Ever since I have read Atomic Habits by James Clear, I have been trying to improve my life by creating good habits and breaking bad ones. Through this process, I’ve stumbled on the idea of aversive conditioning, or the idea that you can break bad habits by associating them to a punishment – for instance, by receiving an electric shock every time you visit Facebook or YouTube.
While the idea might seem outlandish at first, aversive conditioning is known to work when it comes to training dogs. Wondering if it could be applied to humans too, I wore a rubber band and snapped it on my wrist when I practiced bad habits. It worked, but it required me to have enough mindfulness and willpower to notice when I was doing a bad habit and to punish myself for it. I felt that there must be a better way. That’s how I discovered the Pavlok 3 and, although I was very hesitant to buy it because of its price tag – $226 CAD! –, I went ahead so I could fulfill my curiosity.
The Pavlok on Shark Tank
You might have heard of the Pavlok because of the infamous pitch its creator, Maneesh Sethi, made on Shark Tank. I will be the first to admit that Maneesh’s presentation could have been better – heck, who says on national television that they have hired someone to slap them on the face when they are unproductive? –, but in my opinion, the Sharks unfairly labeled him as a joke. I can understand why: when I tell people about the idea of shocking yourself to break bad habits, they instinctively laugh.
However, this is unfortunate, because I believe Maneesh is onto something with his Pavlok and it’s partly to encourage him that I ended up buying it despite its outrageous price. This review is biased in the sense that I’m sympathetic to what he’s trying to accomplish; yet, I have to admit that the Pavlok is a mixed bag. Maneesh, if you ever read this, I hope you don’t take my criticism in the wrong way: they come from a customer who wants you to succeed!
So, what is the Pavlok exactly?
The Pavlok is a watch that leverages aversive conditioning to help you quit bad habits. The idea is simple: whenever you do something you shouldn’t do, like smoking or staying in bed, the Pavlok shocks you. The electric shock can be delivered in three ways:
- By yourself. That is, you press on a button on the side of the watch to shock you.
- By a friend who controls the watch remotely through an app.
- By automation: the Pavlok app detects whenever it should shock you.
The intensity of the shock can be configured, but really, it’s more of a snap than a shock. It’s not meant to hurt you; it’s meant to break you out of the “habit loop” so you can be more aware of your actions and thoughts. While the snap is very effective for this purpose, it has two problems:
- The shock’s intensity is unstable. I’ve never received a shock stronger than I wanted, but I’ve received lots that were much weaker. This usually happens at the beginning of the day, when the watch hasn’t shocked me in over 12 hours.
- There is a delay between the moment a shock is requested and the moment it’s delivered – it can be anywhere from one to five seconds. I think the shock would be more effective if it were near-instant.
The watch can also vibrate or beep as an alternative to shocking you. It can serve for positive reinforcement too: in other words, if you do something right during your day, your Pavlok can beep to congratulate you. I haven’t yet taken advantage of my watch in this manner, but I’ll update this article once I do. At this point, however, I can say that the beep and vibrate buttons are too small and hard to press, which makes me less inclined to use them.
Change your habits automatically
While the Pavlok allows you or a friend to control the watch, I believe its real power comes from the possibility of changing your habits without any human intervention. To this end, the watch is shipped with an app you can install on your Android or iOS phone. The iOS version appears to work nicely; unfortunately, the Android one is buggy:
- The first time I installed it, many features were missing even though I had downloaded the last version available in the Google Store. I had to reinstall it to fix this issue.
- Pairing the watch to my phone often fails. I sometimes need to fully restart my phone – a solution recommended by Pavlok itself – to make it work.
- The app has crashed on several occasions.
The app can be used to help you wake up, to prevent nail biting or face touching, to improve your mindfulness and to create good habits (such as drinking more water, meditating or going for a walk).
Pavlok to improve your sleep habits
You can configure your Pavlok to beep, vibrate or shock you at the time you wish to wake up. You can even set it up so that:
- It shocks you if you hit the snooze button.
- It forces you to do jumping jacks before the alarm stops. (I was unable to trick my watch. I really had to do them!)
- It requires you to scan a QR code you have placed outside your bedroom to turn off the alarm.
These features make the Pavlok a very effective alarm clock, and while I have already no troubles getting out of bed, I can imagine it working wonders on heavy sleepers.
Moreover, the Pavlok comes with a sleep tracker to monitor the quality of your sleep. I must admit I had doubts regarding its accuracy, and sadly, it did give me data which I knew to be wrong. I have contacted Pavlok’s customer support about this issue and I believe it has been fixed, but as a result, I find it hard to trust it.
Pavlok to stop nail biting and face touching
The Pavlok app claims it can detect when you touch your face or bite your nails. If you do so, it can beep, vibrate or shock you. I’ve never had occasions where the watch thought I was touching my face or biting my nails even though I wasn’t, but the opposite happened a few times. Still, while the detection is not perfect, it seems to work well enough to counter those bad habits should you have them.
Pavlok to make you more mindful
The Pavlok app can deliver “mindfulness alerts” throughout the day. The alerts can be custom or can be selected from a curated list. In the latter case, you will get notifications on your phone such as “What are you grateful for today?”, “Unclench your jaw” or “Close your eyes and take 5 deep breaths.” It works alright, but it doesn’t make any use of the watch, so I don’t see how it’s better than the dozens of apps that already do the same thing…
Pavlok to create good habits
Finally, the Pavlok app can help you create better habits. You can pick the habit from a curated list, which includes meditating, recording your weight, drinking water, doing a 30-minute focused work session, writing your to-do list, walking or running, standing up, burning calories, going outside, sleeping on time and waking up on time. You can also create a custom habit.
The app states that it combines “your existing health data with Pavlok insights to optimize habit tracking and habit change” and that it analyzes “habit behavior to help you create stronger, long-lasting habit change.” Regrettably, I have found the user interface to be so hard to navigate that I couldn’t verify any of those claims. All I was able to do is to have the app remind me on my phone to practice the habits I had chosen. The watch was useless.
Pavlok’s third-party apps and integrations
As you can see, the Pavlok lacks built-in features when it comes to changing your habits automatically through the watch. That’s a shame! Thankfully, it allows third-party programmers like myself to use the watch in their own apps. In less than two hours, I was able to write a basic app to shock myself every time I browsed Facebook or YouTube. My usage of those sites decreased sharply and quickly. Now, that’s cool!
What’s even cooler is that programmers can publish their apps and integrations on the Internet. You can find them in your Pavlok app, on IFTTT and on Zapier. Few apps and integrations are currently available, but I hope this will change soon as I sense a lot of potential in them. For instance, one of the integrations on IFTTT will make your Pavlok beep “loudly when you get too close to your favorite fast food restaurant.” How awesome is that?
Does the Pavlok 3 work?
The Pavlok definitely works. As to whether you should buy it, it depends: it is a buggy and unpolished product. They do themselves recognize that it’s “experimental” and that they are “still working out the kinks,” but the very first iteration of Pavlok was released in 2015. They now have about six years of experience and, by this point, their watch should be much more mature – especially for the price!
That being said, there is no other product on the market quite like the Pavlok and I badly want it to succeed. If you have the money and are looking for a novel way to change your habits, I do recommend you give the Pavlok a try, but do it with the mind of a “beta tester” and not of a customer who expects a full-fledged product.