On a bench in London’s Green Park, 27-year-old Iain Pyle is showing me an app on his Samsung and boasting about how close he is to a “90-day clean streak.” The app looks like any generic organization tool a young male urbanite would use. Columns track weekly and monthly goals with bright-colored check marks, and line graphs employ location data to track Pyle’s journey overall. Pyle updates the app a few times a day, adding extra details when he’s struggling: “Today was a hard day. I was stressed out. Very tempted. Went for a walk to cool off.” As Pyle eats his sushi lunch, he tells me how the app has changed his life. “I feel better, I’m way more productive and I’ve been less stressed in the past couple of months than I’ve been for most of my life,” he claims.
Pyle, however, isn’t talking about Trello, Evernote or any of the productivity hacks you’ve likely seen on YouTube — services that promise to make you more time-efficient, less distracted by social media and the master of your to-do list. He’s talking about an app he uses to track his masturbation habits.
Pyle is surprisingly open to talking about masturbation in public. When I first contacted him through the r/NoFap subreddit — a mostly male online community centered on giving up masturbating — he told me that “being a shut-in, shy at school and awkward around women” had caused him to develop bad habits from an early stage. “I was using wanking as a way to distract myself,” he confesses. “When I was depressed, when I felt anxious, even if I was bored. Sometimes just to pass time, I’d go to the [bathroom] at work and just wank. It was really a way to disappear for a bit.” He says he could masturbate up to 10 times a day.
He says he knows masturbation is generally healthy and a normal thing to do. But he realized it wasn’t making him feel good or relieving the stress or tension it once did. He also developed an inability to orgasm unless he watched (or imagined) a hardcore porn scene. “Even when I was with a girl,” he says, “part of my brain was going back and remembering those scenes so I could finish.”
Pyle had tried to go cold-turkey on masturbation. He’d kept a series of secret bullet journals, using a complicated system of dots, crosses and other symbols to show the days he hadn’t masturbated, the days he came close to jacking off but stopped himself or the days he just gave in to his impulses. Inevitably, though, he’d forget about the journals and end up with a pile of mostly empty, unfinished notebooks.
Then, like a lot of other r/NoFappers, he found salvation on YouTube. In particular, while browsing for video reviews of fitness watches, he stumbled across a review of 21 productivity apps from Thomas Frank, one of YouTube’s most popular creators. Frank is known for his videos on effective studying and body hacking; they’re designed for college students and young people trying to figure out how to live a healthy, productive lifestyle. Here, Pyle discovered Habitshare, an app where a user can choose goals, set reminders and milestones to indicate progress and check off the days when they achieved the goals. Pyle realized that just as people use the app to track their sleep, their work and their diet, he could use it to track how many days he’d gone without masturbating or watching porn.
Generally speaking, habit trackers have grown popular among the NoFap community. On r/NoFap, there are frequent conversations about which habit tracker is the best to use for anti-masturbation. While the vast majority of users prefer Habitshare or Streaks, a growing number on the subreddit use Streak Tracker, an open-source program built by redditors that keeps a log of how many days you can go without masturbating and sets targets for you.
Why the sudden appeal of habit-formation apps? They’re “aspirational,” writes Nisha Chittal in Vox. They’re “less about distilling your life into a series of data points and more about becoming your ideal self. … You too can become a person who practices good habits.” “Habit trackers essentially gamify your aims and goals,” says Ali Abdaal, a U.K.-based medical doctor and popular productivity YouTuber. “If you like playing games or seeing numbers on a screen, you know what target to hit or how close you are to reaching your goal.” The social aspect matters too, Abdaal adds: “You can connect with a community, share your experience and struggles and give advice.”
The NoFap movement — and the use of habit-tracking apps — is spreading beyond the West, too, converting loyal “fapstronauts” in places like Pakistan. Shah, a 22-year-old engineering student in Karachi, tells me a story nearly identical to Pyle’s. “Even though Pakistan is a very religious country, there’s a lot of [pornography] that circulates over social media and on cellphones, and lots of men [develop] bad habits,” he explains.
Early this year, Shah discovered Rewire Companion, an app designed to help users curb masturbation and quit porn. Much like Habitshare or Streaks, Rewire Companion allows users to set goals for themselves and track their progress through charts and diagrams. But the app’s main appeal for Shah is how it connects him with NoFappers around the world. Being part of its community — the app has just shy of 100,000 users — has given Shah a more optimistic view of his progress. “In the subreddit, there are people who talk about their problems,” he says. “But in [the app], people show the good things about not masturbating.” There’s also a more supportive vibe, he says. “On Reddit, people are only impressed if you haven’t masturbated for many months, or a year.” But on Rewire Companion, you can celebrate even a small victory, he says.
Dev Kamal, who’s based in Rajasthan, India, is the developer behind the app Stop Masturbation — Quit Porn Addiction Now! He tells me over Skype that the idea came from the success stories he’d heard about in the fitness world, with apps like MyFitnessPal and products like Fitbit. “I saw with my friends who were going to the gym, the most successful people had a way to track everything: food, water, sleep, exercise,” he says. “The more knowledge they had, the better they became. I thought to myself, How do I make this for other things, like social media addictions or pornography addictions?”
The big question, then: Are habit-tracking apps actually effective? And is porn really the addiction we’re treating it as? Typically, there’s insufficient evidence for either claim. That’s partly because the effectiveness of an app depends on its user. “People are actually less likely to develop new habits if they’re using a device to pay attention for them instead of paying attention to themselves,” writes Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit. “If you’re just wearing something on your wrist and you look at it every so often and you feel like you’re accomplishing something but you’re not actually learning from it, then it’ll have the opposite effect: It’ll remove that burden that you feel to actually get something done and to learn from what you’re being exposed to.”
For Kamal’s part, he describes his app as a way to help men be happier. In no way is it a substitute for therapy or counseling, he insists. It’s only a short-term fix, he says, but one he believes “so many men urgently need.”
When I get back in touch with Pyle after our first interview, he’s been struggling. At the end of September, he’ll hit 90 days of no masturbation, but he confesses the streak was “almost ruined the other morning. I wasn’t even fully [aware] that I was stroking myself until the shower hit me with a splash of cold water.”
To keep himself focused, he now looks at the charts on his app at least once every few hours, especially the one with a solid blue line, marking each day he didn’t orgasm. “I keep having to remind myself that I’ve come this far, and how bad it would feel if that line turned any other color,” he tells me.
But what happens after the 90 days? Will he feel like he’s changed as a person? And what will his next goal be? Pyle is silent for just short of a minute. “You know, I haven’t really thought about that,” he finally responds.
“I want to have healthier relationships,” he decides. “To be more present around people, friends, family or a girlfriend.”
Of course, he acknowledges, these are things that can’t exactly be habit-tracked or rewarded with digital badges. “I don’t think that the past 90 days have solved all my problems, or even most of my problems,” he concludes. “It’s just shown me that I can improve myself and be a better version of me. A version of me I’m happier with.”