While we work hard to bring you different ways to hack your technology to make it more efficient and enjoyable, sometimes the most helpful hack of all is just staying off of it - especially our smartphones. So last week, I tried to find an app that would encourage more mindful phone use.
I settled on three contenders: Moment, Mute and Forest. Moment and Mute are trackers that "analyse" the time you spend on your phone, and let you set limits for different apps or times if you download the premium version for $5.99. Forest, which costs $2.99 for iOS, actively helps you stay off your phone for a set amount of time. You select a time period, say 20 minutes or an hour, and the app "grows" a tree that dies if you go on your phone during that time. If you stay off, you can build a digital forest.
I consider myself reasonably self-controlled and less tech-reliant than a lot of people my age, and yet throughout the week, I caught myself reaching for my phone while I was doing something else, almost as a reflex. To do what, I'm not sure. Check the time? Look at the new push notifications? Simply feel its weight? When I noticed I was doing it, I couldn't say why, and so I put it back down.
Still, I spent a decent amount of time on my phone, a fact the apps were all too eager to remind me of. Constantly. Here's what else they found.
If you already feel even somewhat guilty for the amount of time you spend on your phone, I can't say I recommend installing either Moment or Mute, which are unforgiving.
Of the two, I liked Moment more than Mute, which seemed to be more accurate (though they each had issues). One example: I woke up at 7:30AM on Tuesday. By 8:12AM, as I was on the train, Mute told me I had already spent an hour on my phone that day. You can imagine my confusion, as I had not been awake for an hour yet (was I sleep tweeting?) and presumably I had spent some time getting ready without my phone glued to my hand.
Later that same day, Mute reported I had spent over two hours on my phone, while Moment read just 30 minutes. Considering I read a book on the train and had been working on an article all morning, I'm taking Moment's word for it.
This continued for the rest of the week. Every time I even glanced at my phone, I was worried the apps would count it against me. Every hour you use your phone, you get a notification like the one above, with a judgmental emoji shaming you for smartphone usage. I don't need that kind of negativity in my life.
As an already anxious person, I will not continue to use these apps (Mute has already been deleted), especially at work, where I often need to use my phone to test apps (ahem) and use it to listen to Spotify or podcasts throughout the day.
Another thing I don't like about Mute: To access the app, you need to give it permission to track your location at all times, not just when you're using it. No thanks.
That said, I do really like Forest. I find that it's a much more useful, less stress-inducing way to get stuff done, and it's fun to watch my digital forest grow as I plant new trees and bushes. Lifehacker's own Beth Skwarecki uses it at night when she's playing with her kids; I've used it to focus on getting work done (and I may cheat and occasionally plant a tree while doing things where I can't be on my phone, such as exercise).
And if you pick up your phone, whether out of habit, like I did, or to actually use it while your tree is growing, the app gives encouraging messages to put it back down. Each time your tree grows, you get coins that you can use to purchase different varieties of trees to add diversity to your forest.
All told, the clear winner for me was Forest. While Moment and Mute (especially) made me feel a general sense of shame every time I used my phone, I liked Forest because it felt like a game. I was less tempted to go on my phone because I just wanted my little trees to grow.