A doctor friend of mine is convinced I changed her life. 

We were catching up after a long time and she said she was studying for one of our seemingly unending professional exams. Then she turned sheepish.

“I have a confession to make—I’m often on social media instead of actually studying.” 

She felt really bad about being so cliché. Even worse, it was chipping away at her self identity: she felt no longer as focused as she used to believe herself to be.

“I’ve got an app for you,” I told her. “It’s called Forest, and I’ve found it super helpful.” I asked her to get out her phone and installed it. While she did that I explained how the app worked.

It’s simple, really. Forest basically turns concentration into a game. You open it and it asks you if you want to plant a tree (hence the name). If you click Plant, it starts a timer for 25 minutes, and a little graphic appears of a budding tree. The tree grows as time passes, and gets added to your forest if you make it to the end. If you try to leave the app before the time is up, it gives you warnings (Stop phubbing! Go back to your work! Leave me alone!). If you don’t heed the warnings your tree withers. 

Believe me, you don’t want to see your tree wither. 

It’s a very simple concept but it works incredibly well, as my friend found out. She’s not the kind of person who thinks of solving problems with apps so she was sceptical—for all of two days. That’s how long she took to come back almost breathless with excitement at how well it had worked. Her problem was solvable, and her study was doable.

Like my friend, many of us respond to failure by increasing willpower. We often think if we just try a little more, if we grit a teeth a little more, we can get over our inability to get the results we want. Which makes it even more frustrating when we fail yet again.

But believing we need more willpower is rather like a lost driver trying to go faster. You don’t need more speed—you need a map.

So let’s dig a bit deeper into how maps and feedback work.

Maps and feedback

The point of any good map is to provide you with three key bits of information:

  1. Where you are—your location
  2. Where you’re headed—your destination
  3. How to get there—the direction, which you can work out from 1 and 2.

That’s it. It may have other features, like interesting spots or warnings, but you have to be able to determine at least those three things for it to be really useful. The first thing your maps app or satnav asks is where you’re going—but it’s already done the job of locating where you are. Armed with those two bits of info, it’s able to point you in the right direction.

You get exactly those three things with good feedback. 

Before I go further, allow me to clarify how I use “feedback” here. I’m not using it in the now-popular sense of criticism, but in the more strict sense of the medical sciences. Feedback in that sense is the way information is used to guide our physical processes. Every event (usually chemical) in your body has an effect, and feedback is the information passed back up the chain about that effect in order to determine one of two possibilities for whatever caused the effect: repeat it (positive feedback) or stop it (negative)? 

As an example, feeling severe hunger sends negative feedback to your brain to stop whatever else it’s doing, and positive feedback to step up food-locating actions. When you’re full your negative feedback goes back up the chain to signal that food’s no longer required.

Stuff like this is happening in your body all the time. Learning to use it, then, is simply tapping into one of the most powerful tools in your own body. Especially because this kind of feedback, when we consciously use it, offers us a map when we’re lost.

The problem with being lost, like my friend was, is that it starts to influence our self-image: we start to believe we can’t do the thing: “I don’t have the brain for math (or languages or whatever),” we might say. Or, “I’m just not able to concentrate like I used to.” Or, “I’m just too busy to find the time to exercise.” 

That last one was me—until last week. 

Enter Apple Watch

I’d gone from couch to 5k within three months, and ran a 10k race May 2019. In mid-year I started a job with a long commute and my running gradually reduced until I gave it up. Although I never stopped thinking about it, the motivation somehow eluded me. 

Then I got the new Apple Watch.

I’d promised myself one as soon as it was out, and like my friend found with Forest, within two days I was stunned how quickly my own behaviour was changing:

  • By the second day I was already thinking about how I’d need to move to make sure I closed my rings.
  • I also came to realise I’d been washing my hands a lot longer than 20 seconds. The Watch picks it up from your hand movements and the sound of water and starts a countdown. And when you’re done it vibrates a little and gives you a thumbs up. No more anxiety about if I’ve washed long enough. 
  • By day three I found myself using the time I spent waiting for a train to pace so I could get in those calories rather than warming a bench. 
  • By the weekend I was already plotting how to close my rings outside of a workday—maybe take a walk? I ended up using apps for indoor cardio that I’d left to gather dust. (I can’t wait for Apple’s coming Fitness+ service!)

In one week, I’ve become more active than in the previous year. Again, the difference comes down to feedback.

Hey, Coach

If you think the Watch sounds like a coach, you’re right. Because, that’s a great way to think about what a coach really does: give feedback. In fact, the Watch and similar devices and apps are in a sense, putting the kinds of feedback resources previously available only to athletes on your wrist. You’re getting a coach for the price of a couch. Similarly Forest and similar apps are rather like coaches to help with your concentration.

Whatever form feedback comes in: whether it’s via an app, a device or a real person like a coach or trainer or spouse or friend, it all comes down to the same thing: offering a map for getting somewhere. It helps you determine a location, a destination and a direction.

With a coach or trainer that might come in the form of specifics moment-by-moment information about what you should do, stop doing. and try. (You could, as I just pointed out, get that from a spouse or friend as well—but it’s easy to take their feedback more personally!)

On the Apple Watch that appeared in the form of the rings. Once I’ve set the goal for how much activity I want to do daily, the rings give a visual that help me see at a glance exactly where I am (location) in relation to where I’m aiming for (destination), and how much more activity I need to have to get there in time.

With Forest the key feedback visual is the tree image. Your destination is being away from your phone for 25 minutes (or whatever you set) at a time. The app shows you exactly how much longer you have to get there and your growing tree is motivation to continue. If you fall short, the image of a withered tree provides negative feedback: information that you should stop that behaviour.

Which brings us to one last way feedback is like maps…

Action not included

A map, for all its value in providing valuable information won’t actually get you anywhere. You need to be able to a) read the map and b) move your behind. 

Anyone who grew up in the 90s or earlier will remember the adventure (or ordeal!) of getting lost on road trips because someone read a map wrong. Modern map apps and satnavs help take care of this issue: you still have to type in your location, but they can tell you your destination and offer step-by-step directions. They make the map-reading part super easy so you can focus on driving and making progress—and even enjoying the view.

That’s what my friend and I discovered, she with Forest and me with my Apple Watch. Like smart maps, both apps provide feedback in a way that makes it easy to focus on taking action. Visuals are a big part of this, whether that’s Google’s turn-by-turn directions, Forest’s tree or Apple Watch’s rings.

It’s similar with good feedback. You have to be able to interpret it, and then you have to act. And the best feedback, like modern map apps, makes the interpreting part super easy so you can focus on taking action. 

Up to you to get moving.

Thanks to Adam TankCam Houser, Jen Vermet—and a wicked smart 11-year old!—for feedback on early drafts.

Published by Doc Ayomide

I’m a medical doctor with specialty training in psychiatry, and I love thinking and writing about what it means to be human.

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