The hidden trap of writing self-affirmations

As I continue work on the One Thing to Do app, I've been thinking about the core goal of the project: training users to feel good when they need to complete or remember a task. TLDR: the app requires users to write a self-affirmation with every task they write. When viewing the todo list, self-affirmations are shown beneath tasks, to help keep the user in good spirits, to motivate them to do a task.

An important piece of feedback I got from the Alpha usability study and something I've noticed in my own usage, is that generating self-affirmations can be stressful in the moment. Not only that, but viewing them later can sometimes lead to more negative emotions than positive. The worst feeling I've experienced is looking at one of my intended self-affirmations in the app and thinking "ugh!, why am I not maintaining this habit!?" or "I don't recognize the person who did that thing". These feelings tend to be triggered by comments that refer to specific, tangible things I've done like exercising, composing, baking, or even—especially in the era of COVID—just going outside for a couple of hours.

What makes a self-affirmation good?

According to Merriam Webster, the definition of a self-affirmation is,

the act of affirming one's own worthiness and value as an individual for beneficial effect (such as increasing one's confidence or raising self-esteem).

Nowhere in this definition is there a mention of anything physical/tangible to an individual. That's not to say a person can't increase their confidence by referencing their body, possessions, or creations, but it is certainly not a requirement. If we flip the question, what emotional symptoms can we see as the result of a successful self-affirmation? When I read a good self-affirmation, I tend to smile, feel warm in my chest and belly, often sense a tinge of bittersweet, and sometimes giggle.

So, how can I redesign the app to make users feel these symptoms of affirming their value, in roughly the length of a 2016 tweet? First, a digression.

Hello, RateMyTrance

I believe the public's introduction to RateMyTrance is in this podcast episode improving the concept of music. RateMyTrance is a game where Will Wiesenfeld (Baths/Geotic) is provided a made up song title by his brother John or a patron of the show. Will has to decide whether that song title sounds like it would show up in a ~90s Trance mix. The Metric™ for a good RateMyTrance title is it must, "sound profound, but mean nothing." Examples of successful RateMyTrance titles include Kneel Into the Deep, Fun None w/o Warp, Hybrid Axiom, and Apparata Until Now.

The beauty of the metric is in its complete rejection of logic. Even when song titles pass the metric, occasionally Will rejects them because they don't feel right. In this realization, I think I found the key to helping users write better self-affirmations.

As a side note, if you want access to these RateMyTrance games and other ridiculous shenanigans, I highly recommend subscribing 2.0 Patreon for as little as $1/month. I plan to review 2.0 Podcast as a whole, in a later post, and explain why every designer should listen to it for inspiration.

Stop overthinking, and feel into it.

RateMyTrance exemplifies how language does not always have to constitute logical storytelling, and can instead function as a vessel for emotion. In this way it is like poetry. However, I can't expect all of my users to be poets. I can't expect them to ponder for hours the perfect pairing of prose to produce a powerful punch, especially when the goal of this app is to help get tasks done.

As noted in my anti-spoiler section heading, the solution is to not try to think about might make users feel good in the future. Instead, I want users to write comments that do make them feel good now. If I'm thinking for more than ~4 seconds about how to compliment myself, I probably need to re-center myself emotionally. When I let the pressure of trying to write something nice go, sometimes I end up with complete gibberish that makes me giggle. Sometimes I take an optimistic angle on a thought that's been troubling me. Occasionally, I reminisce. Sometimes I compliment my aesthetic tastes. Most often, I commend myself on successful social interactions, since a healthy slice of my anxiety stems from there.

Write from the heart, not your noggin. You'll feel better now, and tomorrow.

In addition to connecting more quickly to your emotions, this method also produces much fewer falsifiable statements. So for users who are very prone to doubting their self-worth and constantly seeking an angle to knock themselves down a level, thinking less may help them avoid that trap.

Design solution

In terms of an actual design solution for One Thing, I haven't landed on an implementation yet, but currently I'm experimenting with logically vague, yet emotionally engaging prompts. I might try adding a manual or auto-refresh function to cycle in different prompts in case a prompt has no emotional weight to a given user. I'm also considering adding microinteractions and/or animations that respond to keyboard input, to add joy to the process of writing literally anything at all. At the end of the day, my goal as a designer is to get users to put text in the textbox before they start overthinking.

For me, there are few greater joys than leveraging human factors and cognitive bias to actually benefit people rather than corporations. I love this project.