Software reviews: Creating a new you the mobile apps way

Whether your goal for the New Year is to lose bad habits, such as smoking, acquire good ones, or learn a new skill, there’s probably an app that can help.


Habit tracking and reinforcement

Many of us want to acquire more good habits, not least because they are a key part of self-improvement – indeed, if you want to keep those New Year’s resolutions past the end of January, they need to turn into habits. Yet all too often it seems as if the only habits we pick up easily are the bad ones, so how can we make it easier for the good ones to stick as well?

The answer for many software developers is of course that ubiquitous device, the smartphone. After all, it is already the source of several of our modern bad habits, such as constant message checking or substituting photography for the here and now.

Habitica takes it a step further by adding another modern aspect: gamification. The idea is that by adding a game element – and it has chosen a Dungeons & Dragons type of role-playing game – improving your habits becomes part of a quest in which your tasks are monsters that you battle to win gold and points; conversely you can set yourself up to lose points for unwanted behaviours such as browsing unproductive websites. Your winnings can be swapped either for in-game benefits or for your own personalised rewards such as letting yourself watch your favourite TV show.

Habitica sends you notifications and reminders, but of course, like all things related to self-improvement, it relies on honesty in setting up and maintaining your tasks and habits, and on you getting into the spirit of the game. The best way to help with that is to link up with other players – you can contact existing users via Habitica’s guilds, either to get advice or to join a quest. It can also be used by groups or families, where their game characters form parties or guilds to help and challenge each other.

The basic game is free to play on the web or via Android and iOS apps, but you can also buy in-game treasure, and there are paid corporate plans for organisations who want to explore Habitica’s possibilities for employee engagement and motivation. It may look a little basic to players more familiar with World of Warcraft or Skylanders, but it can be rather more personally productive!

If you prefer graphs to games, an alternative might be a more straightforward app such as Loop Habit Tracker, which is both free and advert-free on Android. Again this relies on honesty, as you set yourself regular targets or goals, get reminders, and then check them off as you complete them. A goal could be to get into the habit of waking early every day, say, or reading a book at least twice a week. Habit schedules can be simple or more complex, and it can also send reminders to a linked Android smartwatch.

Loop then shows you your recent performance graphically, along with a tick-sheet of accomplishments. As time goes by, it also shows how your performance has improved (or not!), to give an indication of which goals are becoming habitual.


3 Sided Cube

First aid by British Red Cross

Free on Android, iOS and Windows Phone

First aid is a great choice for anyone looking to self-improve by learning something new and useful, and even those who have already done first aid courses need to refresh their skills periodically. This free app from the British Red Cross lets you do all of that, and with all the information stored on your phone, so it doesn’t need a network connection.

It starts with a section covering 17 different emergencies, from anaphylaxis and choking to hypothermia and stroke. Mainly aimed at the uninitiated, this gives symptoms where appropriate, your best first course of action, and then advice on if and when you should call 999 – in fact there are call-buttons to 999 all the way through. In each case there is also a short video and a link to learn more. 

The latter takes you to the Learn section. This repeats the aid advice, adding more detail – other symptoms, say, or information on how that injury or illness occurs and on other things you could do to help. A third section then covers preparation for various events and risks – what to do and not to do during flooding, for example, what to carry, and related first aid topics.

Lastly there is a test section, with quizzes to see if you have been paying attention, plus information on the British Red Cross and its work, which of course includes first aid training. After all, a smartphone app is very useful, but it is never going to replace proper training.

There is also a second British Red Cross app focused on first aid for children and babies, and several other organisations also publish good free first aid apps, most notably the UK’s St John Ambulance. The latter is a little more technical than the Red Cross equivalent, but also covers a bit more ground.



30 Day Fitness Challenge

Free on Android with ads or £2.80

Getting fit – or fitter – is a resolution or goal for many of us, but we don’t all have the time or inclination to join a gym, or the money to pay for a personal trainer. Back in the day, you might have bought a fitness book (as opposed to an exercise book!), but today there are apps instead, and the most interesting of these are the 30 Day Fitness Challenges.

I say ‘challenges’ because there’s actually a whole raft of 30 Day Fitness apps, with examples available on pretty much every platform – the 30-day theme seems to be a popular one with fitness instructors. There is also a website of the same name with some good tutorials and videos – all the exercises are standard ones, so take a look at it, whichever app you choose. It even features healthy recipes.

Most of the apps look very similar to each other, but of the many options available we preferred the version from Hong Kong developer Northpark.Android, which also happens to be the most-installed app of this type on the Google Play store. Its advantages include a wider range of fitness choices than most others, plus while all of them build up your exercises over the 30 days to keep you improving, this one also keeps track of your weight.

At heart, all these apps are just to-do engines with reminders; it is the detail and motivation wrapped around them that makes the difference. In this case, that includes a daily schedule and a tracker where you tick off each day’s activities as you complete them.

For other platforms, consider the equivalent apps from Jozic Productions which are available on iOS and Windows Phone as well as Android. If you want more challenge options, take a look at the 30 Day Fit app from Foamy Media instead – that’s the company behind the website. It is a bit more pricey, but it is attractively designed, with more exercises and tutorials.


David Crane

Smoke Free

Free or £4.99 on Android, Apple

By the time you decide to stop smoking, you will already have had an internal dialogue and come to the personal conclusion that you want to stop. For a few of us that decision is enough on its own, but for the majority it is now a matter of how we buttress that internal decision externally, and get the necessary external motivation and support.

Everyone weights their own external motivations differently. For instance, for some people money is paramount, while for others peer approval or good health matter more. So you need to work out what motivates you and look for tools that support you appropriately. Fortunately that isn’t too hard as there are plenty to choose from.

One that both covers a lot of ground here and trumpets its scientific grounding is David Crane’s Smoke Free. It will compare your savings to date to a target that you set, such as the cost of a new bike or car. It also calculates your expected health benefits and the paid Pro version lets you track the severity of your cravings to see them decline.

It provides milestones too, with badges that you can share on social networks, advice on things you can do to resist the cravings to turn back, and daily missions to help you stay motivated – though again, you will need the Pro version after the first week.

Lastly, the developer is also doing some interesting research into how people try to give up, for instance assessing the helpfulness of using nicotine replacements or e-cigarettes. App users can opt in to take part anonymously, if they are willing.

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