How writing to a friend can really help you

I’d like to start today with a belated apology to readers who weren’t part of the Signpost trial that began at the end of January.

I became so immersed in it, that last week’s usual Moodnudge fell through a crack in the floorboards.

So I’m sorry if it seemed I might have disappeared from the face of the earth.

If you didn’t participate in the Signpost experiment and missed knowing what it entailed, let me explain, very briefly.

Signpost is an app I’m developing.

After prompting you with a daily text message, it asks you to check in via a 10-item questionnaire.

The questions evaluate your overall mood, and also check for possible underlying issues that might be affecting you – are you, for example, feeling anxious or angry?

Depending on these issues, you then hear my recorded feedback: a kind of audio moodnudge, hopefully tailored to your current state of mind.

I say “hopefully,” because for what you might call an interesting couple of days during the trial, the app unhelpfully told just about everyone that they were angry, when they weren’t.

As I said at the time in an email to participants, even if they weren’t feeling it to begin with, being wrongly labelled as angry could well be enough to rile anyone.

Signpost enables you to see your progress on a graph, to which you can add notes and explanations that may help you make sense of your ups and downs.

As a few people pointed out, Signpost seems to combine most of the different mood-management techniques I’ve explored over the years, into one overall idea.

Over 200 people took part in what turned out to be a two-week experiment, and more than half filled in a questionnaire leaving detailed feedback about their experiences.

The majority seemed to greatly enjoy the app, with only a few saying that it wasn’t for them (which I completely understood).

What’s more, and I honestly hadn’t anticipated this, there was an overall average mood lift of 7.5 points (on a 0-100 scale) across 14 days, which allows me to cautiously conclude that it was doing people some good.

I went into testing the prototype largely to experiment with the mechanics – sending text messages, providing audio (rather than written) feedback, for example, so for me to learn that it was actually helping people was really promising.

The more challenging part of the feedback process, however, was my realisation that many see the app developing in one of two ways.

Some regard it as a tool for anyone, really, who’s going through what what you might say are the normal emotional ups and downs of everyday life.

Others, though, view Signpost as being squarely aimed at people going through a particularly difficult time – those who are experiencing significant depression or anxiety, for example.

Currently, I therefore find myself at something of a crossroads (‘twas ever thus, for me!) as I’m pretty sure it’s not really viable to make one tool serve two purposes.

You might say that I need to decide whether I’m building a hammer or a screwdriver.

Having said this (and I’m literally just seeing this as I write), whichever we decide to develop now, won’t stop us using the same underlying methods (check-in via a questionnaire, get audio support, track progress on graph, add annotations) to create the “other.”

With steel and wood, you can build both a hammer and a screwdriver.

One at a time though, perhaps.

Hmm. It feels good to have gained some clarity, which I certainly didn’t have when I started writing this an hour ago.

Perhaps it’s a lesson to us both of the power of putting thoughts down on paper?

If you’re currently at some kind of crossroads yourself, right now, maybe consider explaining your situation in a message to a friend (which is actually how I regard this piece of writing to you).

Maybe, when we describe dilemmas to others, it actually helps us line up our own thinking.

In conclusion, I’m still not clear whether the hammer or screwdriver should come first, but at least I now know they don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

So, who are you going to write to you about your situation?

5 thoughts on “How writing to a friend can really help you

  1. Morning Jon!
    I heard an interesting programme on Radio 4 Extra last night, in which people had written letters to their future selves. Some did it as an assignment at school, others as part of a project. It made me think of you, partly because some of them had written reassuring thoughts in case the future self was feeling a bit wobbly. It might be something we could do for ourselves, when we’re feeling sunny enough – and, perhaps, knowing better than most the sort of things we need to hear and be reminded of when things aren’t so good.
    Maybe that’s who I’ll write to today.
    Thanks for the feedback on the feedback!

    1. I too use occasionally and it’s heartening/frightening/encouraging/enlightening etc. Well worth doing. When you get an email out of the blue telling you how you were feeling say, a year ago, and you were in despair but now you’re sitting feeling OK it’s a huge boost.

  2. I have always found that setting my thoughts and worries out on paper helps me to make sense of what is bothering me and what I can do to change it. And looking back you can see patterns – usually when it is a difficult decision that I am putting off and I have the answer but am scared to make the decision!

  3. Hi Jon,
    I took part in the trial but regret that I missed the last day or two. It was very interesting to experience the personal self examination each day to rate how you felt. Usually all of the emotions are mixed up into our personal current homogenised “mood”, so taking a little time to tease them out was fascinating and useful.

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