Cut your phone dependence with an app that plants trees as a reward

Gaze at something other than your screen.
Gaze at something other than your screen.
Image: el
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You can’t help it. You check your phone constantly, forever sneaking a peak, seeking distraction, and the more you do it, the more distracted you become. Don’t feel bad—it’s a common problem that can be solved with the help of technology.

Use your your phone to cultivate the focus it erodes by downloading an app designed to curb tech dependence and reward the environment for your presence. Published by Shaokan Pi, a Chinese app maker, Forest users grow a virtual forest by not fiddling with their phones during designated times they set, and thus earn virtual currency to purchase real trees.

How Forest works.
Check Facebook and your tree dies.
Image: Forest

Forest is ranked among the top five productivity apps on Apple’s App Store in 85 countries, according to Sensor Tower. User reviews are generally enthusiastic, calling it “a godsend” and claiming it results in “a sharp increase in productivity.” One 3-star review, however, noted that it’s a “cool idea” but growing a virtual garden made the user anxious about the death of his fake trees when he failed to concentrate.

More commonly, Forest gets five star reviews from users. For example, someone going by the handle “umbrr” on Oct. 24 asked, “Who knew that the key to being productive was to incentivize time well spent with a garden of digital trees?” An Oct. 25 App Store review from Savannah Mary, was similarly positive, exclaiming:

I needed Forest so badly and I never realized it until I got it. This app helps me stay present and focused better than any other app or productivity tool I’ve ever used! Truly a gift! And the social responsibly aspect—planting trees, REAL trees! Couldn’t get any better.

The Forest app.
Come back later, friend.
Image: Shaokan Pi

These real trees are planted through Maryland nonprofit Trees for the Future. The organization works with farming families in five African countries—Senegal, Cameroon, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda—on reforestation and commercial cultivation training.

John Leary, the organization’s executive director, spoke to Quartz about the collaboration with Forest and the people who are planting the trees in Africa through his program. Forest first came out in China in 2014 and proved popular. Two years later, ahead of release in the US and elsewhere, the app maker sought an international partner that could efficiently and sustainably plant many trees, showing users real-life results to inspire and motivate them.

Trees for the Future does that. Families who graduate from the four-year training program in African countries earn four times more annually than before their training in crop diversification and reforestation. Over the 15 years from when the first pilot began in Senegal, the program has proven that its growers have more and better food, all while preventing soil depletion and over-farming of common cash- crops.

The extra earnings that come from diversification also have a profound social impact on farming families and their communities.  Jean Baptiste Nitcheu, a farmer in Bakassa, Cameroon, explains, “I have four kids, with the money I gain, I send them to school.”

In 2018, Trees for the Future will graduate 3,200 families. Leary hopes they will contribute to better long-term nutrition, stronger economies and communities, and environmental improvement.

The project also influences migration. Young people who don’t want to be peanut farmers earning peanuts in Senegal, say, leave home and go to Europe. When growers plant a variety of trees, however, and start earning up to 500% more than before, they are inspired to stay and improve their communities, Leary says.

Forest app screen.
The virtues of growing a diverse garden are many.
Image: Forest App

He argues that over the long term, this type of development can help to eradicate hunger, poverty, and deforestation while being more sustainable than, for example, a micro-finance project that lends locals money to make products bought with imported materials and that are then sold abroad. By showing people how to earn more, keeping that money in their own countries, and protecting the land, benefits can accumulate exponentially over time.

Forest app users have contributed to planting 201,608 trees through the program as of this writing (a count is kept on the Forest website). Leary hasn’t helped that number grow through his own app use. He started the cultivator-training project as a forestry volunteer in the Peace Corps in Senegal in 2001 and has been working on it ever since, so he’s obviously capable of commitment and focus. He’s helped to grow thousands of trees in real life. Still, he admits that growing virtual trees on the app—by not fiddling with his phone—is difficult for him.

The cultivation of focus is growing trees.
The cultivation of focus is growing trees.
Image: Trees for the Future

On the app, right now, he’s not earning enough virtual currency to plant any real trees. Leary recommends it anyway, saying it makes him pay attention to just how distracted he really is. “I’m having a hard time with my garden because I always end up checking my phone like ten minutes before the time,” he says. “Then it tells me to get back to work but I check the web.”