It’s a bit ironic — a smartphone app intended to help people cut down on smartphone use — but within the first few days of using Onward I could tell I needed it.
Onward is an app that monitors screen time and issues daily, weekly, and monthly reports that reveal how often (and in what ways) people use their phones.
The goal is to help people achieve what Onward co-founder Gabe Zichermann calls “tech-life balance.” People might not be addicted to their devices, per se, but Zichermann still recognises people may struggle with overuse — however they define it — and crave a healthier relationship with those devices.
“Onward is designed to have the minimum amount of screen time with you, and then turn you in a different direction,” he tells Business Insider.
As someone who compulsively checks Twitter or Gmail whenever I step into an elevator, wait for the subway, or generally have a few seconds free, I was anxious to give Onward a try.
This is Onward, an app that Zichermann says can help people avoid triggering situations that compel them to spend too much time on their phone -- even when they know they should avoid it.
When I first got started, I met the 'coach' who would be with me throughout my entire Onward journey, however long that lasts. The coach's name was O. It is a bot.
Unlike some other personal improvement apps, Zichermann says a bot is the right choice instead of a human because excessive screen time is highly personal.
For instance, not everyone is comfortable admitting to a stranger, even through cyberspace, how many hours of porn they watched that day.
Soon, I was presented with a sample breakdown of screen time for one day. The volume of use may seem like a lot, but Zichermann says most people are surprised by their data.
In test trials of Onward, which focused on porn consumption, people's guesses of how much time they spent on their phones were so wildly off the mark that it might as well have been random, Zichermann says.
'When you tell people that the average person picks up their a hundred-plus times per day, most people are like 'Yeah, I'm not that guy,'' he says.
Onward's goal is to hold people accountable to their actual, not perceived, use.
After some introductions, which were all prompted replies that I didn't actually type in, O bid me farewell until the next morning, when I would receive my first report.
Reports are an important factor in the Onward process, Zichermann says. They give people category-specific breakdowns of their smartphone use.
People can see how much time they spend on entertainment, games, communication, social media, porn, dating, and more. All I had to do for the next 24 hours was use my phone as normal. Onward would collect the data silently in the background.
I'll admit it: I was pretty excited to see how much (or little) time I'd spent on my phone the next day. Maybe I was trying to impress the bot, but I made a conscious decision not to use my phone as much.
The check-in video was a montage of positive-vibe clips and some trimphant music.
As Zichermann first explained and Onward told me every day during my trial period, consistency is at the heart of the system. 'Showing up is half the battle,' O tells me when I check in each day.
(I'll come to learn the check-ins end the same way, too, with Onward asking if I can commit to coming back the next day. Every time I said Yes. How hard was a one-minute check-in?)
I was pleasantly surprised. The 19 minutes I spent on social media were almost certainly mindless Twitter scrolling, and the nine minutes on news were the articles I actually clicked through.
Before O shows you the daily report, it tells you how much 'unwanted screen time' you logged during the last 24 hours and compares that amount to your daily average.
Zichermann says the 'unwanted' part is based on the algorithm, which learns users' specific patterns of use over time. Since most people are so bad at estimating their own usage, he says it didn't make sense to build a goals feature in the app. Any goal would be mostly arbitrary.
On my second day, I learned about Smart Filters. Onward let me set blocks on problem apps or sites for all of the day except 15 minutes, during which I could use them as much as I wanted.
The blocks are determined by the user, so technically I could disable them whenever I want. But in the true spirit of the process I let the Twitter block stand until 7:30pm, when I allow myself 15 minutes to resume scrolling.
The Smart Filter ended up being the most insightful part of the app for me. I've made active efforts to curb Twitter use, but I didn't realise just how quickly I'd turn to it during some down time until I couldn't refresh my feed.
That was a wake-up call.
Here's what my feed looked like with the block on. Even if I scroll down to refresh the timeline, the app behaved as if it were up-to-date. Avatars were also grayed out.
Zichermann concedes that Onward isn't meant to block people at all costs. Nor would he want it to, he says.
'If we put in too many roadblocks, you might just be inclined to delete Onward. And if you delete Onward, we then can't help you.'
Instead, the app is designed in such a way that if someone wanted to disable the Smart Filter, it would take them a bit of time, during which they are apt to realise their compulsion and reconsider.
In the event I felt overwhelmed with my compulsion, I could press the HELP button near the top of the screen. That opened a menu of options.
If you select 'I'm feeling triggered,' the app asks you to measure the strength of your urge on a scale of 1-4, with 4 being 'Very strong urge.' It then prompts you to discuss the pros and cons of changing your behaviour.
I never felt so compelled to ask for help organically, but in trying out the function it asks me to describe, in my own words, what some of the benefits of changing my behaviour might be. The idea is to get the user to recall the reasons they may have for altering their behaviour in the first place.
Periodically, Onward also equipped me with certain skills I could use if I was feeling triggered to act out.
Throughout my brief trial, I learned some calming breathing techniques and was asked to share my mission with friends and families, reinforcing the accountability.
I decided to spare them of my pursuits, but Onward still encouraged me to consider the importance of seeking solidarity. Loneliness is all too common in these matters, O tells me.
After several days, I learned some valuable lessons about how I use my phone, which was reflected in my near-week-long usage of Onward.
Not having Twitter readily available at each quiet moment was difficult, but realising it was a challenge at all was even more discomfiting. It felt like minor withdrawal, which I didn't think I'd experience going into this.
One note on the data: Since Twitter is the only social media app I use, I'm not sure where the 3.3 hours comes from. I only used the 7:30pm time slot once, and I never disabled the Smart Filter. Onward held me so accountable, I doubt I'm underestimating my usage by that much.
Lastly, even in the brief time I used the app I can tell I enjoy using Twitter less. It's less magnetic, and I'm more often content to enjoy my surroundings -- instead of immediately reaching for my phone.
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