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Productivity

10 Online Tools for Better Attention & Focus

Finding focus is rapidly becoming the biggest workplace challenge. We highlight a handful of apps to help cure internet addictions and better manage your time.


A recent happiness study from Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert found that the more our minds wander, the less happy we are. Summing the research, the New York Times wrote, “Whatever people were doing, whether it was having sex or reading or shopping, they tended to be happier if they focused on the activity instead of thinking about something else.” In short, being mentally “present” and focused on the task at hand really does matter – quite a lot, in fact.

If only finding focus were so simple. With a tidal wave of information coming at us daily, focus is rapidly becoming the scarcest commodity of the 21st century. With this in mind, I’ve rounded up a handful of the best apps for fighting back against the constant distractions of our digital lives.

1. Self-Control – Block out distracting websites for a set amount of time.

If you find yourself slipping into a Twitter sinkhole when you should be updating your business plan, Self-Control may be the app you need. Set it for 4 hours, for instance, and your browser will behave as if it’s offline for that period of time. No amount of browser restarts or computer reboots will stop it. Before you have heart palpitations, know that you can whitelist or blacklist certain sites. So, rather than completely disabling the entire Internet, you can selectively decide which sites are OK, or not OK, to visit during your focus period. For Macs only. PC users can try Freedom, a similar app.

2. TrackTime – Audit how you’re spending your time on your computer.

This good-looking app tracks everything you do on your computer, spitting back out a sort of “attention audit.” How much time are you spending in Firefox? How many hours a day in your email client? What are listening to on iTunes? If you let TrackTime run in the background, it builds these patterns into a lovely rainbow-colored timeline of your online life. Its most effective use is as a sort of  wake-up call: If your daily timeline shows you shifting between apps and tasks every 2 minutes or less, you know there’s a problem. For Macs only.

3. Concentrate – Maximize focus while shifting between different tasks.

Concentrate is great for shifting between tasks that require different mindsets. I have a variety of recurring tasks that require different tools: 1) Writing, 2) Social Media Management, 3) Event Planning. Concentrate lets me configure a different set of tools for each task. When I activate “Writing,” the app automatically closes my email client and Internet Browser; blocks me from Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube; launches Microsoft Word; and sets my instant messaging status to “away”. Then, when I want to concentrate on “Social Media Management,” I can customize a completely different set of actions to happen relevant to that activity. There’s also a handy “concentration” timer. For Macs only.

4. Notational Velocity – Centralize and sync all of your scattered notes.

If you’re anything like me, one primarily challenge for focusing is getting all your notes in one place. Before Notational Velocity, I would write some notes on paper, some on text files on my desktop, some on my iPhone notes app when on the go. Notational Velocity organizes all of your notes on your desktop in a centralized, searchable location and syncs with Simplenote or WriteRoom on your iPhone. This seems like a little thing, but it really makes life so much easier. (More nerdy details here.) For Macs only.

5. FocusBooster – Focus on single tasks for 25 minutes apiece.

This app is based on the principles of the Pomodoro Technique, a time management system that challenges you to focus on a single task for 25 minutes and then give yourself a 5-minute break. Combining the features of a to-do list and a time-management coach, FocusBooster allows you to list out your daily tasks, and then it tracks your time as you work through them. When 25 minutes are up, an alarm sounds and you get a break. It’s an easy way to practice expanding your attention span without going overboard. For Macs and PCs.

6. Think – Limit your attention to a single application at a time.

This is an extremely simple app that’s akin to “Spaces” on a Mac. When activated, Think allows you to bring just one application into the foreground on your computer, while everything else is hidden underneath a nearly opaque backdrop. While you can easily shift between other applications when you need to, it creates a clean space for focusing on the task at hand. (It also works well in tandem with FocusBooster.) For Macs only.

7. FocusWriter – Create a distraction-free environment for writing.

If writing is something that you do on a regular basis, it’s incredibly useful to have an easy way to create a distraction-free setting. FocusWriter re-creates a word processor-like environment, blocking out absolutely everything on your screen except for the words you type on a simple grey background – all menus (date, timer, dock, etc) are tucked away until rollover. Despite its pristine appearance, FocusWriter does have the usual rich text editor features, such as spellcheck and word count. Plus a few bonuses like a daily writing goal (word count or writing time) and very gratifying typewriter sounds for each keystroke. For Macs and PCs.

8. Anti-Social – Block the social websites that are killing your focus.

Anti-Social is like a light version of full-scale Internet-blocker Freedom. Rather than blocking the Internet in its entirety, Anti-Social automatically blocks all of the known timesinks for a set period of time. Sites that are off-limits include Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Digg, Reddit, YouTube, Hulu, Vimeo, and all standard web email programs. It’s not that different from Self-Control (see above), except that it comes pre-equipped with a blacklist (which you can add to, of course). If you can’t handle your Internet abstinence, you can turn Anti-Social off by rebooting your computer. For Macs and PCs.

9. StayFocusd – Curb the time you spend browsing time-wasting sites.

This extension, for users of Google’s Chrome browser, works in the reverse manner to Anti-Social or Self-Control. Rather than setting a period of time for which you CANNOT use the Internet, it allows you to set a period of time to indulge in time-wasting sites. Only want to give yourself 60 minutes a day for Twitter, vanity Googling, and updating your Netflix queue? This is your app. Rather like when you were a kid and only allowed to watch 2 hours of TV a day. For Firefox users, LeechBlock performs a similar function. For Macs and PCs.

10. Time Out – Take regular breaks to keep your focus sharp.

For optimal focus, we need to take regular time-outs to relax and rebuild our energy. Time Out is a super-simple application that runs in the background while you work. At set intervals (say, every 90 minutes), it fades in and gently reminds you to take a 5-10 minute break. You can also use it to remind you to take 1-minute “micro-breaks” to avoid eye strain from staring at your computer like a zombie for hours on end. For Macs only. How Do You Stay Focused? What apps are you using to keep yourself on track? (We’d love more PC-friendly suggestions as well.)

More Posts by Jocelyn K. Glei

A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with how to make great creative work in the Age of Distraction. Her latest book is Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction, and Get Real Work Done. Her previous works include the 99U’s own bestselling book series: Manage Your Day-to-Day, Maximize Your Potential, and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.

Comments (130)
  • Traveling bags

    Nice review ! I like your article and i will definitely look again……………………………………
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  • JP

    RescueTime is another auditing option for PC users

  • BAIOLUX

    Well, then it´s a matter of tasking wandering as a pomodoro 🙂
    The goal is to avoid as much as posible every distraction. Jeff, any advice for the non-meditative of us to achieve concentration? Inahaling-exhaling method, etc…

  • Lucas Queiroz Morais

    Great List, Rescue Time is very good too, it gives you a dashboard wth all your activities, time spent on site, apps, everything. Beyond that, it gives ou like a score for how productive you are, and the average score that other people get, so, if you like the competition, it’s really nice to give a look.

    http://www.rescuetime.com/

  • Mac1to9

    Amazing list. I don’t own a Mac so is there a version of this for PC ??

  • desposi

    Safe eyes – though its meant to be a inappropriate site blocker for families – the company has an option where the admin rights can be retained by them, allowing you to choose what to block on line – but keeping you from modifying your settings when you are having a weak distracted moment.

    its useful – especially for getting rid of things like porn or aspects of the internet all together. as it allows us to really decide how we use our time.

  • Jwinston.account

    This is an incredible list of apps. It beats the top ten productivity apps in the appstore by a long shot!

    I have been looking for an app like TrackTime for YEARS and this is the first time I have come across something like this. It would be even better if it showed you what files you were working on inside indesign or photoshop etc.

    Top post!

  • DavidrVH

    It is frustrating to have an article that lists so many applications that are Mac only. For this PC user though — it may be a positive.

    I have tried several apps/tools designed to aid in getting work done, reduce distractions, etc. Most have created more distractions than they took away — rescuetime certainly did. Freedom & StayFocused have been simple enough to do the job for me.

    I have been checking the features (or, more importantly, the lack of features) on apps providing a distraction–free (reduced) format for writing. The real writing — the one were you work with words. I suspect I should stick with Word > Full Screen mode and Notepad, with simple and easy straight text, to keep the mind on those words. They might still be the only thing to think about when writing something?

  • Adam Salem

    sorry but i disagree with the ENTIRE premise of this WHOLE article….If people aren’t focused ITS BECAUSE THEY”RE NOT INTERESTED>>>>>END OF STORY!

  • Adam Salem

    HUMANS ARENT ROBOTS

  • David

    If I find myself becoming distracted, I just go play Angry Birds to complete the whole distraction thing.

  • dissertation online help

    very interesting! thanks for posting!

  • Jiri Rybar

    Macs, Macs, Macs…

  • Dan Peck

    Check out DigitalSilence  – 3days without technology and DigitalSilence- lite 3hrs without technology.
    You don’t need an App to do this, just make it a lifestyle choice. #getstuffdone
    http://bitly.com/fmLLKI

  • the best apps

    Just want to say your article is as amazing. The clearness in your post is simply excellent and i could assume you are an expert on this subject.

  • sadahkeem

    Great article–I’m curious to try Focus Booster.  Another suggestion similar to TimeTracker, RescueTime categorizes how you spend time on your computer (ie Designers may have different priorities than a Writer) and analyzes your productivity based on what programs/sites you use. The free Solo Lite version includes a snapshot of your data, and a comparison of your productivity with other users’, which can be an encouragement.  For both PC and Mac, it runs quietly in the background, too.

    https://www.rescuetime.com/

  • Alastair

    A great tool for blocking out distracting noise in libraries etc: http://simplynoise.com/

  • Rob

    I don’t like the whole concept of making my computer do my thinking for me. Deadlines are an excellent way to focus, as is hunger. If I don’t focus, I don’t get paid. Best “app” ever.

  • music2work2

    might be a little cheeky here but – Music is a fabulous tool when it comes to creating an appropriate environment for working.  I’d say that http://youtube.com / http://soundcloud.com or even http://music2work2.com are great online resources for helping people to focus better.

    The scientific literature on the efficacy of music as a study / focus tool is growing rapidly but I like Dr. Anneli Haake’s PhD study that looked at music in the workplace:

    http://musicatwork.net/

    So – get out there – find the music that you love and get productive!

  • Alex Nautilus

    New URL for TrackTime http://nimbleworks.co.uk/blog/

  • Thomas Wood

    I stay focused by using a PC.  PC users are dull, focused, and satisfied people.  Mac users area clearly the creative, unhappy dreamer types who need focus articles, assuming they can get through them in one go.

  • josh

    You’re annoying.

  • Michael

    I use this new product called GungHo Energy. It is clinically proven to increase focus and concentration. I like it! you can get it here: http://www.gogungho.com/studyninja

  • Rubi Tile Cutter

    This is a very simple application, which is similar to a “space” on a Mac. When enabled, Think you can get one just in front of your computer while everything else is hidden under a nearly opaque background.

  • A.

    that’s a bit simplistic. we all know old habits die hard, and that we have self-disciplining issues that have a lot to deal with lack of self-confidence. what if the way you browse through online articles or videos or wasting time on your cellphone or your TV is keeping you from doing what you really want to do because it’s easier and more natural to fall back into these activities than do actual work? i don’t think it’s fair to say that if someone fails at something it’s because they’re not interested…

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