The internet is filled to the brim with opportunities to learn new things. But even if you have the willpower to push forward without the direct guidance of a teacher, it’s hard to dedicate the five to ten hours a week a lot of these courses require to stay on track. Plus, without regular positive feedback, your initial motivation could take a quick nosedive.
This is why apps like Duolingo are so wildly popular. The app constantly praises you when you get questions right, and incentivizes you to keep going with gamified features like badges, levels, and a points system with leaderboards and streaks. If you start to slack off, the app’s mascot owl Duo nudges you to keep going—often to a memeably aggressive degree. And it’s hard not to give into the app’s psychological tricks when the lessons are bite-sized, and the difference between losing your 300+ day streak and starting over from scratch, takes just five minutes of work.
Fortunately, other apps have learned from Duolingo’s dopamine-generating ways, so if you’re looking to add a low-pressure, high-reward new app to your daily mental workout routine, there are plenty to pick from.
Learning how to code
[Related: The best apps and sites to learn how to code]
Each course features bite-sized exercises you can do during your lunch (or even a bathroom) break, making it fairly easy to fit into a busy schedule. You’ll be getting that sweet dopamine reward for maintaining streaks and earning XP after completing lessons. But the most encouraging aspect of this app is that each course features projects that lead to tangible, real-world results—from a hand-coded personal website, to your own take on a video streaming service’s landing page. Once you’ve taken a few courses and feel comfortable with your grasp of a language, you can also freestyle in the app’s code playground, creating anything you want.
Another code learning app, SoloLearn, has a wider range of specific languages, including Ruby, React + Redux, jQuery, C#, C++, and over a dozen more. Select a language, set your experience level and preferred learning pace (anywhere from five to 20 minutes per day), and then dive into the quick, interactive lessons, which involve short articles barely longer than a tweet, followed by one or two question quizzes to test your comprehension.
Once you’ve got some basic knowledge down, you can strengthen your skills by solving real-life problems you might face when coding in a professional environment, or dive into a mini-project to test your progress. For learners with a competitive spirit, you can battle other students for experience points in one-on-one coding challenges, or you can peacefully show off code you’ve written in the coding playground and get feedback from the community.
Learning an artistic talent
During short, gamified lessons, Yousician plays a backing track while a visual tutorial tells you what chords or notes to hit. The app also listens along as you play to give you feedback in real time. It feels a bit like Guitar Hero, only, once you’ve mastered a few songs, you’ll be able to play a real instrument instead of having to lug your XBox to a party in order to serenade the crowd.
If you’re looking to learn guitar, bass, ukulele, or piano, you’ll need to already have the instrument to take full advantage of this app. But if you’re hoping to become a star singer, all you need is your vocal chords and your phone.
Sketch a Day
Practice may be the best way to hone a skill, but summoning the willpower and inspiration to draw on a daily basis can zap you of your creative energy before you ever put pen to paper. Sketch a Day takes that load off your plate by supplying you with daily challenges and tutorials.
You’ll get a new prompt every day, and once you’ve created your masterpiece, you can upload it to the app to track your progress and share with the community. Climb the leaderboard by posting impressive artwork, or hit milestones like keeping your daily streak to earn rewards.
Learning how to better relate to the world around you
If you haven’t had the privilege to work on your mental health, you may not have been introduced to the concept of emotional intelligence. This is the ability to understand the nuances of your emotions and the feelings of those around you, and using that knowledge to communicate in a more empathetic and productive way. Just like everything else on this list, emotional intelligence is a learned skill you can easily improve with practice.
eQuoo, created by a team of psychologists partnered up with the creators of The Walking Dead games, is an app that uses the choose-your-own adventure game model to teach you what emotional intelligence is and how it’s useful. For each level, the app walks you through a few basic psychological concepts that come in handy when dealing with other people. These include how to spot generalization and other cognitive distortions, or how to react to bids for attention.
You’ll then enter interactive short stories in which you’ll have to navigate difficult social situations, such as convincing a skeptical wizard to save your kingdom from attacking trolls, or investigating who has been sabotaging the underground Martian rebellion. As you progress through the game, you’ll level up, and the app will analyze choices you make throughout the game to provide you with custom insights about your personality.
This app created by the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society, allows you to turn any walk or outdoor adventure into a biological expedition. Point your phone at any wild, living creature that strikes your curiosity, and share your observations with the wider iNaturalist community to find out more about the species you found. If your pictures are clear enough, and you’ve found something of interest, scientists might even use your image in their research.
If you want to learn more about the wildlife in your area, you can search nearby observations to see what cool creatures and plants other local amatuer biologists have found, or you can search other cities, countries, or even national parks to take a digital safari.
The iNaturalist community is robust, with over three million users signed up. You can often find Meetup groups dedicated to going out and making observations together.
For many of us, it’s been a long time since high school geography class, so matching country names to their capital city or flag requires a trip to Google. With World Citizen, you can train your world knowledge with short, fast-paced quizzes, and compete with other users to earn a high score and climb the global leaderboard. Each of the 192 countries represented in the app has a link to that country’s Wikipedia page where you can learn more about their geography, history, and culture.
World Citizen: Country, Capital & Flag Trivia is free for Android.