Appitude: Can using Lift on your phone make you a better person?

Virginia Heffernan is the national correspondent for Yahoo! News, covering culture and politics from a digital perspective. She wrote extensively on Internet culture during her eight years as a staff writer for The New York Times, and she has also worked at Harper’s, the New Yorker and Slate. Her book, “Magic and Loss: The Pleasures of the Internet,” is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster.

By Virginia Heffernan

I have a lot of new habits in 2013, but no new habit is more firmly entrenched than thinking about my new habits. I tick off boxes: spent time outside, meditated, stretched, deleted emails. Done done done and done. Then I give other people props for the same practices. You surfed? You did Deepak Chopra's meditation challenge? You completed sun salutations seven mornings in a row and then installed some email filters? Props to all of you!

This box-checking and witness-bearing is time-consuming. But I'm into it. All because a new app called Lift, designed to promote new habits and enmesh you in a community of Ben Franklins who love a well-checked box, has found its way to my iPhone.

Instead of texting, these days--all right I still text like a fiend, but maybe I'm briefer--I have started to savor Lift's lists of "trending" habits, "popular" habits and "easiest" habits. Since one habit I'm always meaning to get into is "be more like other people," I'm heavily influenced by the good-habit aspirations of my fellows.

That's how I ended up thinking about my carriage for the first time (never cared but "good posture" is a hot habit), and nothing beats the weird pleasure of getting Internet "props"--like Facebook likes--for standing up straighter.

I did put "eat less bread" down as a habit, but mostly Lift is about positive habits, not Lenten self-denial. It's also about simple stuff that can become reflexive, like "drink water," "sleep by midnight" and "eat breakfast."  Predictably, the most popular coveted habit is "exercise," with more than 50,000 participants. (Kettlebells, kettlebells, blah blah yoga.)

But "read" is not far behind. That one draws a lot of comments, like Caitlin M's: "Finished The Hobbit! Amazing story." And C.C's: "Charles Bukowski's Post Office almost made this 45 min bus ride tolerable. Almost."

I like someone called Robert Brown on the reading list. He's reading Fitzgerald's "This Side of Paradise," along with something called "21 Ways Rich People Think Differently From Average People."

Other surprise books that register among the readers on Lift: Jonathan Safran Foer's "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," and "The Decameron" by the brilliant 14th-century Chaucer progenitor Giovanni Boccaccio. (Who had little time for good habits unless they were "cuckold more.")

Right now I find habit acquisition a wonderfully optimistic thing to do. Shoring up fragments against this ruin, as Fitzgerald might have seen it. In "set priorities for the day," I see everything from "tan" to "sort out tea" to "be awesome."

In "Read Bible," a trending habit, you can find diligently data-entried excerpts from Numbers, Romans, Psalms, Deuteronomy. All on the little Lift app.

I find myself returning to Lift several times during the day. The earnest will to self-improvement—to tan and think like rich people and be awesome—sweetens human affairs in immeasurable ways. Seeing it so baldly on display is heartening, and also kind of funny.

I'm not sure how instructive it is, however. Just today I decided to get some more frugality habits into my Lift mix. The words of one reformed spendthrift caught my eye. On "save money," Anne N seems pleased she did a "Good job anally."

Hm. No judgments here. I just hope it was economical.

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