Using mobile apps to turn your new year’s resolutions into lasting behaviour change

Industry Insights


Dr Laura Meade and Fernanda Trevisan


For many, the start of the new year brings the proclamation of aspirational health related goals. But as 2021 forges on, over half of us will have cast those resolutions aside; the exercise goals forgotten, the new diet plan abandoned, and the daily meditation neglected. However, instead of seeing this as a missed opportunity, view it as a time for goal adjustment and reinvigoration.

The regular evaluation of our goal progression is an important step along the way to goal attainment.1 It is an opportunity to reflect on what has been working, and perhaps more importantly, not working.

The bucket of self-regulation

To maintain behaviours, we must continually manage our impulses and compare current behaviours to our desired behaviours (also known as self-regulation).2 The evaluation of behaviours acts as a feedback loop. This means that the behaviour evaluation acts as a trigger for the subsequent behaviour.2 This constant evaluation and impulse control takes energy that can start to wane over time. Think of it as a bucket of water. Every morning you start with a full bucket. Each effortful decision you make in line with your goal causes a little bit of water to slosh out of your bucket. By the end of the day, your bucket is empty, and you are reaching for the crisps while binge watching Netflix. Like training a muscle, it takes time and patience to work towards long term endurance.

The good news is, there are ways you can support your efforts to avoid depleting your self-regulation bucket.

Keeping your bucket full

Mobile applications (apps) provide an accessible platform to enable the continuous engagement and re-engagement with a goal.3 Research has found that apps that support self-regulation may promote engagement with physical activity goals.4 Therefore, seeking out apps that allow you to tailor to your goals, provide feedback on behaviour and identify when you are diverging from your goal, may be the best option to support your goal progression and engagement.4,5 Another effective technique is to use the app reminders functionality. Research shows that reminders keep users engaged with an app for longer.6 But it is important to find the right dose. Receiving too many reminders may have the opposite effect and become burdensome.6 It may be useful to look for apps that allow you to tailor the reminders to when your self-regulation efforts normally start to waver.

Ultimately, people are more likely to reach and maintain behavioural goals if they have effective strategies to overcome barriers.7 So now is as good a time as ever to reflect on your recent behaviours and explore the many tools available to help preserve some water in your bucket and keep you progressing towards your goals.

Some of our favourite apps

Here at Sprout, we have explored a number of different apps to help us stick to our goals. Here are some of our favourites:

Exercise: Strava

Why we like it: The accountability to go for a run with your peers. Getting kudos from your followers for runs makes you want to do it again!

Nutrition: MyFitness Pal

Why we like it: It gives you reminders to log your food and makes it easy to scan food barcodes. It also adjusts calorie allowance according to your level of activity and provides a community forum to connect with other users.

Mindfulness: 1 Giant Mind

Why we like it: Invites you for a 30-day meditation challenge and sends encouraging messages. It takes you through a journey of various gamified steps where each step builds upon the previous, so you notice your progress.

  1. Harkin, B., Webb, T. L., Chang, B. P. I., Prestwich, A., Conner, M., Kellar, I., Benn, Y., & Sheeran, P. (2016). Does monitoring goal progress promote goal attainment? A meta-analysis of the experimental evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 142(2), 198–229.
  2. Vohs, K. & Baumeister, R. (2016) Handbook of self-regulation: research, theory, and applications, 3rd Ed. Guildford Press
  3. Lin, Z., Althoff, T., Leskovec, J. (2018). I’ll be back: on the multiple lives of users of a mobile activity tracking application. Proceedings of the 2018 World Wide Web Conference, 1501–1511,
  4. Baretta, D., Bondaronek, P., Direito, A., & Steca, P. (2019). Implementation of the goal-setting components in popular physical activity apps: Review and content analysis. Digital health5, 2055207619862706.
  5. Direito, A., Tooley, M., Hinbarji, M., Albatal, R.,  Yannan, J.,  Whittaker, R.,Maddison, R. (2020). Tailored daily activity: an adaptive physical activity smartphone intervention, Telemedicine and e-Health, vol. 26, no. 4, pp. 426-437, doi: 10.1089/tmj.2019.0034.
  6. Perski, O., Blandford, A., West, R., & Michie, S. (2017). Conceptualising engagement with digital behaviour change interventions: a systematic review using principles from critical interpretive synthesis. Translational behavioral medicine7(2), 254-267.
  7. Kwasnicka, D., Dombrowski, S., White, M., Sniehotta, F. (2016) Theoretical explanations for maintenance of behaviour change: a systematic review of behaviour theories, Health Psychology Review, 10:3, 277-296, DOI: 10.1080/17437199.2016.1151372