The Problem with Habits: A Lesson at SXSW

Ian Chee
Ian Chee



insanityThe definition of insanity (widely attributed to Einstein) is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. There are so many passive things we do in our daily lives, but these simple routines are not always good. There is a widening chasm between what we all have become accustomed to, the normalcy and routine, and what we should be doing; rarely the same thing.


Different unconscious routines played out in many different ways at SXSW.


Anne Wojcicki, from 23andMe, gave the keynote at SXSW on Sunday, packing the Austin Convention Center exhibit hall. 23andMe allows individuals to gain access to their genetic information for a simple fee of $99. This information can inform them of their ancestry, but more importantly, it can also identify propensity to certain diseases depending on genetic makeup, which helps to diagnose symptoms. In Wojcicki’s talk, she spoke about our government’s bias towards perpetuating an on-going negative routine within healthcare. A system built upon Americans’ habit of paying for the cure vs. planning for prevention. She challenged us to think differently. Wojcicki often asked the question, “Wouldn’t you rather not be sick at all in the first place?” Through 23andMe’s services, she is--in some small way--helping to break this habit.


Growing up in Asia where preventative holistic medicine was the norm, it got me thinking about my own habits: why do I run to the doctor at every sniffle instead of working hard to stay healthy? In Asia, the stress is on maintaining health. Acts like wearing facemasks to prevent disease from spreading is common in Asia – this would just seem awkward in America.


The second example of a bad habit was exhibited during Edward Snowden’s talk on Internet security. Snowden, famous for leaking classified government documents to key media outlets, made a clear case for increased security. He had to dial into the discussion from overseas, his virtual presence so rare that the host even cracked a joke about his stream needing to be passed through seven proxies. His talk was a hot ticket because of his controversial stance. Though many may not agree with his means, the end he was able to achieve is compelling. His discussion clearly showcased the wide chasm between the need for accessible data in order for us all to enjoy free content and services with the need for increased personal security. We have all gotten into the habit of attaining “free” services, a very hard habit to break.


“Free” access comes at a cost. In the past the cost was time (we watched 30-second videos on free TV); today the cost is data. We all leave our front doors open just a crack, making us vulnerable. As a marketer, it makes me think about the responsible capture and use of data. On a more personal level, it also challenges me to think about our online security habits and how lax they have become. The same way that leaving your front door open to all is not a great habit to have in the real world, we probably shouldn't get accustomed to leaving our digital doors cracked too wide open either.


As marketers, there are so many things we do every day just because that’s how things have always been done. Our jobs have sometimes become routine in the way that we serve communication, including the format, the means, the shape, the length and the size. These are all habits formed by years of routine. Maybe it is time we break some of our own habits in order to deliver more meaningful interactions.

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