A small dose of plant science and Focus with Forest.app

Graphics series of a flowering plant seedling grows into a conifer
Plant Development according to Forest App.

Plants on Earth being productive at some point in their life cycles is critical for their – and our lives. Productivity is also a common new year’s resolution for humans. Productivity in plants means photosynthesis, respiration, and foraging/harvesting air and soil resources to grow and blossom. For scientists, it’s measured in experiments done, data analyzed, code written, writing done, papers published, and new knowledge. Plants have their distractions in terms of pests, diseases, and shade from neighbors. Modern humans have mobile devices connected to the internet to keep us from producing. Plants can deal with their distractions through myriad evolved mechanisms often written about on Botany One. Humans can too, but we use technology to keep us from being too distracted from our technology.

Forest App is a plant-themed app to help humans focus that can also plant trees in the real world with enough focused time logged. It is a Pomodoro method timer meant to keep you from navigating away from it or picking up your phone, or phubbing. The Chrome browser extension version will keep users from navigating to any user blacklisted website.

Is it Useful?

I have been using Forest app on and off for about a month. I do find it helps me focus on a task for the full timer and keeps me from picking up my phone (other than to check the timer on occasion). The graphic of a growing plant is fun. As a plant scientist, if the real plants in the lab aren’t growing, at least these digital one is easier to grow. This won’t confer a green thumb on anyone, however, it is a tool that can help users have a productive 2019.

A gridded plane with a few trees planted on it
Grow your focus forest!

The Forest for The Trees

The language the app uses is that of planting a tree when you start a timer (between ten and 90 minutes, default is 25 minutes). Failing to focus for the designated time kills the digital tree and zero points are earned. Focusing for the allotted time means earning points that can unlock features, new digital tree types and even planting real trees. Failure or success, the plant gets added to the in-app forest where a user’s focus data can be reviewed. Each tree planted also has the option of adding a note about what that time was used to focus on. There is also an option after a successful focus period of setting a break timer (per the original Pomodoro method, after each period of focus, a short break is taken, after four focus periods, a longer 15-30 minute break is taken).

The more it’s used, the more points you get (25 minutes of focus will give you 9 points). Earn 2500 points and you can opt to plant a real tree through Trees for The Future, a non-profit training farmers in several countries across sub-Saharan Africa to plant and maintain tree gardens on part of their farmland. The idea is to diversify crops grown, help restore land, and increase farm profitability. Trees for the Future has a rating of three out of four stars on Charity Navigator as evaluated in February 2018. Each Forest app user is allowed to plant up to five trees.

500 points unlocks other plants. Forest app also has audio tracks you can play in the background. The only starting track is “forest rain” that is pleasant enough for a short time. Again, for 500 points, a Paris Cafe, night forest, and a few other soundscapes are available. These points to unlock new features do go up after unlocking a new feature. Literally, Forest app turns focus into a game. Further underscoring this are achievements such as having your total focus time reaching three days. that allows you to unlock even more points (hundreds at a time).

Digital art of a bush, a cherry  tree, a "starry tree", and Rafflesia
Default short time focus tree and trees you can unlock by spending points earned focusing (some real, some not)

It’s also possible to keep playing your own music or audio before starting the timer, it will keep playing while the timer runs (but if you have to navigate away to change it, the tree will die). Similarly, texts, etc. will come through as the time runs. It’s the user’s job to ignore these.

Forest app also has the capability to focus with a group, called rooms. You can connect with others by email, Facebook, or Weibo invitations and join a room of collective focus.

Not Quite Botanically Accurate and other Quibbles

Forest app starts you off with two types of plant. A flowering bush for focus times less than 25 minutes and an evergreen/spruce-like conifer for longer focus times. Upon starting, the seedling is quite obviously identifiable as a flowering plant seedling (and a dicot at that). As far as this reviewer knows, conifer tree seedlings look a lot different from flowering plants. As time goes on, the plant grows up until you have a full bush or tree, but it definitely leaves out the fine grain stages of plant growth.

Further, trees that you can unlock to diversify your forest include several fantastical trees such as the “starry tree” and the “candy tree”. However, there are more real plants, including sunflowers, lemon trees, apple trees, bamboo, and perhaps somewhat oddly, Rafflesia (without a note that it’s a parasitic plant, but they do note it smells bad to people).

A list of options in the menu of Forest App
The menu in Forest app

Forest app is a more fully-featured version of the also plant-themed original Pomodoro method (Pomodoro is named after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer the method creator used to implement the method). The fact that, in theory, real trees end up getting planted in the world through using it is a nice bonus (according to Forest app’s site, over 300,000 actual trees have been planted). In an ideal world, the app would automatically plant a tree when you accumulate 2500 points, not requiring users to use their points. As is, it’s competing with the less expensive (in points) new plants and soundscapes you can unlock and the real trees are in a separate menu in the app. It’s not clear that that makes it easier to contribute an actual tree to the world.

The botanical inaccuracies are a bit annoying, but it could open up a plant biology discussion. There’s an app-inspired dialog to be had about how plants actually grow and develop (and have roots!), why Rafflesia might not be a plant you want in large numbers in a healthy forest, the sounds forests make, and even how the real trees and plants connect to people’s lives.

However, using it as a teaching aid is a bit complicated if you wanted to give it to students or a team to use. The mobile app is $2.99 in the US app store. Though it isn’t free, you do get more than just a timer for your money. The graphics, game, social, and record-keeping aspects are all beyond most free timers. Forest App also requires creating an account and thus this app will have access to some of your personal data.