and the night before a run day, my phone pings me with a gentle notification: Remember your run tomorrow! That’s a cue, making me aware of a small unfilled slot on my Runkeeper schedule.

I’m the kind of person who will read a book because my e-reader tells me I’ve read fewer this month than last, so that unfilled slot forms a kind of craving. So I run, and keep running day after day, following this little habit routine even when I run into obstacles. (My first day out, I tried to run 2 miles and collapsed in a heap after 1.66 miles.)

After a successful run, Runkeeper gives you a little reward — notifications like “Congrats” and letting you know any new personal records you set. If you do particularly, they send you a little email as well.

It’s all meaningless to you, but for me it created the cue-routine-reward cycle I needed to get over the initial challenges of starting running. And now the new, realer rewards accrue: the way my body feels after running, the extra weight I’ve put on since college dropping off, and those little run slots filling up.

And when I miss runs, the app creates a craving. This weekend, for example, I was too busy to get a run in. And while my knees don’t mind the break, my mind can’t wait to file this article so I can head back and fill that little slot.

Habits are crazy.

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