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The Tinkered Mind

A meditation app is forthcoming. Stay Tuned.

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August 11th, 2022

Tinkered Thinking has been developing a meditation app for quite a while. Much of the delay has been due to other projects and responsibilities, but the slow boil of this app has proven quite worthwhile.


During the gaps in development, I gave up meditation for enough time to see drastic changes and then went through the difficult process of rebuilding the habit for myself. And to be sure, I’d taken enough time off from the habit that this proved to be depressingly hard. The purpose of this - ultimately masochistic - exercise was twofold. First I wanted to A/B test the habit in order to see if it was having the effect on my wellbeing that I imagined it was. And second, I wanted to defamiliarize myself with the process of being a beginner trying to build a habit.


This is the core reason behind the genesis of The Tinkered Mind, the meditation app in question. Best incapsulated by this: what does an app need to give a user the absolute best chance of forming a long term habit. This is vitally important because the benefits of meditation are slow to arise.  Brain changes visible in MRI scans only being emerging after 3-4 months of daily practice, and 2 years of daily practice seems to usher in a subtle but profound milestone for many meditators. 


Most meditation apps rely on a run streak metric. But after thinking deeply about this topic for such a long time, the run streak doesn’t make much sense at all. For example: say a person racks up 499 days of daily meditation in a row. And then they miss day 500 and the run streak gets set back to zero.


Does that zero accurately reflect the state of the practice and behavior in the person it is measuring?


Not at all.


The same applies to someone with just a month of practice, or even a few days. Run streak metrics indicate nothing about the momentum a person has gathered through their past practice when that streak breaks. So what is the metric we are slowly digging out of the issue? Curiously it doesn’t have a name. Yet.


A couple of analogies help evoke the point here: Take fitness for one. Missing a day at the gym does not instantly return a person to weak and unhealthy, unfit state. Maybe there’s a tiny bit of atrophy, but for the most part, a steady practice of fitness will ensure that a missed day is irrelevant. The only thing really lost is the opportunity for more gains. It’s only with a prolonged break from the practice that atrophy begins to occur and take its toll undoing past efforts.


Riding a bike is another good example. Stop peddling and the bike doesn’t instantly stop. We glide along for a little bit due to the momentum we’ve gathered with our past efforts. Even runners can’t stop instantly without risking injury and often exhaust their momentum with a few paces in order to slow down. Habits viewed through time seem to have a similar kind of momentum. Do something for 1,000 days in a row and there’s quite a good chance it’ll happen again on day 1,001.


Run streaks, which are the dominate metric in every current meditation app are an optimization metric. It’s about perfection, and when the perfection is broken it can be quite demoralizing - and that sense of failure is exactly what MUST be avoided during the first tentative steps of creating a habit - especially one where the real benefits usually take months to being to bud. When faced only with failure and ineptitude, who is going to continue? Very few people.


Human behavior is squishy, especially when we look at the realm of changing or creating novel behavior. Optimization metrics like run streaks are not squishy. Optimization works very well when applied to a system that is already established, but it likely has a counter-productive effect if applied to the start of a project. So, it’s the hypothesis of Tinkered Thinking that all these meditation apps out there are measuring the wrong thing.


The question now becomes: if a meditator racks up 499 days in a row and misses day 500, how do we refer to the value of the previous 499 days without glossing over the missed day? Those 499 days represent a lot of momentum in the realm of an individual’s behavior. The missed 500th day is almost certainly a fluke occurrence in comparison. So why does the fluke occurrence dominate the change in the metric? How is one day worth more than 499?


The value we are honing in on is the Metric of Momentum. What if, instead of setting the run streak back to zero, it merely subtracts a day? What if two missed days subtract a larger amount of time, say two additional days are lost? What if the penalty becomes larger the more missed days their are?


This sort of schema matches momentum in the real physical world. Given normal world conditions, things decelerate faster the closer they get to a speed of zero. Why can’t a habit measuring metric indicate the momentum of a behavior in the same way? 


This is exactly what will show up in The Tinkered Mind. The classic run streak will be an option in settings, but the default will be this Metric of Momentum. The hope here is for a strictly psychological effect: A person will be incentivized to save their momentum score by getting back to the practice so they don’t lose more of that score. Think about how drastically different this is from the experience of a run streak going to zero. With a knocked out run streak the feeling is one of starting over from complete scratch - which simply doesn’t reflect the reality of someone who has already put in a bunch of time. Given this lens it seems traditional meditation apps might be shooting themselves in the foot. They’ve actually disincentivized people to stick with the habit by measuring the wrong aspect of a person’s efforts - highlighting failure to an enormous degree and writing off all success to do it.


All of this is still conjecture, of course, but already the idea is receiving enthusiastic feedback from beta-testers. Once this missing key is built into the app, and it’s launched, it’ll be interesting to see what sort of retention rate there exists between those using the Metric of Momentum and those using a classic run streak. Regardless, it’s clear that traditional meditation apps don’t really work that well, and the entire concept needs a little tinkering in order to hone in on a system that works better, hence this entire discussion and the reason why The Tinkered Mind is being developed.

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