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How I Write and Learn

Starting Cold Turkey, or Seeing the Trees through Forest

By a UNC student

Surprise, surprise: I sometimes (or always) get really distracted while trying to study. Yes, CHEM102L is important, but Instagram is more fun, right? I’ve been even more distracted than usual as I complete my online summer courses! Fortunately, I have two awesome programs for phones and laptops that help me stay on track for as long as I need. Cold Turkey and Forest have been (virtual) life savers.

Cold Turkey

Cold Turkey is an app that I installed on my computer at the beginning of the summer. I first discovered this program from a friend. He kept talking about how he had installed a great app to help him write his dissertation. I knew then and there that I had to give it a try.

There are three versions of Cold Turkey, each made for different purposes.

  1. Cold Turkey Blocker: This version is a standard block-site. With it, I specify certain websites or applications to “blacklist” for a certain period of time. This means that, no matter how hard I try, I cannot access these sites and apps during the period I’ve blocked off. If I need more help at certain times of the day, I set a recurring timer–that paper won’t write itself at 2 PM, after all. I also use it during Zoom sessions, because, to be honest, sitting on my laptop during a lecture isn’t exactly conducive to paying attention. I block myself from all social media and even Excel because, if I don’t, I’ll begin planning out my life (no joke) in class. Using Cold Turkey, I force myself to pay attention and take meaningful notes. The app also has a “Frozen Turkey” mode, which blocks access to everything on the computer. Dramatic as that may be, it helps me take a nice break from the screen.
  2. Cold Turkey Writer: Writer gives me a blank text screen with no option to exit until the time I’ve set runs out or until I type a certain number of words. For my online classes, I used this option to help me finish my weekly forum posts. I would turn on Writer, set the words needed to 300, and be quietly forced to write 300 words if I ever wanted to exit the screen. Forum posts have never had such high stakes!
    A screenshot of Cold Turkey Writer showing the interface and options for beginning a new draft.
  3. Cold Turkey Micromanager: This is a relatively new program, so I haven’t used it myself. Micromanager does the opposite of Blocker: it “whitelisting” sites and applications. You make a list of sites or applications that you want to use, and, until I reach my goal, I can only use these, nothing else. Need to make a PowerPoint presentation? Now I can use only PowerPoint for a certain amount of time.

I love this program, and I plan to keep using it for my upcoming classes. The app is definitely intense, even Draconian. I’ve found that, by shutting off the locking feature, I can make the experience less harrowing. Sometimes discipline is a good thing, though.


No app is one size fits all. So even though Cold Turkey has improved my productivity, I’ve also kept an eye out for other apps that can help me focus. I like Forest precisely because it isn’t as “harsh” as Cold Turkey–I can easily override it. What’s more, it saves the Earth while I use it. Forest has both an app for phones and a browser add-on for computers.

Unlike Cold Turkey, Forest doesn’t block certain sites or apps on the phone version. Instead, by using the app, I grow a cute, little, virtual tree for a specified amount of time (anywhere from fifteen minutes to two hours). There’s a catch, though. If I leave the app early, I kill the tree. Anytime I open my phone to check an irritating iMessage, I receive a notification that my tree is moments away from dying unless I return promptly to the app. Put in a positive way: the more time I spend focused on my tasks, the more trees I plant. I’ve always found studying with others useful, and this tree-growing solution also has a partner function. Now that my study partner and I are apart, we plant trees–and work–together. If one of us kills a tree, both trees die. The app even lets me buy new types of trees with the coins that I’ve earned from growing other trees. Virtual trees don’t interest me nearly as much as real trees do, and Forest lets me use my coins to plant up to 5 real trees in the real world!

The browser add-on is really nice, too, because it blacklists and whitelists websites. Plus (a tip for anyone who decides to use Forest), by having both the add-on running and the app running, I can earn double points! Double points, double trees. The only thing the add-on doesn’t do is block applications. For that function, I have to use Cold Turkey.

A screenshot of the Forest app showing that the person's tree is still growing.A screenshot from the Forest app showing that the person has planted one healthy tree in their forest.A screenshot of the Forest app showing the person's grown trees compared to their failed trees and time spent not checking their phone over the year.

A screenshot of Forest in web browser inviting a person to click the tree to start growing; there's also a peaceful landscape in the background with a prompt asking the person's main focus for the day.

Beyond schoolwork, I love using this app to stay mindful and attentive of the people around me. When I’m with family, I hate feeling tethered to my phone. Forest helps me focus on the people I’m with while I grow some trees.

These two apps have been great additions to this college student’s life, especially now that I’m working from home. I think that, sometimes, technology is the solution to technology. In particular, these two programs have helped me gain control of my time and have helped me appreciate my surroundings. I think we could all probably do with more of both, right now.

This blog showcases the perspectives of UNC Chapel Hill community members learning and writing online. If you want to talk to a Writing and Learning Center coach about implementing strategies described in the blog, make an appointment with a writing coach or an academic coach today. Have an idea for a blog post about how you are learning and writing remotely? Contact us here.

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