Phones, emails, social media accounts, and about a hundred other things are constantly competing for our attention. Can tech tools help us stay focused?
A lot of apps say that they help humans work better and faster. But the truth is that the more interactive tools we use, the more focus-shattering notifications we get. In many ways, technology has gotten us into this problem. Can it help us get out of it?
In a previous article, I explained why I choose app-based learning over traditional textbooks when it comes to gaining new skills. Online learning apps are great if you can focus on them. But what if you just can’t seem to stay off Facebook (or your time-waster of choice)?
How Can I Stay Focused?
Focus is a habit developed over time. It starts developing in childhood; because of our fast-paced life, many adults find it hard to concentrate on working, learning, or writing. It’s not that we don’t want to focus; we have so many distractions that it’s a lot harder to filter them out.
Researchers from the Department of Informatics at the University of California Irvine have studied information workers in several high-tech companies. They found that workers were distracted every three minutes and half of the distractions were self-interruptions. How much time did it take them to regain their focus? 23 minutes and 15 seconds. Insane, right?
Distractions are surprisingly difficult for us to ignore. I found some anti-interruption tools that helped me tackle my focus issues; hopefully they can help you too. Have a look!
Freedom (Mac, Windows, iOS, Android)
Freedom, the “granddaddy of Internet restriction programs”, was written by Fred Stutzman, a Ph.D. student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It is a comprehensive distraction-blocking tool for all your devices (and definitely my best match). It prevents you from accessing attention-grabbing websites and apps during a specified time frame. Even better, all of your activities can be managed from one place.
Freedom lets you create block lists, choose your device, and set focus sessions. For instance, if you have to prepare for an exam, you can set up focus sessions on your phone or tablet from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. for a week. And if you have a hard time disconnecting from your device at night, this app can be set to start running at bedtime. No more late night YouTubing when you should be sleeping!
There are two focus-enhancing modes. The locked mode makes it impossible to turn off an active session. When it’s on, you won’t be able to edit blocked lists or devices. The developers suggest enabling the locked mode once you are comfortable with your focus schedules.
Freedom is intuitive and easy to use. You can get it from $2.42/month, or try it for free.
Focus is a menu-bar app that ‘helps you find your Zen’. First, you create a list of websites that are your own personal time drains – SnapChat, Buzzfeed, whatever. When you turn on the website blocker and try to get to a blocked website, a motivational quote appears rather than the site. Lots of quotes are provided, and you can add your favorites as well.
Unlike Freedom, Focus allows “break time” while a session is running, i.e. letting you briefly visit your blocked websites. Useful when you forget to send THAT SUPER-IMPORTANT EMAIL! 😉
This app is scriptable, which means it can add new features or integrations. When Focus turns on or off, it can start or stop other scripts, e.g. change your Skype status to “Unavailable” or “Offline”. There is also a Do Not Disturb setting for maximum focus.
A single, one-Mac license is $19.99.
Cold Turkey (Mac, Windows)
Cold Turkey is a lot like Freedom but with one added feature: sharing. This subtle social element lets you share your stats on Facebook and show your friends just how focused you are on, well, being focused. Your data is displayed in a line graph that shows the number of blocked distractions and the number of minutes saved from those distractions. Each avoided distraction is worth five minutes.
Cold Turkey is free if you want to use the website blocker and timer. However, if you want access to all the features, you’ll have to pay a one-time fee of $19.
StayFocusd (Google Chrome)
StayFocusd is a Google Chrome browser extension, not an app. That may make it a bit handier for some users. This extension creates an icon to the right of the address bar. Click on it and a popup window will block that page (the entire site or just the current subdomain).
But wait, there’s more! For those who want to go hard core, there are some advanced options that let you:
- Set a daily time limit on your top time-wasting websites. Your allotted time will reset each day; use it up and you’ll have to wait to access the blocked sites.
- Edit your list of blocked and allowed sites.
- Block the entire Internet (the Nuclear Option). 😈
Because StayFocusd is an extension, it cooperates with any operational systems. It is 100% free.
SelfControl is another free productivity-boosting app that lets you create blacklists of your most distracting websites by domain. If websites have different domains for different functions, you may need to block all of them for this tool to be effective.
SelfControl keeps you from accessing problem websites for a certain amount of time, which is set by dragging a sliding bar. Be careful when adjusting the slider – until the time expires, there is no way to get to blocked sites, even if you restart the computer or delete the app.
Charlie Stigler, described as a “programming whiz kid”, is the developer behind SelfControl. You can read his story here.
What Are Your Focusing Techniques?
Modern technology is incredible and incredibly addictive. These are my picks for the top distraction-blocking tools. Now you can get high-quality work done without straining your willpower. If you want to use your upgraded powers of concentration to learn SQL, try a course from Vertabelo Academy.
What about you? What tools or techniques do you use to stay in the zone? Tell us in the comments section!