I have had a gym membership for many years, and most of my efforts to exercise and lose weight have, at best, succeeded for a few weeks. That is, until about December, 2012, when I came across the Nike+ Running app for my Android device. Now looking back 9-10 months, I can see a number of things they really nailed to help motivate me to make a significant change.
I think these observations, though probably more common sense than anything spectacular, may be useful in motivating me or others to focus and accomplish other challenging and persistent activities or tasks. I decided to write this post because a colleague of mine–when I mentioned I was in a bit of a rut regarding my life’s plan and feelings of accomplishment–astutely suggested I think about what made a big difference in why I am succeeding with the Running app.
For those of you not familiar with the Nike+ Running app, it is a free app available on Android and iOS that tracks your walks, runs, etc. There are several apps out there, and some of my friends point to apps for more serious runners (which is not me), but in general when I find a good fit, I don’t have the feeling to look for something more–I don’t need to find the absolute best so long as what I have achieves what I feel I need. I have organized my observations around main points I see in the app, followed by my commentary about principles and potential relevance to other work.
- The app is free. Mangling the line from the movie Jerry Maguire, “you got me at [free].” I can’t even remember if I started running because I had a new app to try, or because I had started running and looking for a tracking app. Nonetheless, I had lower expectations but got hooked because of the low cost. Don’t tell Nike, but I would most certainly pay something for the app, whereas I am pretty firm that I will not pay for the extras like the shoe tagging, or fuel band (later on that).
- Effortless tracking, indoors and outdoors. I needed something extremely simple, and Running delivered. I started running on a treadmill, and was curious about how well the app would track me without GPS. Surprisingly, the app did really well — I estimate that out-of-the-box, it was recording about 5% error (which I could reduce if I wanted, by synchronizing it with known distances). I don’t know if it was intentional, but a nice perk was that the indoor run counted a mile for me in about .95 miles or so of treadmill distance, so I could feel I was going a little faster than I really was — and I didn’t want to burst my bubble. That lesson is that if there is some error, better to err on the side which makes the person feel good eventhough I knew I was deceiving myself a bit. If there are more reliable apps to track indoor distance (or outdoor distance, for that matter), it really doesn’t matter to me — I just want a consistent measurement that is close enough.
What I have realized going from indoor to outdoor running (in the Spring and Summer) is that I am terrible at pacing myself, probably because for the first 4 months or so, I was on a treadmill. Finally, 9 months later, I am able to pace myself outdoors better, but am still trying to figure out the time and condition when I perform best.
- Easy-to-view history (and progress). To keep me motivated going forward, I periodically need to see where I’ve come from. That is true in everything we do. I asked a friend of mine who is a fire officer how he stays calm on the fire scene when things at any moment could go south fast (and sometimes do). He said that sometimes you have to look back at what you’ve accomplished, rather than always facing forward. Sometimes you see that you have already climbed most of the hill, or are just about over it, rather than being focused on the uphill portion left. With the Running app, I can see frequency, pace, and the notes I have left along the way, so I can see if my complaints or pains are getting resolved, or continuing. It is great to leave notes for your future self because it helps capture your thoughts and mood at a time which will not return, but can be helpful in the future as you take a 30,000 view of the whole process.
- Gives me metrics about where I am and where I’ve come from. This is just a restatement of the last bullet point, but it is (obviously) hugely important for keeping up motivation.
- Reward system, both in-app and externally-verifiable. The app provides little trophies and awards along the way, things you can see way out there, and things you can see close by. The pretty much revolve around time, distance, and frequency, things that can be easily measured. I think this is an important take-away for other activities as well — what set of variables can be measured so that a reward system can be established. I say also ‘externally-verifiable’, which I mean that I can see the changes in my life outside the app as well (like losing weight, clothes fitting, etc.). So the app can only do so much, but a reward system that is purely in-app is missing a potentially important part of helping to achieve the overall goal. It is funny how it is the externally-verifiable stuff which should be the goal, but the app inverts that somewhat for me, but providing a focus on tangible progress. I see my progress externally, but if there was one thing the app could do better I would say to have some sort of system to allow me to track things related but outside the app. This is still somewhat of an amorphous idea, but I’m putting it down here to remind me rather than as a specific suggestion for the developers.
- I’m hooked on the app because I have built-up mileage. While some friends tell me about other apps and how they have some better features here and there, I think one of my reluctances to try or do something else is that I have built up my progress in the app, and I don’t want to lose that progress. The progress has become very important to me, as a written record. I could easily chart it and then move on, but until there is some big reason to change, I don’t really have enough reason to do so.
- You can’t enter runs not done in the app. This has been a complaint I’ve seen from a few people, but I know myself–if I could enter runs I did without the app, I would be tempted to cheat, as silly as that sounds, since I would only be cheating myself. So much for self-honesty. There have been a few times I was really disappointed by the lack of this feature, for example, as I was running in Central Park (NY) and my battery died, or my phone froze, and I lost that run. Nonetheless, the fact I can’t cheat in an easy way, in spite of the lost runs, is something that is helpful.
- Competing with friends. You can compete for distance (or time, I guess) with friends through the app. Several times, my family has asked for the phone # of my friends so they could tell them they need to run more (I, slyly enough, do not comply, rather, I dastardly guilt my friends to be gentle with me because of my sensitive ego). Peer pressure is a great motivator, I would love to include more of that in the training and perhaps marketing work that I do.
- I’m not looking for the best app, just one that works satisfactorily. This helped me understand why great products can fail — really because there are other products out there that are good enough, and loyalty or lack of inertia inhibits the target audience from shifting, almost no matter how good the new product is.
- Will I buy the Nike Fuel Band or running accessories? Probably not. Presumably, the app is a good way for Nike to sell stuff, maybe even collect information about running in general. When I saw the Fuel Band, I was intrigued, but when I saw the price tag (> US $100), I was no longer was interested. I might be interested if it were < US $20, but it was way out of my price range for something I didn’t feel was directly relevant to me. Even if I had tons of money, I still think I probably wouldn’t buy it, I just don’t see the need to spend that kind of money on something I feel is an unnecessary part of why and how I use the app.
Anyway, I had wanted to make this post more about the lessons I can glean from successful parts of the app and its impact on my motivation. I think the whole experience has been hugely rewarding, and I plan to use these observations when I approach other activities in my life to ask the question, “how can I apply the lessons of Nike+ Running to my specific issue?”
I would love to hear comments or feedback, as always!