German designer and doctoral student Matthias Laschke knows self-improvement is hard work, so he thinks you should have fun while you're at it. That's why he and colleagues at the Folkwang University of Arts have created a series of motivational gadgets called "pleasurable troublemakers." The name might sound like something you hide away in the back of a bedside table, but it's meant as a nod to the fun you can derive from breaking bad habits.
"The question was for us: How could we help [people] overcome these obstacles and achieve their goals?" Laschke tells Co.Design. "How could they become the person they want to be?"
Laschke and company try to answer those questions through the lens of behavioral science. Working in a lab run by psychologist Marc Hassenzahl, the team makes devices designed to enhance various aspects of self-control—from procrastination to water consumption. They partner each item with experimental evidence demonstrating its effectiveness; Laschke says the "pleasurable troublemakers" are "first and foremost" research projects.
Their first gadget was a willpower booster called the Chocolate Machine. The device is delightfully simple: a little desktop dispenser drops a single, nicely wrapped chocolate ball onto a workspace every hour or so. If users decide to eat the ball, great. But they can also decide to flex their willpower by putting the ball back into the dispenser and registering the refusal on a built-in counter.
The Chocolate Machine is clearly pleasurable, but it also has the potential to develop a person's willpower. Laschke and others arrived at the design after reading the leading research, which argues that self-control operates like a muscle that can be strengthened through exercise. Indeed, test participants who used the Chocolate Machine for two weeks found it easier to resist the ball over time—a sign that their willpower might be improving.
Other "troublemakers" have been crafted in a similar spirit of benevolent behavioral nudges. The Shower Calendar compares water consumption among household members in a real-time shower display that encourages less use through competition. The Forget Me Not reading lamp conserves light by gradually dimming unless it's refreshed with a tap. The Never Hungry Caterpillar, which hugs your TV cord, writhes when the set is switched to standby (thus using energy) instead of disconnected.
The principles that guide the designs represent what Laschke calls an "aesthetic of friction"—with "friction" referring to the tension that occurs when a person chooses which behavior to pursue. Laschke says all the devices target specific habitual situations, offer an alternative path at the decision point, and at their core remain fun. That means letting users succumb to bad habits without feeling judged.
"It should be possible to cheat the system," Laschke says. "One failure is not everything. We know that humans fail."
Failure is certainly an option with the procrastination gadget they call ReMind. The device is a large wooden wheel, numbered for every day of a month, that rotates via a tiny engine. Users write down a task they want to complete on a little magnetic disk that sticks to the wheel on whatever day they choose. When the disk day arrives, it drops onto the floor, confronting users with the very task they've been trying to avoid. At that point they can do the task or stick it back on the wheel.
In case studies, the researchers found ReMind to be more effective than users thought it would be. A trial user named Linda who was initially skeptical—"come on, it is just a thing on a wall"—eventually reported that the wheel worked for her largely because it wasn't forceful or patronizing but rather supportive in her efforts to reduce procrastination. That reasoning fits well with recent evidence that self-forgiveness might enhance self-regulation.
Right now the devices are all prototypes, but eventually Laschke would like to see them developed into retail products, perhaps with the help of a funding partner or Kickstarter. "I want to have the things out there so that people can use them," he says. The trouble might be yours, but the pleasure is all his.