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Five Apps to Build Better Habits (or Break Bad Ones)
It’s not a revelation to say that most of us would be more focused, accomplished, and satisfied people if we developed stronger habits. We all intuitively know that to be true.
So, why do I and others find it so difficult to floss twice a day, work out five times a week, or stop eating so much ice cream? Why do so many of us make New Year’s resolutions, only to break them a month later?
It could be because most habits take quite a bit of time to change. I always used to hear that it took 21 days to change a habit, which is long enough – but that’s not even the case. Studies show that it takes anywhere from 18 to 254 days to create new behavior patterns, with the average being 66 days.
In order to stay on task for such a long time, it can be helpful to have support. Working with a team, mentor, or coach is always going to be the best way, but not all of us have the time, funds, or inclination to get involved in that way.
Thankfully, there are some great habit-building apps that can be used anywhere, anytime, to help us start engaging in more productive behaviors and stay accountable to ourselves. Here are five services that can help you kick off your New Year’s resolutions with a bang.
We’ll start with my personal favorite, Beeminder. It’s a wonderfully designed app that makes it easy to monitor your progress toward a goal while also holding you accountable for falling short.
Beeminder requires that you create a quantifiable goal and a timeframe in which you want to accomplish that goal. Then, you have to enter in real payment details (if you don’t feel comfortable doing this, you can’t use the app). When you fall short of your goal, you get charged real money. The minimum payment is five dollars, and it doesn’t go to an investment or savings account or anything like that — it goes directly to Beeminder.
For someone who’s highly motivated by money, this is a perfect incentive. If I don’t write a certain amount of words each day, I know that five precious dollars are going out the window. That is unacceptable to me, and thus, it works very well to keep me motivated.
Finally, I really like how Beeminder seamlessly connects with other popular apps so I can avoid manually inputting my data. Whether I’m tracking steps taken, words written, or time spent on social media, Beeminder will automatically update my progress.
HabitBull is based on a simple premise: helping people create new habits by using the “chain method.” This refers to the idea that if you start seeing a few days of positive momentum, and you can visualize your progress, you won’t want to “break the chain” and end your habit.
While you build a streak of engaging in a positive behavior, you are encouraged by both other users and inspirational quotes to continue on the streak. Via both of those mechanisms, you’ll increase your odds of building good habits.
HabitBull is all about helping you stay on track via encouragement from its community and its timely, tailored, and motivating messages. As a social person who also loves a good inspirational quote, I can see why this service is so popular.
StickK has quite the academic pedigree. It was created by behavioral economists at Yale, including recent Nobel Prize winner Richard Thaler, and you can tell some high-level thinking went into the app. It’s well designed, intuitive, and just makes sense.
StickK has a similar premise to Beeminder, in that its main way of keeping people on track to meet their goals is through the penalty of payment. A wrinkle that makes them different is that they require you to actually write out and sign a commitment contract before starting a goal.
This is a document where you outline what you want to achieve, and why. Signing it is intended to “utilize the psychological power of loss aversion and accountability to drive behavior change.”
I love that idea, as it reminds me of the “Investing Policy Statement” made famous by the Bogleheads investing forum. The IPS is a document in which you write out your investment plan and promise yourself you’ll stick with it, through thick and thin. It’s a reminder to keep yourself on track when times get tough, and I’ve personally found it to be very useful.
StickK also makes it easy to involve a friend or family member who can track your progress and encourage you to stay on track and do your best.
WayBetter is an app specifically for those looking to build healthier fitness habits. The creator was inspired to build the app after seeing how an office weight loss competition motivated his co-workers. People who never cared about exercise before were all of a sudden taking the stairs and tracking their steps.
The app builds on that idea by allowing people to engage in healthy competitions whenever they want, with people around the world. If you have the goal to take more steps in the coming year, this could be a really interesting one to check out.
Once you sign up for “step bet,” you can join a group of peers and compete against other groups. You can place a financial bet on the outcome, say one dollar. If your group out-steps the competition, you get your money back, plus a small bonus for winning.
It’s a clever way of using the financial incentive, compared to the other apps in which you can only lose money. If you’re confident you can outwork the competition, you can use WayBetter to both build healthy habits and make some side money.
While the first four apps on this list tend to focus on building new habits, it’s also important to be able to effectively break old, bad habits. Pavlok aims to help you with the latter.
Pavlok helps people break bad habits by using aversive conditioning, which is behavior training that uses negative stimuli, such as an electric shock, to get you to associate a certain behavior with a bad outcome.
In Pavlok’s case, they actually use electric shocks. Don’t worry, it’s not as bad as it sounds.
The Pavlok system requires you use their wearable wristband. Anytime you’re about to engage in a forbidden behavior, such as biting your nails, you give yourself a shock. You can adjust the intensity of the shock in the app to make sure you don’t overdo it, but keep in mind that it’s not intended to be painful, just a bit uncomfortable. You can even program it to zap you automatically based on certain behaviors. The theory is that eventually your brain starts to associate those “bad” behaviors with the uncomfortable zap, and you will naturally engage in them less.
This system is not going to be for everyone, as it’s uncommon to sign up even for free electric shocks, and the wristband costs $180. But if you’ve struggled with other ways to break habits, it could be worth a shot. There are many success stories of people using the Pavlok system, and if it can get you to quit a costly habit like smoking, then you’ll save a whole lot more than the $180 price tag.
We still don’t know the exact best way to get every individual to develop better habits. It’s a complex question, and the answer delves into psychology, physiology, and genetics.
Thankfully, we don’t need to know the exact reason why we tend to falter when it comes to building new habits. We just need to realize that it’s hard to get started on a new routine, and then try different tactics until we find one that works for us.
It’s a little bit like dieting. If you learn that you have more energy and you sleep better when you don’t eat bread, you should just stop eating bread. You don’t need to know the reason you feel better – whether it’s because you’re avoiding gluten, or reducing carbs, or it stems from a deep-rooted psychological issue from were seven years old. If you’ve found something that clicks for you, just stick with it.
Similarly, you don’t have to know why you’re better at achieving your goals when using Beeminder versus when you tried the “chain method.” As long as you find a system that allows you to stay motivated and on track, you’ll be well on your way to building a sustainable foundation of good habits in the new year.