Tracking behaviors is the first step to lifestyle hacking

Chris Dancy, wellness consultant and author of "Don't Unplug - How Technology Saved My Life and Can Save Yours Too!," spoke at the Connected Health Conference in Boston this morning about how he used his digital footprint to gain lifestyle insights.
By Laura Lovett
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Photo credit: Donis Perkins

As the medical community increasingly researches the dangers of screen time, many Americans say they are looking to unplug and engage in digital detoxes. However, Chris Dancy, health and wellness consultant and author of "Don't Unplug - How Technology Saved My Life and Can Save Yours Too!," tapped into digital devices to hack his unhealthy behaviors.

“About 12 years ago I was 320 pounds, I smoked 2 packs of cigarettes a day, I had been on antidepressants since I was 18 and I was about to turn 40. I drank 36 cans of diet coke a day and things were extremely difficult,” he said at the Connected Health Conference in Boston this morning. “If you looked at my life on the outside things looked pretty good, but physically I was falling apart.”

Lifestyle changes didn’t come easy to Dancy, who struggled with weight throughout his life.  

“I remember going to my doctor all through my 20s and 30s and until I was 40 and saying to myself 'Why can’t I figure this out?'” he said. 

Dancy decided to turn to digital metrics in order to gain insights about his life and decisions. 

“For me it was where I spent a majority of my time in 2008, and that was social media. Like a lot of people, whether that is Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, whatever, I was online sharing things, posting things, consuming things. I had to figure out a way to extract information from my life. More importantly, I had to figure out where you store all of your life's information.”

Today there are a number of tools to help users learn about their online behavior. But when Dancy started to track these metrics he was on his own, so he turned to his Google calendar to track his internet habits. He was then able to analyze trends regarding his own online activity and how it shaped his health over time. 

“This allowed me to start to see patterns of behavior that were before this invisible,” he said. “So for example, if I was spending a lot of time online the only thing that got feedback from my friends were negative things, so if I was drunk and smoking and naked at a bar those posts got lots of likes and comments. If I said I was going to go for a walk today no one would pay attention to me. So this idea that how I spend my time online was being reinforced back to me was kind of mind blowing.”

His digital calendar also allowed him to track other choices that influenced unhealthy behaviors. 

“If I binge watched more television — I was into 'The Tutors' at the time — I would start eating worse during that time and into the next day. But not binge watching television, I was completely fine the next day and my diet was pretty normal.”

When the iPhone came out in 2010, it was a game changer for Dancy. 

“Unlike my computer the phone is a big black box," he said. "The data that is stored there is unstructured. How does my phone think about who I am and what I value? So I took screen shots of every single application that had information on me.”

Dancy decided to map his apps onto Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to better understand his usage. 

“So, I started to understand I was spending time in areas of my life that were just not important to the problems I was having at that time,” Dancy said. “This was fundamentally important for starting to understand what behavior change was for me and what behavior change meant to the world around me.”

He was able to use the information he had learned about his life to hack his behaviors. 

“I set off to undo one of my first habits,” he said. “On Friday nights I would come home from work trips and I would go to the bar and get drunk and in trouble. So, what I did was I used the geofence with my phone … I swiped my credit card if I stayed for more than an hour, a text message would come from the system and tell me to go home. … So I created a software external feedback system to start to get ahold of random behavior.”

Today Dancy has embraced a more healthful lifestyle and said he is using his phone for new reasons. He is now hacking his behavior to remind himself to tell his husband he cares about him when he is away, and to remember to chat with the clerk at the checkout counter. 

Connected Health Conference

Join PCHAlliance and the Partners Connected Health Symposium in Boston Oct. 16-18.