Pavlok review: The shocking way to break bad habits
Due to the nature of the product, this Pavlok review is a work in progress. I’ll be returning to the piece to update it as and when I succeed or fail in breaking habits, assessing its long-term worth. For now, this review covers what living with the Pavlok is like on a day-to-day basis.
For the past two weeks, I’ve been giving myself voluntary electric shocks. These shocks are certainly uncomfortable enough for me to regret trusting people with the knowledge that they can shock me with a quick press of my wrist. That’s been happening a lot just recently.
Meet Pavlok, the wearable designed to break bad habits through voluntary aversion therapy.
Here’s the elevator pitch: we all have bad habits we want to break. Maybe you bite your nails. Maybe you want to lose weight or go to the gym more often. The point is that your willpower sucks, and no matter how appealing the long-term vision of yourself appears, eating a doughnut now will give excellent results now, even if you’re sabotaging yourself in the long run.
Pavlok is a solution to this, disincentivising you from your bad habits by making them as unappealing as possible. Some of this can be automated, otherwise you may be required to self-harm, or get someone else to monitor you on your behalf with the companion app.
My experience would suggest you should take matters into your own hands. Other people are jerks.
Pavlok: Design and setup
The Pavlok is an unassuming-looking device. The wristband is made from thick rubber and is slightly chunkier than a Fitbit Charge HR with a lightning bolt cut-out on the rubber on the outward-facing surface. The strap is available in five colours (black, blue, pink, red or – our choice – grey) and isn’t the most attractive thing in the world. It’s utilitarian, rather than stylish, but it’s comfortable enough to be worn for long periods. It’s less pleasant in hot weather, though, when the rubber has a tendency to rub against the skin.
The strap holds the removable “shocking” unit in pace. This is a black and silver cuboid with a micro-USB port on the site. It’s 35mm long and 20mm wide: roughly the same dimensions as a blob of Turkish Delight, and probably about as pleasant to eat.
You don’t have to worry about accidental shocks. It requires quite a firm push to deliver a shock, which is just as well given that one of its intended uses is as an alarm clock. If the slightest bump set it off, you’d have the least restful night’s sleep imaginable, and probably be ready to chuck the damned thing out the window come morning.
Technically, you don’t need to link it up with its companion app at all, but doing so will allow you to administer shocks remotely, keep an eye on the battery and download various courses describing best practice for getting results from the Pavlok. You can also control the strength of the shocks from the app, which can be done by tapping the device, but a percentage metre is a lot easier to follow.
Pavlok: The shocking truth
Which brings me on to the shock itself. Is it painful? How much of a deterrent is it? Is it dangerous?
Well, according to various sources, the Pavlok delivers a shock of up to 340 volts. To put that into perspective, a taser can deliver 50,000. It is, the manufacturers claim, completely safe, and designed to give a momentary moment of discomfort rather than any real pain.
In real terms, the Pavlok delivers a short, sharp shock, comparable to getting hit with static electricity. It’s unpleasant, and you wouldn’t actively seek it out, but by the time you’ve realised you’re in pain, the sensation has ended.
Weirdly, however, the memory of it is always worse than the shock itself, meaning that despite objectively knowing that the pain of receiving a shock is something you can easily manage, and that it’ll literally be over before you know it, you’re nonetheless apprehensive about when the next shock will come.
It’s pitched pretty much spot on, considering the intention of the device.
Pavlok: The apps and daily use
As I mentioned above, there are two distinct ways of using the Pavlok: automatic and manual. The second question I’m usually asked (after “does it hurt?”) is “how does it know when you’re breaking a habit?”, and the honest answer is aside from a couple of programmed case studies, it doesn’t.
(Note: these people will invariably start pressing on the button when you’re sitting in the pub. In that respect, Pavlok’s creators could legitimately sell this as a tool for finding out who your real friends are.)
That the whole process isn’t entirely automated shouldn’t come as a big surprise. The Pavlok is just a shock-giving machine. It doesn’t have a camera to see when you’re at the gym, or a blood-sugar monitor to see when you’ve eaten too many sweets.
With that in mind, the developers have a few built-in options. The first is the Pavlok alarm clock, which will wake you up with a vibration, a beep or an electric shock, depending on how determined you are to stay in bed. The second is a Pavlok Chrome extension that allows you to blacklist websites you don’t want to visit, or even control the number of tabs you have open. Finally, there’s P.A.V.L.O.K Unlocked, which allows someone else remote access to your Pavlok to shock you on their behalf. I knew better than to download and install that one, I can tell you.
For the moment, that’s it in terms of official support, although there are a couple of experimental settings you can turn on from within the app (for example, you can make it offer a warning vibration if you raise your hand – useful if you bite your nails without thinking), and you can also set things up from within IFFT so, in theory, you could make your own recipes, such as setting Pavlok to automatically shock you if you don’t connect to the work Wi-Fi by 9am sharp, say.
Other than that, you’re on your own, left to shock yourself by pressing down on the wristband, or by pressing a button in the app. Early on, when trying to test the impact of the device with a calorie-controlled diet, I ended up shocking myself whenever I was tempted to touch any of the sweet treats inconsiderately left in the middle of our desks by our editorial director.
These self-shocks may feel less effective and easy to sidestep, but the £122 cost of entry means that only the very committed to change will apply in the first place. So sure, you can bypass your own punishment electric shock, but you’re only cheating yourself if you do. The official Facebook group is full of people claiming they’ve been able to break their non-automated habits, and I would be sceptical of such astroturfed propaganda, except that Pavlok users are only invited to the group after placing an order, so its potential as a viral marketing strategy is non-existent.
Pavlok reckons you should get 200 shocks on a single charge, but it’s been hard for me to test that effectively so far. A weird Bluetooth bug with my phone meant the battery went through a period of instantly draining. This seems to be fixed now, but it’ll be a little while before I can say whether that’s a fair estimate – especially as I have no intention of shocking myself 200 times in a row.
In any case, the Pavlok pops out of the rubber casing very easily, and once out it charges via micro-USB, meaning that refilling it isn’t a chore, no matter where you are.
Pavlok: Early verdict
You’ll note that I’ve skirted around the issue of whether it fulfills its purpose or not. Don’t worry, I’ll be coming back to that. Habits take some time to break, and what with the teething Bluetooth issues I’ve had, it wouldn’t be fair to judge the Pavlok’s effectiveness just yet.
Otherwise, it does what it says it does, and it’s certainly a talking point if nothing else. The shocks are difficult to describe in words: simultaneously scary enough that you don’t want to break your vows, but harmless enough that when you do you end up wondering why you were so anxious in the first place.
If you want to break a habit that is causing you serious problems, £122 may seem like a low price… if it genuinely works. Check back again soon, and hopefully, I’ll have some further conclusions.