Routine building with system wide meta-layers

In my last article, I was making the point that setting goals is overvalued and does not by itself lead to behavioral change. Instead, the system needs to move in order to enable a person to achieve goals in the long term. Defining the goal to finish a marathon in 2021 is fair enough, but actually changing your routine and daily structure to free time for long hours of running training, and then actually putting your shoes on and moving your body out of the house, over and over again – that is the hard part. The goal is to allow for as little thinking and consideration between yourself and the action, as possible. In Atomic Habits, James Clear explains the Law of Least Effort:

Energy is precious, and the brain is wired to conserve it whenever possible. It is human nature to follow the Law of Least Effort, which states that when deciding between two similar options, people will naturally gravitate toward the option that requires the least amount of work.

James Clear, Atomic Habits.

So even once you defined your goal to run a marathon, and you set your alarm clock very early to have time for a run, you will still find reasons not to do it. Therefore, you need to “optimize your environment to make actions easier”. If you imagine a perfect environment, no friction would exist between your brain and your action. How can technology support us in automizing good behavior and establishing positive routines which help us improve our health, wealth and happiness?

Automation obstacles

By definition, automation is what computers are built for. Based on an input, computers can execute predefined operations and generate an output. By defining parameters under which circumstances an operation shall be run, we can automize the generation of outputs.

Now, it turns out this very fundamental idea of computing technology has not yet reached the everyday consumer on mobile devices, when it comes to routine building. Today, it is almost impossible to define complex automations in order to establish routines. Let me explain:

I want to establish the following Monday to Friday morning routine:
Wake up at 6:45am. Do a 20 minutes meditation with Headspace. Afterwards listen to the latest episode of The Daily. Both of these shall play on my Sonos speaker in my bedroom. Afterwards I want to get up and start a 20 minutes workout based on a specific YouTube video from Fraser Wilson on my living room TV.

In order to execute this list of actions, multiple interactions with my phone and other devices will be necessary. In the meantime, while interacting with my phone with good intention and aiming for actions that will benefit my health and wellbeing, I will see the messages I received during the night, my calendar app might have informed me about an upcoming event, and ultimately I am just one click away from apps that are a lot more fun to spend time it. Twitter is just one tap away and all my goals will be forgotten. Following the Least Effort Effect, this is the critical moment I need to overcome. But what if I never had to touch my phone in the first place, not open any app, do nothing that would distract me from establishing my routine?

I want to automize this entire morning routine I described above. I want to set it up once and without touching my phone, the entire routine shall run based on the parameters I defined:

Today, neither Apple’s Siri Shortcuts not Google Home allow for routine automation on such deep level. Or better: The particular applications do not. Every app can define what information can be read or written using either of these services. You can create a shortcut that allows you to quickly add a task within Todoist, to send a message to your family within WhatsApp or check your favorite team’s upcoming match on OneFootball. But the opportunities that come with this today are quite limited. Getting back to my example above: Neither Headspace, Overcast nor YouTube support any kind of shortcut.

System wide automation meta-layer

The most obvious solution would be using the phone directly to open the individual app, find the episode you are looking for and start playing, but as described: It creates that amount of friction, potentially distraction and puts the phone too close to your hand. Instead, I can imagine a system wide automation mid-layer that actively promotes the creation of routines.

I recently read an inspiring article from Julian Lehr about A meta-layer for notes, which I really enjoyed. Julian argues that we need “a spatial meta layer for notes on the OS-level that lives across all apps and workflows”. Thinking in a similar direction, I would love to see a meta layer that allows users to pick any possible action from any app and integrate it into an automized routine. While Julian focusses on input (taking notes, quick reminders), I want to focus on output (audio and video formats) to allow for content consumption without device interaction.

In order to become independent from app specific design decisions, this meta-layer would act on top of app UX, a bit like the native sharing panel that comes with iOS and Android. The user can select from any media apps and defines either a specific episode, always the latest available episode or other rules to the automation. Within the automation settings, you can specify an output device such as phone, Wifi speaker or TV. Once defined, the routine starts automatically at the given time.

Smart home for media content

In the world of smart home, people are able to automize their light, home security and temperature based on location, time and date. What about media consumption to allow for healthier habits? Today, wellbeing settings are a bit messy. You can block certain apps after certain hours of usage, but these rules work outside the Shortcuts environment. Turning off Wifi right after the latest episode of your sleeping podcast started playing? Turning the lights to wake-up mode as soon as the morning meditation starts? Activating notifications only after the end of the morning workout? If Apple and Google forced developers to give access to all possible interactions within their products, users had an entire new field to play with and create automations that match their specific goals, routines and habits. Because if you want to achieve your goals, you need to create strong routines. It is the job of technology to support us on that path, not distract us from it.