Appily Ever After: A Smartphone Shrink; A few bucks and a lot of squinting into my phone: that certainly beats a $300-an-hour psychiatrist, right?

April 5, 2013

Appily Ever After: A Smartphone Shrink



When I was a kid, my favorite toy was the Magic 8 Ball. There was something immensely comforting about asking this little gizmo a question (“Will I find true love?”), shaking it and then seeing the answer that would bubble to the top of the screen: “Outlook good.”

As the world became more complicated and full of anxieties, many of us traded our Magic 8 Balls for therapists and self-help gurus. (“Will I find true love?” Answer: “First, you need to learn to love yourself.”)

But now a proliferation of psychology smartphone apps — with names like BreakkUpiStress and myinstantCOACH — purports to help us live happier, less anxious lives. As Mark McGonigle, a therapist in Kansas City, Mo., who invented the app Fix a Fight, puts it: “Electronic devices don’t have to drive us apart. They can bring us together.” Which sounds so good. A few bucks and a lot of squinting into my phone: that certainly beats a $300-an-hour psychiatrist, right?But can an algorithm iron out the kinks in our existence? Will I be able to get my kids to do their homework, or calm down, or simply get my husband to stop nagging, all by following the protocol of these apps? I decided to test them against the stressors of my own less-than-peaceful life: work, cranky husband, twin 11-year-old boys.

Over the course of two weeks, I did a lot of screen tapping — just as I used to spend hours shaking that Magic 8 Ball — and discovered the pleasures, and frustrations, of making my smartphone my shrink.

Fix a Fight

“Communication: it’s the sine qua non of a good marriage,” says Fix a Fight’s Mr. McGonigle and, you know, everyone else.

My problem: It is tax season, so my husband and I are barely speaking. He is the kind of person who likes his receipts carbon-dated. I am not the best record keeper. Let me rephrase that: I am not a record keeper. We’ve been having the same panicky discussions for years, usually right before we go to sleep. They go like this.

John: “Did you see that you are getting Comcast dividend checks? I thought you sold that.”

Judith: “I’ll find out tomorrow.”

John: “Oh, and do we have enough money in the checking account?”

Judith: “For God’s sake, shut up. I can’t take it anymore. You know that when I’m tired I don’t want to think about money.”

The process: My reaction is not, strictly speaking, what Fix a Fight would advise. The app instead shows how a fight is really a “golden opportunity for intimacy” if you process the emotions correctly. This involves: naming your feelings, identifying with your partner’s story, taking responsibility for your actions and describing how the fight will be different next time.

So, John and I identify our feelings (anxiety is big on his list, exasperation on mine) and are instructed to explain our positions to each other.

John: “Why are you typing this discussion into your phone?”

Judith: “Never mind, just talk.”

John’s feelings: “It’s all your fault, because it would be the simplest thing to hold on to your pay stubs.”

Judith’s feelings: “I want a divorce.”

Unfortunately, John and I never made it to the next steps because by that time we were already sleeping in separate rooms.

Conclusion: My failure is not the fault of the app. It seems a sound approach, if you have two people willing to concede some ground. This was not going to happen.


My problem: On the moodiness scale, I wouldn’t say I’m Sybil, but I wouldn’t say I’m June Cleaver, either.

The process: MoodKit, devised by two psychologists, is one of those whiz-bang apps that has so many things going on, you think you need a tutor just to learn how to use it. That puts me in a bad mood — which I can then track in my daily mood tracker. Other things I can do: read the 150-plus mood-lifting activities like “create something,” “choose your friends wisely” (Who has time for friends? I’ve got moods to track), “identify and write down three things you appreciate today.” And so forth.

Something called Thought Checker also invites me to write down a situation that bothered me, then gauge how strongly I felt, on a scale of 1 to 10, at which point I am told how I may be distorting my feelings.

For example, I was annoyed that my son didn’t greet me when I returned from a business trip, his eyes being glued to his beloved Knicks game. When asked, “What thought or concern was going through your mind when you started to feel this way?” I replied, “He is a little ingrate.”

Then I was given a choice of my possible distortions: “all or nothing thinking,” “blaming,” “catastrophizing,” etc. I decide that I am “personalizing,” telling myself an event relates to me even when it may not. I am told to try to find another way to think of the incident.

I know the correct answer is: “It was an exciting game, and he’s only 11.” My answer is still: “He’s a little ingrate.” I mean, it’s not as if he had a bet on the game.

Conclusion: I may be moody, but I’m not a grudge holder. So by the time I got through many of these exercises, I’d either calmed down or forgotten what was upsetting me in the first place. I did rather enjoy tracking my moods for two weeks, and while I could give you a detailed account, they could be summed up thus:

Children home from school for a week: bad mood. Family vacation during which children don’t want to leave the hotel room and pool: really, really bad mood. Everyone returns to school and the normal routine: who needs Zoloft?

Conclusion: The kit gets kudos for irony. It requires so much time to chronicle your life, you can’t really do it if you have a life.


More of a reference guide than an interactive app, with advice divided into categories: actions, behavior, development, values. It asked me to enter information about my two children, keep track of their activities and devise “wish lists” — which consisted of nothing from my sweet autistic son, Gus, who wants to be allowed to watch buses all day, and about 500 requests for a Tim Tebow jersey from Henry, who has never met a piece of Jets sports paraphernalia he doesn’t love.

My problem: Oh, so many things to choose from here. But I decide to try out ParentSmart’s advice on interrupting, which my children do almost constantly. One day, when I was in the middle of a pressing phone conversation, my kids had instructions not to interrupt — instructions that did not go over so well because, when you’re 11, there are many, many things that constitute a news bulletin. On this particular day, it was the fact that there were window washers hanging outside our window, which elicited repeated cries of, “Mommy, Mommy, Mommeeeee.”

This is the kind of incident that makes my head explode. I read the advice about being proactive: teach your children not to interrupt unless there is an emergency. Talk through specific situations so that they understand what is and isn’t an emergency. Someone is hurt — emergency. I can’t find the yellow crayon — not emergency. Be consistent. If none of this works, whack them with this smartphone.

O.K., I admit I added that last sentence. ParentSmart’s advice is sound and common-sensical. I gave it a try. Apparently in my pre-app-enlightened state, I had assumed that what was and wasn’t an emergency was pretty obvious by age 11. I was wrong. Now, after much discussion: brother putting aluminum foil in the microwave — emergency. Men hanging from platform out the window — not emergency.

Conclusion: There do seem to be fewer interruptions in my household, at least when I’m on the phone. Not interrupting one another’s conversations? Well, maybe by the time they’re 30.


A bells-and-whistles iPad-only app by a San Francisco consulting firm that leads you through a series of exercises to help you get out of whatever rut you’re in.

My problem: I can’t seem to write today.

The process: First, I have to choose three adjectives to tell Unstuck how I’m feeling now. I pick “Overwhelmed, Uninspired, Unmotivated,” which pretty much sum up my entire life. The machine continues to interrogate me: What am I doing while I’m stuck? What thoughts am I having in this stuck moment?

This is where we get to the how-to of the whole exercise. I need to “believe in a new way to commit.” I am given useful tips to get the job done: chop it up into little tasks. Do one thing today; consider the extreme of what could happen if I don’t get it done.

O.K., I still haven’t started, but I have my marching orders.

But wait, there’s more. My iPad still wants to talk to me with a section called “Get to the Root of It” and continues hammering me with questions.

“I worry my work won’t be good enough,” I write.

“Why is that?” the machine asks.

“Because my parents were so critical,” I answer.

“Why is that?” the machine asks.

“Because they were Jewish,” I reply.

“Why is that?”

“Because they don’t believe Jesus Christ is our savior.” I feel my iPad is getting a little personal.

Then the machine triumphantly concludes: “This is what is really holding you back: because they don’t believe Christ is our savior.”

“So what are you going to do about it?” the machine asks.

“Uh, convert?” I tap.

Then the machine smugly asks: “Did this tool help you get unstuck?”

Conclusion: I spent about an hour and a half learning that I am Jewish, which does, in fact, explain a lot.

Simply Being

My problem: After spending so much time puzzling over my moods (the getting-my-marriage-working mood, the getting-my-children-in-line mood, the getting-through-all-the-mood-apps mood), I need something simple to improve my moods.

The process: Simply Being is exactly what it sounds like: a tape of 5, 10, 15 or 20 minutes (you choose), with a woman’s voice that’s calm-trending-to-coma and saying things like: “This is a time to do nothing, but simply be. Letting go of everything you’re doing, letting go of everything you need to do, simply be aware of everything going on, right now, in this moment.”

You know why this is relaxing? Because I’m not being asked to do anything. I’m sitting as someone whispers in my ear to sit down and shut up. (You can listen to the voice with music or nature noises in the background, but the recording’s a little dicey, so you find yourself thinking, “What did she say?” as she’s drowned out by a roaring ocean.) Of course, I could never find more than five minutes at a time to do this. I never got around to the 20-minute option. Still, it was five minutes well spent.

Conclusion: This app almost puts me to sleep — and in my world, that’s a very good thing.

Here’s the thing about all of these devices: They require thought. Lots and lots of thought. Thinking is what I do all day long. I needed something that would turn my mind off, not on. Something that would let me, however temporarily, ignore all of life’s problems, not confront them. Which is why you can find me pecking away, every night, at Words With Friends. Do you know how many two-letter words there are in the universe? I do! Ask me.

There is no easy solution to a life of stress and anxiety, of course. But out of all of the apps I tried, well, did I find at least one that does exactly what it says it does?

As my Magic 8 Ball says: “Signs point to yes.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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