How to Use Gamification to Break Our Addiction to Our Phones

At a party I went to last month — comprised of 20- and 30-somethings — roughly 10% of the attendees could be found huddled over their phones at any given moment, completely withdrawn from the social scene.

I hate to admit it, but at this particular party I was one of those people. Like many, I sometimes struggle to stay present in social situations when my phone beckons with a stream of notifications.

Addiction to technology is nothing new, and rituals such as placing phones face down in the center of the dinner table have emerged to help combat the temptation to use technology at inappropriate times. But it’s not enough — the problem seems to be growing.

Nir Eyal, an expert on what makes technology so addictive, implores us to adjust our social norms to prevent this kind of withdrawn behavior. For example, on the topic of friends who use their phones when they should be present with the group, Nir advises, “The goal is to snap the offender out of the phone zone, and to give him two options: either excuse himself to attend to whatever crisis is happening, or put away the tech.”

In an ideal world, we’d live in a society that has developed such norms and traditions that discourage excessive phone use at inappropriate times. Perhaps some day we’ll get there — but why wait?

Perhaps there’s something we could do today to incentivize ourselves to be more present with our friends, loved ones, and the limited amount of time we have left on this planet?

Enter Forest.

Forest is a handy little app that works like the pomodoro technique, but with a small, gamified twist. As you accomplish 25 minute bursts of work (or any duration you wish), you earn trees that you can plant in a digital forest. If you open a notification or close the Forest app for any reason while the timer is running, your tree dies and you have to start over.

This little bit of gamification goes a long way. By far, Forest has been the most effective app I’ve used to date (and I’ve tried dozens) to keep my phone habits at bay.forestapp

I mostly use Forest for maintaining deep focus when I’m writing, coding, or learning. But Forest has a useful secondary purpose: social situations.

Because Forest works by preventing you from checking notifications or opening apps on your phone for a length of time, it works amazingly well for social gatherings.

I recently attended a meetup where this came in handy. I was one of the first to arrive; I didn’t know the early attendees very well. When this happens, I often fall into the trap of playing around on my phone until people I know arrive to help break the ice. But this time around, before entering the event, I set a Forest timer for 45 minutes. Even though it’s technically just a silly game where the goal is to grow trees in your forest, it was the intention I set by using Forest that made all the difference.

By explicitly setting my intention before entering the event, Forest acted as a reminder to stay mindful of my urges to escape into my phone. With that reminder in place, I had nothing left to do but take a deep breath and start introducing myself to the people in the room. Because of this, the night was significantly more enjoyable.

In both our work and social lives, our phones are sapping us of our presentness. While focus apps aren’t a silver bullet, I’ve found that some apps (like Forest) give enough of a nudge to make a noticeable difference. And in the fight to reclaim our lives as they’re happening, every ally counts.

Jon’s Note: What do you think? How can we use small incentives and useful apps to keep us in the present moment amongst friends and loved ones? *Please share this post if you found it interesting.*

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