It’s never been harder to focus. (I may or may not have just checked my email immediately after writing that lede). There’s too much to spiral about on Twitter, too many Instagram stories from high school friends to click through, too many newsletters to read, and too many apps in general. If our social media addictions hadn’t already turned us into full-fledged goldfish, students are now tasked with learning physics from the din of their sibling-infested childhood bedrooms and young employees are working shoulder to shoulder with roommates in tiny apartments.
Don’t say it, don’t say it, don’t say it… There’s an app for that. Our general crisis of distraction — which been cranked up to unbearable levels during the pandemic and election year — led app developers to create Flora, a plant-themed, gamified focus app that plants both real and virtual trees as an incentive to help your get off their phones and keep those last three brain cells firmly focused on the present.
Flora launched in 2017 out of a student lab by the team now runs startup Appfinca, designed as an app to “help people beat phone addiction and stay present,” according to one of its developers. Like a number of other apps on the market, such as PomoDone, Focus Booster, Focus-To-Do, and Focus Keeper, Flora utilizes the Pomodoro theory: a study strategy of working in short, traditionally 25-minute chunks divided by 5-minute breaks developed by Francesco Cirillo in 1980’s and named after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer.
Apps like Focus Keeper and Focus Booster offer simple timers. Flora’s developers think people need more of a reward to stay off their phones than just a “ding.” Flora belongs to a sub-category of Pomodoro tools that have been called “gameodoros.” Behind Flora’s cute shrub icon is a virtual garden full of “focus trees” that you grow by completing designated increments of uninterrupted phoneless focus time, during which Flora blocks use of any other app on your phone. When you complete a focus period, the generic acorn that appears on the app’s homepage will blossom into an oak tree, a blueberry, a rose and other adorable animated flora. If you can’t resist temptation, your plant dies. Each tree in your garden lasts only seven days, as a way to encourage consistent focus habits.
Flora also partners with Trees for the Future, a tree-planting organization that does agricultural revitalization work, for certain game features that reward your focus time with real, fast-growing, soil rebuilding trees or fruit trees that “diversify incomes and nutrition” planted Africa and East Asia.
Flora makes the case that the Pomodoro method can be used for more than studying or work. It doesn’t actually call itself as a productivity app (though it’s categorized this way on the App store), but rather, as a tool to help you “stay present.” The app’s FAQ suggests planting trees while studying, “in a class or meeting,” while you “enjoy meals,” for going “to sleep on time,” or “at any time you wish to enjoy real life.”
The app’s other big selling point, which differentiates itself from other gamified Pomodoro timers, is its multi-user function. “Flora is the original app for multi-user tree planting,” according to its App store bio. Flora allows you and friends to plant trees together — to keep you focused while studying together or just off your phones when hanging out. If either person caves and uses their phone, your oak, tannenbaum or pineberry is done for.
Flora is ranked at #66 on the App stores’s free focus and productivity apps. The list is dominated by Microsoft and Google products (although one has to question its metrics given “Who Unfollowed Me on Instagram” is ranked right after Flora at #67). Forest is the No. 1 paid productivity app. However, Flora is rated at 4.7/5 stars and has racked up thousands of glowing testimonials from students who swear it saved their grades.
🤿 Deep Dive
So, does it work? It depends on what you want to use it for. I will put it simply: Flora was a failure for me because I work — and primarily face distractions — on my laptop and it’s an app designed to keep you off your phone. I was sufficiently charmed by the varietals of cartoon berries, trees and flowers I could grow in my virtual garden to heed its warning to “Go back immediately to save your tree” when my fingers wandered to various apps. However, Flora was defenseless against my MacBook desktop’s endless tabs of news, Twitter, Instagram and email.
Personally, I would also tell Flora to lose or improve the corny inspirational quotes and finger-wagging warnings that appear on-screen as your growth session ticks along.
Another reason Flora didn’t work for me is that my work requires me to use my phone for making calls and occasionally use social media, going back and forth between my laptop and my phone. The app allows you to “pause” your growing session without killing your tree. But, if you’re pausing the session whenever you want, then the app isn’t offering you very much.
None of this means Flora is a failure. Its color scheme, animations and design are soothing, and its UI was mostly glitch-free. If Flora could find a way to sync with my web browser to lock down my computer except for Google, I could see it being a smash hit with young, tech-savvy professionals. (Flora’s competitor Forest does have a web extension where you can block websites that will kill your plant, however it was inconsistent when it came to blocking the websites listed).
Flora feels clearly designed by and for students — who study off of textbooks or need to concentrate on readings — rather than young working people who are paid to be shackled to our laptops and phones. Indeed, many of the most glowing reviews are from students proclaiming how it made them more attentive and feel less lonely while studying. As an ancient person all of three years out of college, I found the app much more effective for focusing on offline tasks like cleaning the kitchen, or to keep me checked in during social situations, like having dinner with my roommate.
📌 Product Feature Highlights
I will admit, the plants are cute. One of Flora’s more charming features is the world tour, which lets you unlock plants in different regions of the world and add them to your garden as you log more focus time. You start out with your basic oak trees and roses in North America, then move onto blueberries, maple trees and bunchberries (which are real!) in Canada, then to avocados and Dahlia Pinnata flowers in Mexico. The Neopets user in me lept out, and made me want to keep adding cute little icons to my garden.
Flora and Trees for the Future brag that they’ve planted over 50,927 trees together. I initially had a hard time understanding how the actual, real-world tree planting came into play on Flora. Flora does not plant real trees that correspond with the virtual trees you grow, unless you activate Flora Care. This bonus feature lets you pay $9.99 for the app to donate an IRL tree each time your focus time adds up to 24 hours. A mere $1.99 will get you a real tree planted every 120 hours. “Your regular focus activities will provide continuous financial aid to our partnering rural communities,” the app promises.
Once you buy Flora Care, there’s no cap on how many trees you can plant (Each purchase gets you a year of your donation rate). Flora brags about this on their app page (“Some other similar app charges you $1.99 but only lets you plant at most 5 real trees. But there is no such limitation in Flora Care), a hilariously unsubtle dig at Forest.
It seems that, since Flora users expect the app to be free, not too many are utilizing Flora Care. For casual users, the app is a virtual garden. But for those who need higher stakes, Flora also allows you to “bet” money on whether or not you’ll finish the focus period. If you kill your tree and break your focus, the app charges you a fee that will be donated to Trees for the Future. The app calls the feature a negative “complement” to Flora Care, which lets you reward yourself with planting real trees.
As dystopian as the feature is — our brains are utterly hosed by the internet that we have to charge ourselves money to go towards saving the environment in order to get work done at our relentless jobs – it is effective. Even putting $5 on the line, I didn’t dare go near my phone, whatever that says about my commitments to my bank account versus fighting climate change.
Group planting sessions were fun, but complicated to set up. First you have to add a friend by scanning each other’ QR codes (you can text them to each other). Then, you can send a friend a passcode to join your room. In my experience, it was slightly laggy for the two phones to sync up and show the same screen. Once you and a friend are in a room, the fact that your cute tree will die if you check your phone — and that someone else will be alerted — was effective. However, if Flora’s marketing group focus sessions as one of its most unique features, the whole set-up could definitely use streamlining.
👁️🗨️ Final Verdict
Flora has a great concept. There’s no other free app on the market that offers its combination of a Pomodoro timer, an Animal Crossing-esque garden game and an extra incentive to donate to a cause you care about. Students with offline work needs and those looking to use their phones less more generally will definitely benefit from the app. However, with a web browser plug-in, a tweak in the tone of its copy, and a few interface adjustments, Flora could expand their range and get a lot more users happily planting away.