I’m obsessed with my virtual trees.
I’ve been planting them for two weeks now, ever since I wrote a story about a growing group of rebel developers trying to wean us off our addiction to smartphones and social media. Their answer to the problem: a new type of app.
You should try this one called Forest, several of them urged me.
The app plants a virtual tree on your phone whenever you put it down to focus on work or other activities. But the second you pick the phone back up, the tree withers and dies.
The first day I tried Forest, I ended up with a virtual wasteland, littered with sad, dead stumps.
It felt like an indictment — not just of my digital habits and attention span, but my personal values. Was I really so easily distracted and lacking in self-control?
The more I interviewed these rebel developers about their new “digital wellness” movement, the more self-conscious I got about my own addict tendencies.
As a reporter who has filed stories from natural disasters, mass shootings, authoritarian countries and revolutions, I treat my phone with the overly protective, emotional intensity many reserve for their firstborn child. At certain points in my life, that rectangular lump in my pocket has seemed like the last remaining lifeline to civilization and all I hold dear.
But here’s the other reason I felt a growing embarrassment the more I talked to experts about digital addictions.
I watch YouTube. Like a lot.
At night, after covering mayhem of all sorts at work, I've been known to zone out on viral videos for hours on end: Carpool Karaoke. That lady laughing uncontrollably in a Chewbacca mask. Celebrities facing off in ridiculous lip-sync battles. They are my kryptonite.
“You know what keeps people watching?” a former Silicon Valley developer told me in one interview. “It’s the infinite scroll.”
Innovations like infinite scroll are the reason Facebook feeds have no bottom. Why Netflix cues up a second episode even as credits are rolling on the first. They are what allows me sit there like a sack of potatoes while one YouTube clip autoplays after another, without me even having to touch the screen.
I asked the developer how to break free of lures like infinite scroll, and he rattled off a list of apps. With each interview, the list got longer.
Many developers suggested apps to block out specific websites or programs — Freedom, Self-control, AppDetox, cold turkey and StayFocusd. I tried installing one called “Block Site,” which lets you blacklist websites from your web browser. First on the my list, of course, was YouTube.
I tried a few other anti-addiction apps, too.
My initial disaster on the tree-planting app had a surprising effect. Seeing that vast expanse of dead trees on my phone was like being slapped across the face with a gauntlet. I was determined to do better.
After a few days, the trees became an obsession. I started arranging my lunch breaks and even bathroom breaks around my tree time. Whenever I saw a handful of minutes left on my tree timer, I tried to squeeze in a little more work here and there to ensure my little conifers would grow to completion.
Another app I found myself using daily was Moment, which tracks the number of hours you spend on your phone and specific apps.
It works like a Fitbit for iPhones. And when you use your phone for an especially long stretch, an alert pops up suggesting a break. It allows you to turn your screen time into a game, challenging you to divert more and more until you feel back in control.
The first week felt constricting at first, then strangely freeing. My hours on YouTube loomed large on a bar graph — tsk-tsking me like a nosy, judgmental friend. But I could also see the steady drumbeat of progress in my daily habits.
I started deep in the red — spending over four hours a day on my phone and picking it up 96 times. By the end of the week, I was down to 1 hour 13 minutes, and 40 picks a day.
Buoyed by the progress, I called a professor who has spent her career researching consumer behavior and asked her how effective such solutions are over time. It all depends how much you're able to stay focused on your long-term goals, she replied.
The struggle I’m experiencing, she said, is an age-old battle between vice and virtue (e.g. eating that bacon-maple doughnut vs. losing those pesky 10 pounds).
Vice is always rooted in short-term thinking, she explained, while virtue is rooted in the long term. We as humans often try to bridge the gulf between the two with self-control tricks. Like deep sleepers who put their alarm clock in the next room. Or smokers who buy their cigarettes one pack at a time to curb their habit.
“They’re basically creating a self-control app,” the professor said. The problem with such strategies is that their effect often diminishes over time, until one day — like a necklace you’ve worn for years — you aren’t even aware of its weight or significance anymore.
That didn't bode well for my YouTube habits, I told her. I asked what she does — as an expert who has studied the irrational behavior of humans for more than two decades — to ward off the lure of websites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
After a pause, she admitted, “I might not be a good example."
"When I have a really big paper to write,” she said, “I change all my passwords to random digits I won’t remember.”
“Then I hide it in a drawer.”
An even longer pause.
“I hide it in a drawer at home so that even if I want to check at work, I won’t be able to,” she finally said. “I just don’t trust myself or my self-control. So I’ve decided to just be realistic about it.”