Apps for your habits

· 5 minute read

UPDATE: Streaks has actually added all of the features I wanted since the time of publication. I’m now happily using it exclusively.

We’d all like to be more productive, but it’s far easier to stick with a daily habit like reading for at least five minutes than, say, training to run a marathon sometime in the next year. I’ve personally found these types of small, repetitive goals really easy to gamify, and if your brain is anything like mine, a few strategic dopamine deployments can really go a long way. Drinking eight glasses of water a day isn’t hard to begin with, but it’s certainly a lot easier if you’re constantly being reminded about it. And if you’re made aware that you’re actually at risk of breaking a 15 day streak, you’re even more likely to get off the couch for a refill. Obviously these streaks don’t really matter, but brains work in mysterious ways. Or at least mine does.

It’s really easy to go overboard here. In a perfect world, I’d of course like to read about current events and practice the guitar every day, but the quickest way to make sure you don’t drink those eight glasses of water is to lump them alongside a bunch of other goals that you weren’t realistically going to hit anyway. Take something like hitting a daily stand goal1; I can usually accomplish this without really thinking much about it, and on the days when I don’t, I’m usually only an hour or two short. But since missing a day isn’t particularly crucial, there’s no compelling reason for me to explicitly check how I’m doing. Going from pull (“Let me proactively see how many hours I’ve stood for today”) to push (“Hey, you need three more hours or you’re going to lose your 20 day streak”) provides enough of an impetus to do the task that was easy to begin with as long as you didn’t forget.

Like weather or to-do list applications, there are a lot of different habit trackers, which shouldn’t be surprising given that everyone responds to subtly different types of motivation. Most are pretty similar, however. Before diving in too deep, let’s take a look at a couple that aren’t really full-featured habit trackers, but interesting entries nonetheless.

Sessions and Activity++

Sessions is unique amongst the applications listed here, as it’s entirely built around setting timers for habits. If your goal is to read for five minutes each day, it’ll kick off a timer and increase your streak once it’s completed. It’s very nicely designed, and there are certainly plenty of cases in which timers are useful when performing daily habits2, but it’s not flexible enough to be a general purpose streak tracker.

Activity++ has a narrow focus; it tracks streaks and provides gorgeous visualizations for the three metrics highlighted by Apple’s Activity app – Move (active calories burned), Stand (hours in which you’ve stood and moved for at least a minute), and Exercise (minutes of “brisk activity”) – and does so automatically by integrating with HealthKit. Given the small feature set, Activity++ is a very nice application, but it frustratingly doesn’t notify you if you’re at risk of breaking a streak. There is an Apple Watch complication, but it oddly doesn’t include any streak data. I’d like to see a simple Today widget with streak information added as well.

Next, a group of apps that I found to all be pretty comparable to one another.

Habit List, Momentum, and Strides

These are all nice, and all pretty standard as far as streak tracking goes. They each provide a bevy of flexibility options (multiple times per day or week, every 2-3 days, only on Tuesdays, etc.), so depending on your needs, the specific configuration that one provides might be reason alone to use it. Habit List has my favorite design of the bunch, but Momentum has a Today widget which may give it a slight edge. I don’t personally need a desktop component, but if you do, Momentum has a Mac app and iCloud sync, while Strides (my least favorite of the three) is also available on the web.

With a few slight tweaks, either Habit List or Momentum could be sufficient, but they’re each missing at least one of the two features that I’ve since come to rely on from…

Productive and Streaks

Productive is similar to the apps outlined above, feature-wise, and sports an incredibly custom UI that I really enjoy using. But the ingenious difference is that it lets you specify when in the day you plan to perform each of your habits: in the morning/afternoon/evening, or anytime. It also let’s you indicate which specific hours your morning, afternoon, and evening are comprised of3.

Why? If you only perform a certain habit (e.g. flossing) at night, there’s no need for your homescreen to show a badge all day indicating that you haven’t done it yet. I’m pretty conservative about app icon badges – I think important ones should be noticeable and jarring, which means not letting unimportant ones dilute their prominence. Productive lets me do exactly this, which makes up for the fact that it doesn’t offer a Today widget or a Watch complication.

Productive showing no habits dueProductive showing your habits due later tonight
Productive doesn’t bother showing you habits that you don’t need to (or can’t) perform yet.

The easiest habits to track are the ones that get automatically tracked for you. While Streaks allows you to enter custom habits as well, it’s main draw is a wide variety of built-in presets for automatically tracking based on your HealthKit data: sleeping, drinking water, weighing yourself, exercising, etc. For this reason alone, tracking your health-based habits with Streaks is a no brainer. It even has a Today widget, a Watch complication, and really nice custom Watch notifications.

Streaks showing your six tracked activities for today

The biggest problem with Streaks is that it supports a maximum of only six habits. This, combined with the aforementioned smarter badging solution that Productive employs, has me using both in conjunction with one another: Streaks for habits that can be automatically tracked via HealthKit, and Productive for everything else. And it’s working really well for me.

I don’t realistically expect Productive to add HealthKit support, or Streaks to drop its habit limit and ape Productive’s badging implementation, but if one or the other did, I’d happily consolidate.

Productivity is all about finding a system that works for you, and importantly, not trying to do too much. In my case, the combination of reminders and streak tracking helps keep me motivated and prevents me from forgetting, making it easy to keep up with simple habits that I know would otherwise lapse. As our smartphones and watches learn more and more about ourselves, the opportunities to employ systems4 that help us be better versions of ourselves is only going to increase.

  1. 12 hours per day is the Apple Watch default. 

  2. I’ve been using Timeglass for my daily reading habit. It’s from the makers of Productive, so – unsurprisingly – it’s really nicely designed. 

  3. For example, I don’t have my mornings starting until 5AM since I tend to be up pretty late at night. 

  4. Somewhat outside the bounds of a streak tracking article, but I’m a huge huge fan of Gyroscope. Pro users do have access to a Goals feature that touches on many of the same ideas discussed here.