Do behavior modification apps work?

by | Jan 5, 2022

A woman uses a meditation app on her phone.
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Fabulous. Productive. Balanced. These aren’t just states of being—they’re apps. Habit tracking/building apps, to be more specific. Whatever you want to change in your life, there’s an app for that. From fitness to financial wellness to learning something new, behavior modification apps are here to help us be our best. Through a mixture of goal setting, data capture, and notifications, habit apps claim to help us change our behavior and create long-term habits. But do they actually help us be our most fabulous, productive, and balanced selves?

The answer, unsatisfyingly, is “it depends.” In this article, let’s explore what behavior modification apps are, how they work, and what you need to do to make them effective for you.

How behavior change works

Habit change requires behavior change, and there are several theories about how someone can modify their actions. Some theories maintain that if you stay positive and join a group working to change the same habit, you’ll set yourself up for success. Others emphasize the importance of positive reinforcement over negative reinforcement. One popular model, the transtheoretical model, comes in six stages:

  1. Pre-contemplation: You’re not aware that a change is needed yet.
  2. Contemplation: You’re starting to think about what you would like to change. Maybe you’d like to be able to deadlift more. Maybe you want to be more mindful.
  3. Preparation: You’re taking steps to make the change. You get a gym membership or download a mindfulness app.
  4. Action: You do the thing. You lift the weights. You do the meditation when your app reminds you.
  5. Maintenance: You keep doing the thing. You go to the gym three times a week and measure your PRs on a regular basis. You’re meditating every morning when you wake up.
  6. Relapse: The inevitable happens and you fall off the wagon. You miss a few days at the gym. You forget to meditate … for months.

And the cycle starts all over again.

Understanding all the theories doesn’t necessarily make behavior modification any easier. Changing habits and behavior is hard. That’s because changing your actions means you must 1) stop your bad habit in its tracks, and 2) do a new and unfamiliar action. It also takes longer than we expect. Changing behaviors takes an average of practicing for 66 days for it to stick, which is much longer than the 21 day myth we’ve all been taught to believe.

Getting through setbacks is one of the most important aspects of creating a new habit or altering your behavior. That’s where apps can come in.

A man checks his stats on a behavior modifaction app

What are behavior modification apps?

From quitting smoking to working a side hustle or getting outside more often, there are dozens of modification apps out there to help you achieve most anything. Habit changing and tracking apps most commonly work on a smartphone or tablet, but there are some are web applications as well. Apps often are free to start, but you may have to pay to access some of their more robust features.

To use a behavior modification app, you will set up a habit or behavior you want to track, how many times a day or week you want to do the habit, and when. Using dashboards, you can get a sense of how consistent you are in your new habits or where you need to improve. The apps send push notifications to remind you to do your habits and behaviors. Some even gamify the entire process.

To keep you on track, these apps use a variety of behavior change techniques (BCTs). Your behavior is linked to several psychological factors, like motivation, intention, and perception. A BCT isolates aspects of behavior and uses certain interventions to trigger a change. For example, some BCTs prompt anticipated regret or use negative reinforcement. In app form, that might mean dealing out a little financial punishment as motivation. Other BCTs focus on action planning and creating routines that build your habits into them (à la Atomic Habits). Still others use social comparison or social support to pit you against or group you up with others, letting social pressure do its work.

A man logs his workout on an behavior modification app on his smartphone.

How effective are behavior modification apps?

The jury is still out. Some say yes (including many of the users of the top-rated apps). Others, like this study, are adamant that behavior changing apps did little to help modify behavior. That study does, however, note that many of the apps surveyed weren’t using BCTs at all, or could be using them improperly. That conclusion is supported by other studies as well. If apps used BCTs correctly, they could actually work.

Other experts suggest that a more hands-on approach is needed. It’s not enough to collect data about yourself or your habits through an app. You need to actively monitor and analyze your data and come up with strategies for habit change.

Feeling as though you are making a meaningful choice also makes a major difference. If you “want” to change your behavior, it keeps your habit-building practice more fun and engaging, which means you’re more likely to do it. But once behavior changing becomes a “should,” it becomes a chore and a lot more difficult to do. If the app has a built-in community, it’s more likely help you build a “want-to-do” habit.

Last words

Basically, a habit app isn’t going to do the work for you. All the push notifications in the world aren’t going to make you do your daily meditation. It comes down to your choice to change your behavior. But an app can certainly enhance your journey, sending you reminders, giving you some data to inform your strategy, and helping you find community along the way.



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Kirsten Queen
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