Wearable devices aren’t just for fitness. Some are designed to help you break bad habits.

You’re probably aware of the Fitbit, a wearable device that measures activity such as steps walked and stairs climbed, and records data such as your heart rate, then rewards you with an approving vibration when goals are reached. Several new devices are available to help you change your behaviour for the better, but not all take a positive approach.

The Pavlok is a wearable device that emits an electric shock (up to 450 volts, pre-set by the user) on command. Retailing for about $200 (all prices in U.S. dollars) the device relies on aversion conditioning – creating an unpleasant association with a behaviour you want to stop – to help you end habits such as smoking, nail-biting and unhealthy snacking.

The Pavlok has some of the same features as a Fitbit. (For example, the Pavlok is Bluetooth-enabled). The device not only zaps, but also features light and sound options to scold you for stepping out of line. And it can be used as the world’s most unpleasant alarm clock.

You must purposely set aside time each day to engage in your bad habit, then zap yourself immediately afterward. The Pavlok’s marketing material claims that the device can break a habit after five days at only five minutes per day.

The Pavlok’s inventor, Maneesh Sethi, an American blogger and entrepreneur, is a big believer in using negative associations to break bad habits. He garnered online fame several years ago for paying someone to slap him every time he logged on to Facebook during a workday in an effort to curb the time-stealing social media habit – a crude form of aversion therapy. (Anyone who has wrapped an elastic band around their wrist and snapped it back on themselves to tame a habit is well aware of the impact of aversion therapy.)

The Pavlok name clearly is a nod to the grandfather of classical conditioning, Pavlov, the Russian physiologist who, early in the 20th century, conditioned dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell. But Pavlov’s dogs were not victims of aversion conditioning; they were responding to the promise of a reward.

If a positive approach to modifying your behaviour is more your style, there are a couple of devices that promise painless methods to help you reshape your habits.

The MotivAider, for example, is a pager-like device that clips to a belt or can be carried in a purse or pocket. This device delivers positive reminders on a set or random schedule.

The thinking behind this approach is that the best way to break a bad habit is to replace it with a good one. The MotivAider, which retails for $50, is designed to remind you to engage in positive (or neutral) activities to break the routine of your bad habit. For example, if coming home from work usually means kicking back on the couch and watching TV, you can set the MotivAider to remind you of another option at the end of your workday, such as going for a walk.


The ReVibe wristband ($100) also issues reminders, but is designed to be distraction-free – buttons and lights are hidden. This device, which is marketed mainly to educators and parents, was created by a school psychologist specializing in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism to remind distracted kids to refocus on an activity. Adults also use the ReVibe to stay focused at work.

These devices are perfectly fine to help remind users to focus on their behaviours, says Dr. Maria Patriquin, family doctor with Living Well Integrative Health Center in Halifax. But these devices don’t replace the self-awareness needed to effect real change.

While external reminders can be useful, she says, relying too much on technology can take away the connection we should be making with ourselves regarding why we continue to do something that we don’t want to do. “It takes an effort to create good habits,” she says.

If all goes well, your body will begin releasing a surge of dopamine and other feel-good brain chemicals at the thought of your new positive habit.

The key, Patriquin says, is to choose your new habit wisely – and repeat it often.

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