I’ve been trying to learn the piano for roughly half a decade. I managed to get a handle on the basics years ago, but I could never get myself to the point where I was practicing consistently. So I’ve been stuck at the same subpar skill level.
And it’s not the only habit I’ve struggled to maintain. Two years ago, I joined a fitness club, hoping to get myself to play tennis every other day, but I’ve hardly visited it since. And my plan to meditate each morning met a similar fate earlier in the pandemic.
Most of us are familiar with the tedious cycle. You sit down and convince yourself you’re going to start a new habit — running every morning, writing a daily journal, or reading before bed. For the first couple of days, you’re motivated and consistent, sticking to it religiously. But then something comes up, you have to work late, or you go out of town, and the new habit fizzles out before it’s ingrained in your life.
New habits are hard to build. Jan Lindemans, a senior behavioral researcher at Duke University, told me that a habit needed to have four things to last: cue, response, reward, and repetition. Take something like brushing your teeth in the morning. The cue — waking up — triggers a response to brush, which leaves you with fresh, minty breath as the reward. Then you repeat that every day to incorporate it into your routine. A 2009 study from researchers at University College London found that it took an average of 66 days for a habit to stick.
After talking to Lindemans, I realized that my attempts to play the piano had included none of these steps. I didn’t have a cue that prompted me to practice or a reward that made me regularly keep coming back for more. So a couple of weeks ago, I decided to turn to tech.
A new fleet of habit-tracking apps has sprung up to help people like me set up a structured approach to building habits. The apps are designed to track my progress and motivate me in a variety of ways. So far, the apps have worked wonders. Over the past few weeks of rededicating myself to the piano and tennis, I’ve missed only two days. While I’m pleased with the results, the bells and whistles of these apps left me with a nagging feeling: Was I actually forming a habit or just becoming addicted to the app itself? How much credit could I really give myself? Are there downsides to relying too much on technology?
Habit apps hit the scene
Apps that track your habits have spiked in popularity over the past few years, according to Abe Yousef, a senior analyst at the mobile-analytics firm Sensor Tower. While some apps, such as Fabulous, which has about 24 million downloads, seek to support you in establishing elaborate daily routines, others offer radical methods, including forcing you to commit a certain amount of cash to be donated to charity whenever you fail to follow through on your commitments.
To me, though, many of these popular services felt bloated with options, and managing them was a job on its own. So I turned to a more minimalistic app called Everyday. The app works in a simple way: Each day, at the same time, it sends me a reminder to do the habit I’m trying to form (in this case, practice the piano). Once I complete the task, I mark it on a calendar in the app and a colorful streak grows. That visual reward triggers a dopamine response, which pushes me to repeat the habit and grow the streak the next day.
This habit loop made the behaviors I wanted to turn into habits more automatic. No longer was I playing the piano or scheduling a tennis match with a friend on a whim. Instead, Everyday helped me build a consistent routine.
Marco Stojanovic, a psychology researcher at the Bielefeld University in Germany, told me that this kind of automatic routine “slowly shifts behavior from deliberation to habit.” The regular reminders can “help build that initial automaticity and act like an extension of our past intent,” he said. The evidence behind habit-building apps isn’t just anecdotal, either. When Stojanovic conducted research to test their efficacy, he asked a group of university students to track their study habits on an app. After six weeks, he found that the apps reduced motivational barriers in students and that they were less likely to be distracted. Similarly, a 2015 University College London study concluded that habit-tracking tools such as reminders could keep people engaged and encourage them to repeat behaviors.
The difference maker, for me, was the streak. Each time I logged a successful session on Everyday and the habit’s streak grew, it felt like a microwin. I didn’t want to miss a day and break the chain. The idea of streak building is an old one: Jerry Seinfeld famously told an interviewer he put a big, red X on a wall calendar on days he wrote. And activity-specific apps like Duolingo and Nike Running have been using streaks for years to encourage users to keep up their language-learning or running habits — things that people often struggle to be consistent with. Streaks reward repetition, Lindemans explained, but the reason they’re so motivating is not the sense of accomplishment they imbue. On the contrary, it’s because of what’s at stake if a streak breaks — it can make us feel like we’re throwing away everything we have achieved.
“You don’t do your 10,000 steps because you care about going from a 37-day streak to a 38-day streak,” Lindemans said. “You do it because you don’t want to fall back to zero.”
Joan Boixadós, the Barcelona developer behind Everyday, told me that growing streaks was the motivation behind most of his app’s users. He said people who used Everyday beyond the first week had, on average, a daily completion rate of 72%. And Duolingo has said that its app users who have a streak of 7 days or more are 2.4 times more likely to return to the app the next day.
At the same time, experts I spoke with warned that streaks had a significant weakness: Once someone breaks the streak, the sense of discouragement makes it challenging to restart. A survey Duolingo conducted in India found that 60% of people may give up on developing a habit if they break their streak. After all, if Sisyphus knew the boulder would roll back down the hill, would he really want to give it a try the next day? Many apps that use streaks try to counteract this by including an option to skip a day. Everyday had that option, so I could miss the occasional day without compromising my hard-earned streaks. But the danger is still there: Miss a few days, and you might never try again.
Gamifying health habits
After two weeks of using Everyday, I was conscious of how streaks were driving me, and I worried whether their effect would wane as soon as I got used to them. After all, I was being motivated by the app instead of by my desire to meet my goals. So I decided to try another approach. For more than a week, I switched to Habitica, a habit-tracking app that gamifies your quest to build habits.
Instead of rewarding your consistency with streaks, Habitica pays you a virtual currency each time you complete your task. This currency can be used to play an in-app role-playing game where you team up with other players to battle monsters. When you accomplish your real-world habits, you can save up and spend your in-game rewards to equip your character with better weapons, upgrade its appearance, buy a pet, and battle monsters. If that’s not your cup of tea — it wasn’t for me — the app also lets you create your own rewards. You can set up the app so that once you hit a certain benchmark (such as 10 straight days of hitting your goals), you can reward yourself with a day off work or a trip to your favorite restaurant. For me, after I practiced the piano for five days straight, I let myself order takeout.
Signing up for Habitica felt revelatory since it not only let me regulate habits instead of relying entirely on the app but also helped keep my guilty pleasures in check. Because Habitica’s personal rewards are self-enforced, and the app doesn’t prevent you from, say, ordering takeout if you don’t stick to your habits, it’s not for everyone. But since I had already formed a routine by using Everyday, I was in a better position to self-regulate.
Benjamin Gardner, a behavioral-change researcher at the University of Surrey’s Habit Application and Theory group, agrees gamification can be quite useful in forming habits since it allows the person to stay motivated to accomplish their goals over time. It can prove especially handy in the crucial period before a habit fully forms, when the person has to remain constantly motivated, Gardner added.
With gamification and habit-tracking apps, however, there’s an invariable risk of becoming overly dependent on them and carrying on solely for the external rewards — not because we enjoy the activity. Ultimately, a habit has to be self-sustaining for it to stick around, meaning it has automatic cues like waking up and an internal reward like a sense of satisfaction upon completing the task. If we don’t find that internal motivation, we’re just building a pattern of behavior to receive that external reward, not a habit.
“If that habit is dependent on that particular app, there’s the risk that that behavior will be discontinued when the app is no longer used,” Gardner told me. In both Everyday’s and Habitica’s cases, I did notice, at times, how interwoven the rewards were with my actions, and I feared that leaving the apps would send me spiraling back to my old tendencies.
But given how much we rely on our phones anyway, it’s not necessarily a downside to rely on apps for building healthy habits. Gretchen Rubin, the author of “Better Than Before,” a book that explores the science of making and breaking habits, told me she didn’t think “an app or other tool is anything that needs to be outgrown.”
For people Rubin categorizes as “obligers,” for example, keeping commitments without external accountability is close to impossible, and they continue to need accountability even when they’re internally motivated. Even for people who are more internally motivated, she said, “complex habits may always benefit from a framework of support, and there’s nothing wrong with that.” Besides, I’ve not been able to figure out what the automatic, contextual cue for practicing an instrument is other than a reminder at a specific time.
The effort needed to willfully build new habits is immense, and throughout this experience, I found apps could help significantly reduce the motivation barrier. The apps helped me focus on the action itself instead of on setting up my own structure for carrying them out. The past few weeks have been surprisingly productive, and as someone who’s always had a complicated relationship with habits, I’m hopeful it will stay that way until, as Stojanovic puts it, my habits are independent and can fly on their own.
Shubham Agarwal is a freelance technology journalist from Ahmedabad, India whose work has appeared in Wired, The Verge, Fast Company, and more.