Technology and Humanity//

I Tried the App That Helps You Take Control of Your Screen-Time and I Want More

This is “technology to help us have a better relationship with technology.”

Ever since reading about the THRIVE App, which gives you the tools to take a break from your phone, I could tell it was something I needed. I began to notice my problem with smartphone “hygiene” (read: extreme overuse) long before joining Thrive Global. Yes, full disclosure, I work for the company that created this app. But I started only recently, and had nothing to do with building the app. So I promise a brutally honest evaluation.

When I started working at Thrive, I decided I needed to at least try to practice what I preach. I’ve been working hard to be better about putting my phone away when I’m at dinner with friends and family, and I mean really away, not just face down on the table, ready to distract me with every buzz. The other week, I realized I was spending more time taking photos of my nieces and nephews than actually interacting with them. I caught myself in the moment—we usually know when what we’re doing isn’t “good”—and threw my phone across the room, only to slink over and pick it up minutes later like a dog retrieving its bone. I clearly needed help.

Not surprisingly, I jumped at this assignment. I happen to be an iPhone user, which means I won’t be able to integrate the THRIVE App into my everyday life just yet. I was handed a Samsung Galaxy Note8 to use at work and my coworkers (and a few select friends) were told to be as obnoxious as possible. They knew I was hiding my personal phone and were instructed to distract me all day.

Enter, Thrive Mode.

My first experiment was turning on Thrive Mode to focus on writing a short piece, and I was excited to finish the story completely uninterrupted. I opened the app and selected 30 minutes of “Thrive Mode.” The phone was then silent. No notifications came through and I could not access anything on the phone other than that calming moon screen, which showed the progress of my Thrive session.

Looking for an escape hatch, I tried clicking the home button. No luck. (If you really need to, you can click “End This Session” to turn off Thrive Mode at any time. But hey, I wasn’t in this to be a quitter.)

In Thrive Mode, I worked in peace for my half hour, and then some. Thrive Mode ends quietly. There’s no jarring buzz to signal its completion, nor do you get an influx of notifications from the people who tried to contact you while you were “thriving.” When my time was up, I had over 20 texts from my coworkers who had tried to distract me, but I didn’t realize Thrive Mode turned off until I received a string of new texts. Before Thrive Mode, the phone had been buzzing all day, but after a period of completely uninterrupted work, these notifications felt especially jarring.

One key feature of the app is that it’s bidirectional. The contacts who texted me while I was thriving received a message letting them know I was in Thrive Mode and when I’d be available again. Think of it as an away message for your texts.

But Thrive Mode is just the beginning of the THRIVE App experience.

The App Control section shows you how long, to the minute, you have used your phone that day and details what percentage of that time was spent on various apps, and all in an aesthetically-pleasing pie chart. Below the chart, you can see exactly how much time you’ve spent on each app and set a daily limit for any of them.

To test the App Blocking feature, I set a 10-minute limit on Instagram and began the somewhat fun and somewhat miserable experience of scrolling through my feed. In other words, the usual. A few minutes later, a little notification popped up: “You’re at 75% of your daily limit for Instagram, would you like to take a break?” At 10 minutes, the app shut down and took me back to the serene design of the THRIVE App with a notification that I had reached my daily use limit. When I tried to go back to Instagram, I found myself back in the THRIVE App. It’s a never-ending cycle of Pavlovian goodness. I can’t be the only one that desperately needs saving from those late-night Instagram deep dives that feel like five minutes but somehow delay my bedtime by 3 hours.

I discovered one of my favorite parts of the THRIVE App after my first session. When I opened my phone to see who was contacting me, I found the following message:

The THRIVE App provides these Microsteps after every session and, because the app is open on your screen when you unlock it (it is, by nature, the last app you used when you closed the phone), you aren’t exposed to your influx of messages until after this motivational message. It’s an inspiring, mindful way to ease back into the chaos that is your phone. The app’s home screen also has a clickable option to “Take a microstep toward a more thriving life,” which I used to get extra encouragement multiple times.

It’s sounds horribly cheesy, but a day with the THRIVE App was, in a way, its own microstep. Not only did the app work as advertised while I was actually using it, it made me more mindful of my phone use in between THRIVE sessions as well. I can’t say if I would immediately have the willpower to turn on Thrive Mode every single time I’m out to dinner with friends or stick meticulously to time limits on my apps—I’m only human. But since using the app, any time I get lost scrolling through a News Feed or watching video after video, I think, “Have I reached my limit? What if this app just quit, taking me back to the THRIVE App home screen?”… And sometimes I wish it would. 

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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