Can a Habit Tracker Really Help You Reach Your Goals?

Wondering how habit trackers work? A mental health expert offers advice on whether behavior-tracking apps are right for you.

Woman using habit tracker app on tablet and smiling
Photo: Getty Images

Confession: I've been trying to quit biting my nails since Tove Lo released the song "Habits" back in 2014. Whether you're trying to start a new workout regimen, or attempting to kick something to the curb that no longer serves you, the process can feel like a constant struggle. That's why it's no surprise that many folks turn to habit trackers to help them navigate making changes in their life (whether those changes are big or small). The question is: Do habit trackers work for you?

Starting new habits comes with a myriad of benefits. Research shows that developing new forms of behavior may boost self-confidence and lead to better overall wellbeing. Plus, you're also reaping the rewards of whatever habit you've developed. It's a win-win-win. Ahead, dive into how these habit tracker apps work, how to know whether or not they're right for you, and, finally, how to choose the right habit tracker for you. Start by downloading the #ShapeFreshStarts Habit Tracker below — there are two empty spaces for you to "choose your own habit" — and use the hashtag on social media as you progress.

Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

How Habit Trackers Work

First things first: a word on how habit trackers work. Forming a habit famously calls for the "three Rs": reminder, routine, and reward. For example, if you're trying to get out for a walk at lunchtime to refocus and clock a few thousand steps, your reminder might be a ping on your phone that reads "Get out there!" After that, you have the routine itself (your stroll), and the reward of your choice (let's say, a cup of warm chai tea or hot cocoa).

In general, habit trackers — whether analog or digital — help you track your "three Rs," playing up the "reward" aspect of the routine. For example, one top-rated habit tracker app called "Streaks" helps you create consistent habits that are designed to help you feel like you're building momentum. While many habit tracker apps operate on a binary (you either did your workout for the day or you didn't), some — including Way of Life — leave room for that gray area where you should still get some credit, but may ask you to journal about why you didn't accomplish a certain action item. This self-reflection may help you get to the root of why you skipped your habit, so you can get ahead of that mentality the next time.

In short: There's a lot of variation in how habit trackers can work, but most operate on the researched-backed "three Rs."

How to Know If a Habit Tracker Is Right for You

For some, habit tracker apps will offer a sense of freedom and accomplishment and offer a means to help you notice the benefits of your good choices. For example, if you've pledged to practice yoga every day, perhaps you're feeling more relaxed, flexible, and at home in your body.

However, psychologist Sherry Benton, Ph.D., chief science officer of Tao, an online therapy resource, warns that habit trackers run the risk of causing more harm than good for some people's mental health. Take stock of your feelings: Monitor your emotions while during the habit tracker for the first week or two, she suggests. "Check in with yourself," says Benton. "Is habit tracking helping you feel better, or is it making you feel guilty, ashamed, inadequate?"

If you find that you're obsessively checking your habit tracker, or feeling stressed every time you're on the app, this technique might not be best for you. "This is very individual," says Benton. "Most people do best with social support and encouragement. For example, some people find the three rings on the Apple Watch for standing, moving, and exercising really motivating. Others feel as if they are being nagged by their watch," she explains.

How to Use a Habit Tracker Appropriately

While every habit tracker or app comes pre-loaded with different instructions and features, a good rule of thumb for healthy habit tracking is to record your habit and move on with your day, says Benton. "The key to using it is moderation," she says. "If it becomes too rigid and leads to feeling guilty when you don't follow it perfectly, then it has gone too far."

One way to set yourself up for success before downloading a habit tracker app is to think about what features you're looking for. Ask yourself:

  1. Do you want something simple that allows you to simply check in daily?
  2. Do you want something that allows you to share progress with friends?
  3. Do you want to track habits you're trying to break and habits you want to foster?
  4. Do you want a habit tracker that focuses on creating a morning (or nighttime) routine?
  5. Do you want tangible advice on habit formation as well as the ability to track behaviors?
  6. Do you want a habit tracker that will encourage daily self-reflection as well?

The 5 Best Habit Trackers, According to Your Needs

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Best Simple Habit Tracker: Habit

Courtesy of Merchants

This habit tracker is basic in the best way. You can start using this baby for free (although, you will have to pay to track multiple habits at once). With Habit, you can set push notification reminders to tick off your new behavior, and even add inspirational quotes to your reminders if you're into that kind of thing. Available on iOS.

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Best Community-Based Habit Tracker: HabitShare

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Looking for an accountability buddy? HabitShare allows you to tell your community about your wins, and lets you track up to three habits for free. You can also look at your habit streaks and charts to track your progress over time. Available on iOS and Android.

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Best Habit Tracker for Breaking Habits: Done

Done-A Simple Habit Tracker-Habit-Trackers-Apps
Courtesy of Merchants

If you're hoping to start something new and let go of something old, let Done be your habit tracker guide. Set goals, check in with the app, and watch your behaviors change over time with graphs and tables. Done also comes with a great, eye-catching color palette—so you'll look forward to popping on the habit-tracking app every day. Available on iOS.

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Best Morning Routine Habit Tracker: Morning Routine Habit Tracker

Courtesy of Merchants

Morning routines have been a huge topic of conversation over the last few years—and for good reason. There's something special about starting the a.m. off your way, and the folks at Morning Routine Habit Tracker know that. This habit tracking app asks you to select the morning habits you want to cultivate, then runs you through what you have to do when you wake up. Simple as that. Available on iOS.

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Best Habit Tracker for Self-Reflection: Way of Life

Courtesy of Merchants

Unlike many other habit trackers, Way of Life encourages you to write down how your habit formation is going. So not only will you get to see the progress you're making, but you'll also get to reflect as you go along. You can also see pie charts of your progress, set reminders, and set different color themes depending on your tastes. Available on iOS and Android.

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