Wednesday, 11 April 2018

App Review: Forest

Forest is an app which claims to help improve focus and time management. Users are rewarded for leaving the Forest app open and not looking at any other apps on their phone for a set amount of time. A successful session will result in a tree growing in the users' virtual forest. More trees progressively appear as the user accumulates more successful sessions. This provides a visual reward for concentrating. Theoretically, it will help the user to concentrate on their work, study or other activity and be less distracted by temptation to look at their phone. As individual users reach certain levels, the creators of the app make a donation to Trees for the Future, an organisation that plants (real!) trees.

To begin a session, you select a time period, anywhere between 10 minutes and 2 hours, in 5-minute increments. When you tap on 'Plant', a tree or shrub is planted in your virtual forest. Over the time period, the tree slowly grows. If you look at your phone during the time period, messages such as "stop looking at at your phone!" appear. If you switch to another app, then the tree dies, and a sad, twiggy dead tree appears in your forest. If you successfully reach the end of the time period without looking at any other apps, a fully grown tree appears in your forest. You also earn in-game coins for each session, which can be spent on different kinds of trees.

The longer the session, the more elaborate the tree is. For sessions up to 20 minutes, the plant is a small shrub. From 25 minutes onwards, it's a tree, and the tree is larger and bushier the longer the duration is. This provides an incentive to concentrate for longer periods. After the session is over, you can view your forest with all the shrubs and trees you have earned. There seems to be a new forest for each week.

The app also includes an ambient sound setting. There is one included sound option: Rain in Forest. Other options can be unlocked with in-game coins. This function would be great for people who need ambient sound to help concentrate, or for meditation.

For the statistics nerd, there are plenty of charts to see how many sessions you've done, and how much time you've spent focussing over days, weeks and months. Each session can also have a label added to it, such as study, work, sport, etc. There are a set of existing labels to get you started, but they can be completely customised. This allows you to keep a record of how much time you've spent doing different activities. This function would be very handy for those who want to keep track for a weekly or monthly goal.

* The app is very flexible and can be used for many different purposes, from studying to meditation. I like to use it for timed, 10-minute drawing sessions.
* The idea of growing a forest is very appealing, and a good incentive for using the app. I prefer to use it rather than the standard timer function on my phone for things like tidying. It serves as an incentive to do the activity in the first place, not just to keep focussing on it once you've started.
* The design and colour scheme of the app fits the forest theme very well. The trees and shrubs are cute and there are quite a few to choose from once unlocked with in-game coins. Little details like being able to see the tree that will grow before the session starts, and seeing the growth in progress if I check the app during the session, help keep my motivation up.
* The ambient sound (I have only listened to 'Rain in Forest' so far) sounds rich and calming in my headphones. It doesn't have that repetitive feeling that you get from some sound tracks which seem to have a very short loop time.
* Many aspects are customisable, such as the labels for sessions, and the messages that come up if you look at the app during a session. This makes it more fun and motivational -- if, for example, you have a specific phrase that resonates with you, you can add it to the messages section.
* The creators haven't been stingy with the in-game coins -- they accumulate quite fast, though of course you can always purchase them with real-life money if you're impatient.
* Knowing that your efforts will contribute to growing a real-life tree is very rewarding.
* Lots of customisable charts satisfy the statistics nerd in me.
* It's possible to link your account to friends, but I haven't explored this option so far.

* The function to select the session length is a little awkward. The dial looks good and reminds me of old-style ipods, but it's a little awkward to select the time I want.
* You have to create an account if you want to contribute to planting a real-life tree. (All sharing settings are set to 'off' by default though, so the creators seem to be aware of safety and privacy.)
* The default forest view is the 'Today' forest (sessions I've done that day), whereas I'd prefer to see the 'This Week' forest by default. There doesn't seem to be a way to change this.
* The app only prevents you from looking at other apps on your phone, it doesn't prevent you from becoming distracted in other ways (staring out the window, talking to someone, etc). To be fair, I don't know how any app could do that!

The minuses are just niggling details though, and are far outweighed by the pluses. Forest is a lot of fun and has been a great help in motivating me to do various different activities. It's been compared to the Pomodoro (25-minute interval) timer technique, but I think it's more than just a timer. As I mentioned above, I've found it actually motivates me to do activities that I might otherwise have procrastinated on, like tidying and meditation. The prospect of being able to grow a tree while I do these things makes them much more appealing. It's even helped me to be on time for work, as it stops me from checking my emails and playing games as I'm getting ready.

Forest was AU$2.99 from the Apple App Store and is also available on Android.

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