Today is the final day of Lent, the Christian tradition that heathens the world over have co-opted as an excuse to very briefly kick their bad habits.
Because the problem is, if you're not too concerned about the Lord and his all-seeing eye, you also don't tend to be too concerned about the repercussions of breaking your Lenten vows. Something you don't believe in isn't going to get mad at you for smoking a cigarette, or eating a Twix, or getting back into cock fighting, meaning all your good intentions quickly dissolve into disappointment and a deep, immutable sense of shame.
Luckily, for those of us whose willpower isn't boosted by a 40-day religious fast, there's now a more persuasive option available. An American company has launched an electronic wristband to help you make or break habits: the " Pavlok", which delivers a painful electric shock every time you fuck up.
The creators call the technology "biohacking", but the idea grew from distinctly analogue beginnings. A few years ago Maneesh Sethi, Pavlok's CEO, hired a woman via Craiglist to smack him whenever he used Facebook. This worked so well that he figured we should really all have our own personal, portable slap-happy woman.
I decided to use the Pavlok to keep me in line for two weeks, hoping to find out whether or not electronically-induced pain would succeed where my own terrible willpower had not. I would give up chocolate, alcohol, biting my nails and snoozing my alarm multiple times every morning. I would also exercise three times a week.
Soon I would be a model human being, even if I'd reached that point using techniques more commonly associated with torture.
Maneesh advises that, for the first few days of your plan, you should do bad stuff on purpose so your unconscious gets used to the idea that you'll be punished for stepping out of line. Dutifully, I snoozed my alarm. Later, I got up and ate some chocolate. After that I bit my nails. All of this while shocking myself repeatedly.
This felt weird: I had broken all of my rules (bar the drinking) and it was only 9AM. Also, sitting there inflicting pain on myself just made me feel like one of those self-flagellating monks, not a better version of me.
Pavlok's creators guarantee success after two days, but this didn't quite work out for me – mostly because I could justify breaking all my rules by telling myself I was just "training my unconscious".
I was beginning to fear that my laziness and attachment to all food and drink that's bad for my health is stronger than my hatred of pain. Here's a picture of me eating a bar of chocolate and shocking myself, demonstrating that I just dgaf:
For the third time that week I managed to roll onto the wristband in my sleep, shocking myself awake. This was far from enjoyable, so I started taking the wristband off at night.
Weirdly, actively not engaging with the technology made me far more likely to get up on time; it felt stupid to get out of bed, put the wristband on, shock myself, get back into bed and then snooze my alarm, so I just got up instead. I counted this as a victory.
One of the reasons I never stop drinking for long is the difficulty of explaining that you don't want a drink, just because you don't. So I was buoyed by the fact I could now say, "I'm not drinking because this ugly black bracelet will electrocute me if I do" and be done with the peer pressure.
And this did kind of work: I went to the pub and everyone was too enamoured with my sadistic new gadget to notice I was drinking a lemonade. Unfortunately, this backfired when they all started lunging at my wrist to press what I now realise is a very large and obvious button.
Still, I went home sober, if not a little shaken by my friends' enthusiasm for hurting me.
As a morale boost, I watched some testimonials from successful Pavlok users. Heather O used Pavlok to help her paint three paintings in two weeks. David Goldstein used it to help him get into a healthy exercise regime after suffering cancer, a stroke and a heart attack.
This was all very moving, but it didn't change the fact I was yet to go for a single run. Mind you, I told myself, if it can make Heather O get off her arse and paint a watercolour of a lake, it could work for me too.
Pavlok's creators are still coming up with ways to make the device link up with phone apps via Bluetooth to automatically shock you for, say, not exercising enough, or spending too much time browsing Instagram for photos of ocelots.
These aren't quite ready yet, but luckily, just as purposefully electrocuting myself was becoming kind of tedious, I discovered that the wristband links up to Chrome, meaning you can set it to automatically shock you if you visit certain websites or go over a maximum number of tabs.
This was ideal for me, as I'm a medium-level procrastinator and consistently have tabs up of articles from eight weeks ago that I am still definitely going to read, so I set a 20 tab minimum (Rome wasn't built in a day) and blocked Facebook.
This turned out to be a pretty painful mistake, as I forgot that I actually need to use Facebook quite regularly for work.
At the end of my self-enforced electric shock therapy, I was able to spot Pavlok's many attributes. For instance, people actually talked to me, because they wanted to electrocute me and watch my face as it happened.
However, in terms of helping me kick my habits, the wristband didn't work all that well. Because the shocks aren't automatic, I just developed a new habit of chewing my fingernails or eating and drinking what I wanted, then delivering an electric shock to cancel out any accompanying guilt. I know little to nothing about psychology, but this didn't seem like a particularly healthy pattern. The one success was that it did successfully help me to keep less tabs open, because I started automatically closing stuff in constant fear I'd be shocked.
On the other hand, all my habits are pretty low-impact, and maybe I struggled to give them up because I didn't really want to. The bracelet could be a useful technique for someone with a serious vice to kick, especially over a long period of time. But when you secretly know you're just making yourself feel better about the Mini Eggs and binge drinking pencilled in for Easter weekend, it's hard to make any habit stick.
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