The hardest part about breaking my smartphone addiction, I think, is the sheer breadth of things I could be doing on my phone at any given moment. There are texts, and personal e-mails, and work e-mails, and various iterations of DMs to tend to. There are breaking news alerts to open, new podcast episodes to download, flash sales to peruse, and unlikely animal friendship videos to like on Twitter. On Sundays, I zealously monitor my fantasy football team's performance; on any other day of the week, I might open the app and just look at my roster, mulling over inane start-sit decisions I'm certain to get wrong anyway. There are one million potential distractions, and my phone enables all of them to succeed, one after the other. My thumbs usually ache by the end of the day.
For me, the allure of the smartphone lies in the immediacy of the fulfillment it provides, delivering a bottomless supply of free answers to any old question my curious, wandering mind might ask. (Are there cheap flights to the Bay right now? Who made the NBA All-Star Game in 2006? What does Wikipedia say about Blackbeard?) It's like drinking from an information firehose, and especially during leisure time, none of the usual alternatives feel quite as engaging as they once did. I'll pick a movie and get bored after 20 minutes, and then try another and bail on that one, too, when I realize I've been scrolling through Twitter instead. For months, the books I bought in moments of determined optimism slowly piled up on my desk, and sometimes made their way to permanent resting places on the shelf before I ever cracked them open.
An emerging body of research reveals how harmful this sort of behavior can be for a human's mental and physical health. Scientists have observed correlations between smartphone usage and depression, and memory impairment, and feelings of loneliness, isolation, and anxiety. "Phubbing"—a portmanteau describing the phenomenon of snubbing a person in favor of a phone—erodes interpersonal relationships and inhibits effective communication. Using a smartphone releases dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with experiencing pleasure and seeking out new information, which creates feedback loops in which the brain learns to crave more input from the same source. The sounds and vibrations that accompany each push alert can function as Pavlovian stimuli, causing dopamine levels to spike all by themselves. Users are wrecking their hands, too, stretching tendons and contorting fingers to maximize their scrolling and tapping capabilities. Doctors sometimes refer to this self-induced repetitive stress injury as "smartphone thumb." In extreme cases, it can require surgery.
I am very aware of these facts, and tried many different strategies in an effort to loosen my grip on my grip on my phone. Earlier this year, I turned off notifications for just about everything, and got rid of the pulse-quickening ding that once signaled a new e-mail's arrival. I muted group texts, and deleted the apps for Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter from my phone. On occasion, I would banish it to the other room for the evening to prevent another round of aimless second-screening.
As it turns out, I didn't particularly miss Facebook, because my Facebook feed is now just distant relatives sharing inscrutable memes and high school acquaintances promoting multi-level marketing businesses. That was an exception. Without push notifications, the act of unlocking my phone became sort of like unwrapping a Christmas present, and I grew to eagerly anticipate the exciting badges and alerts awaiting me on the other side. I never went more than three days without reinstalling Twitter. After my most recent surrender, I decided to at least set a 90-minute limit for social media apps, and then blew through it over and over. I purposefully avoid looking at my Screen Time statistics, because what I do not know can't disappoint me. My improvised attempts at self-care were a series of failures.
And then I found Forest.
The premise of Forest, which costs $1.99 in the App Store, is very simple and more than a little silly. You use the app to "plant" a virtual cartoon tree, and decide in advance how long it will take for said cartoon tree to grow. You can opt for as little as ten minutes, or as long as two hours. But once that clock is ticking, the app's "Deep Focus Mode" requires you to allow that time interval to elapse before using your phone for anything else. If you plant a 45-minute tree and then decide to open Instagram after 15 minutes, for example, your nascent sapling withers and dies. Only finishing out the remaining half-hour will yield a sturdy evergreen.
Critically, Forest doesn't lock me out of my phone altogether. If I simply cannot go another minute without answering a text or ordering toilet paper on Amazon, as the case may be, that's a choice I can make. But if I decide to give up, the app issues one last reminder of the dire consequences of doing so. "Are you sure?" Forest asks me, plaintively. "Your cute little tree will die." It is a tiny barrier to phubbing and scrolling and rechecking for another digital dopamine hit where none previously existed, and it forces me to think hard about whether whatever I'm about to is (1) necessary and (2) urgent—or whether it can wait until after I add a new feature to my carefully-curated garden. Enforcement of the rules isn't particularly draconian, either. If I accidentally leave the app, Forest extends the benefit of the doubt and a brief grace period in which I can retreat to safety: "Click here to get back to Forest immediately to prevent the tree from dying!"
Of course, failing to cultivate a virtual grove would have no effect on my everyday life. But neither did letting a Tamagatchi die, and yet first-grade me still felt real sorrow and guilt and remorse when I irresponsibly left mine at home one weekend when my family went on a road rip. Forest essentially game-ifies the process of breaking a smartphone addiction, exploiting some of the very same dynamics that make these devices so addictive in the first place: Nurturing another tree to maturity elicits a satisfying little dopamine hit in its own right. I am low-key proud of this ever-expanding arboretum, a visual manifestation of my accomplishments. I'm also happier, more productive, and less anxious in the rest of my life.
I confess that there are still few dead trees scattered throughout my forest. The urge to scroll can be overpowering at times, and Wikipedia isn't going to browse itself. But more often than not, putting another seed in the ground functions as a gentle reminder that I don't ever really need to check my fantasy scores, or live-tweet the Democratic debate, or chime in in the group thread. Instead, while my forest grows, I can watch the game, really listen to candidates debate policies, or put the phone down to read an actual book. That, and my thumbs now hurt a lot less.
In a single summer, the Team USA co-captain went toe to toe with the president, achieved World Cup glory, and became a swaggering symbol of American excellence.
Originally Appeared on GQ