10 Online Tools for Better Attention & Focus

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 insights on: Focus, Time Management

Jocelyn K. Glei

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A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with understanding how work gives our lives meaning. She has authored three books about work, creativity, and business, including the Amazon bestsellers Manage Your Day-to-Day and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.
load comments (122)
  • Constantijns

    Great tools! Made one myself for PhD students (weekend project): bohrresearch.com

  • jae

    I appreciate this list, but how about one for apps that don’t cost money?

    • lisa

      Some of the apps mentioned are free

  • Anna

    You’re funny. XDDD
    Why aren’t there any PC apps for these!! I need these too!! XD

  • Guest

    Seriously good list! Thanks.

  • adis

    Instead SelfControl, I use Persistence. Same functionality but has additional tools to boost the motivation! http://persistence-app.com

  • http://www.theq411.com Jennifer Quinn

    Excellent article! Thank you SO MUCH for compiling this! :-) I have it linked in a future blog post this week!

  • Amisha Ekaant

    Time management skills are more important for better attention and focus on work. The biggest requirement for growth is having time to dedicate it for any business. There are a number of ways that a time management system can help grow a business.

    One of the best way is to use some good time management software to keep focused on work and manage the tasks and time where it is necessary for everyone. Hence, I would suggest to use Replicon’s ( http://www.replicon.com/olp/online-time-recording-software.aspx ) software for efficient time management.

  • elpanek

    That’s the problem. For many people, not doing work doesn’t have an IMMEDIATE negative conseqeunce. It has down-the-road, nebulous consequences. These apps fill in for the lack of immediate consequences to procrastinating.

  • Gary Usleaman

    I use Rescue Time on my pc at work (Windows). There is a free version, and a pay version.

  • http://geekfree.net/ Aaron

    This is awesome, trying the FocusBooster app, thanks

    Jocelyn!

  • yasmin

    I use nanny for google chrome, this also helps me a lot to stay off of brainless websites!

  • Emma

    Time management is certainly quite important to any organization for its day to day tasks and I thanks to Replicon time tracking software – http://www.replicon.com/time-tracking-softwares.aspx for its easy to use calendar view interface and usability features.

  • http://lifeinflo.com Life In Flo

    Definitely!

    Having the discipline and will power to focus on a single task works wonders
    for the depth and alignment of completing any task to the best of your ability.
    Like stated in the open paragraph:

    “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.”

    Pertaining to sex, there is a vibration felt by both partners during intercourse that is meant to be embraced as you focus your feelings, not just ‘attention’, on your partner. So if your attention goes elsewhere that total immerse experience, also known as ecstasy, gets lost and now you’re just going through the motions hoping that the finally will be more than just a weak release of energy.

    In combination with apps as Jocel perfectly suggested here is a natural idea of how focus impacts all of your experiences: http://lifeinflo.com/?p=205

  • BingoPeixin

    Thank you so much for sharing. Super helpful.

  • Bob

    Cold Turkey is also another free Windows app:
    http://getcoldturkey.com

  • XMVGirl

    Rescue Time is one I’ve used for a few years. Love it. Gives me a report once a week on how productive I was and how much time I spent on distracting activities! I started it when I was in my MBA program to help with writing, and then just kept it and use for work as well. I am considering implementing for my larger team.

  • James

    This is a great list! I’d also recommend StopDistractions for Windows: http://StopDistractions.com

  • Mike Saporito

    Awesome ideas. Thank u for sharing : – )

  • Dev Mav

    I use this app on #Android to block distractions from my phone: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.mavdev.focusoutfacebook

    Disclaimer: I am the developer

  • Burgie

    ahhh thank you!!!!! so helpful to a teenager who nowadays has ALL of their homework online!!!!!

  • xyz

    please suggest similar apps for windows also…!!

  • Denny

    Thanks for sharing all these wonderful applications. I would also suggest a great time management software application from Replicon. This is a cool application with such nice calendar view interface and robust support.

    Additionally, it can be quickly implemented and at the same time it can be accessed from any location using a web browser.

  • Céline Arave

    Good work. For quick feedback from your clients, you guys should try proofhub that offers inbuilt proofing tool to manage design files and get quick feedback from client. You can mark comments, draw shapes, highlight portions and add notes. Great tool for designers. http://www.proofhub.com/proofing.

  • Muhammad Muneeb

    Thanks a lot for sharing great tools for better attention and focus.These tools are very useful for us.I appreciate your article.

  • Shreyansh

    Thanks:)

  • Gary

    I guess any app that utilizes Pomodoro or Time-Blocking technique works better than the others. Try this time-blocking app – iFocus Timerhttps://itunes.apple.com/us/app/ifocus-timer/id889652849?mt=8

  • vickiemcmullen

    It would be awesome if equal time was given to PCs. I was disappointed to see so many say for Macs only.

  • Felix Belzile

    Cold Turkey is a free program for Windows that blocks websites and programs. You can also group certain sites and have them blocked during certain parts of the day with a schedule. Check it out at http://getcoldturkey.com

    I am the developer of Cold Turkey.

    • AnnieH

      Your app is a good idea but it is full of bugs and absolutely did not work for me. I tried to get you to help me and you barely put in any effort to help me figure out what went wrong. I had already done everything you suggested (turning off antivirus/firewall, etc. was your definition of help). None of the basic things worked and then you were just like, “Welp, you’re on your own, then.” This was after I donated money to you. I certainly regret that and I hope that you learn the meaning of customer service at some point.

    • Saurav Sett

      I tried the latest version of Cold Turkey. It worked fine. But I had to reinstall WAMP. After coldturkey lockdown ended the WAMP server was simply not working.

    • SD

      And you never respond to emails. We were huge fans but it was so buggy that when the timer was off for certain websites, we still could not access them. We wrote numerous emails for help but never heard back from anyone. We’ve had to move on to other sites.

  • ( OFFTIME )

    Thanks, Jocelyn. Please check out http://www.offtime.co too. ( OFFTIME ) helps you to focus and to unplug when work is over – thanks to smart app blocking, communications filter and insights into your smartphone usage.

  • Timo

    Interesting study and great roundup! As a student I can share some more options (Mac):

    willmore.eu/software/isolator/ – Fades out background (free)
    onefocusapp.com – Blocks distracting apps ($4.99)
    heyfocus.com – Blocks distracting websites ($19.99)
    macfreedom.com – Blocks internet connection ($10)
    bumblebeesystems.com/wastenotime/ – Safari addon (free)
    proginosko.com/leechblock.html – Firefox addon (free)

  • Henri Galvão

    Some very nice suggestions here, thank you to the writer of the article and to all the people who commented, I’ll probably experiment some of them. As a PC user, I use RescueTime, StayFocusd and StrictWorflow. I haven’t seen anybody talk about this last one, but I suppose it’s basically the same as FocusBooster, since it’s also based on the Pomodoro Technique.

  • gabrielleherbert

    Nice article Jocelyn, for me, to stay productive, efficient and organized at work I use an iPad called Beesy it helps be get focused on what needs to be done.

  • http://www.soundshade.me SoundShade

    Thanks for the great suggestions! We at SoundShade use Toggl (www.toggl.fi) for single task time tracking, IRL wall Kanban with posters for concentrating on only one task at the time and our own natural sound app (www.soundshade.me) to create non-disturbing sound scenes that mask unnecessary noise.

    Sometimes listening to ambient sounds or even classical music helps – it works especially well when one needs to do any kind of creative writing or concentrating on reading. Songs with lyrics might be then feel distracting.

    Also setting up the phone on the airplane mode and going full-screen and wi-fi-free (as with some of the above mentioned apps) works. A hard core approach would be hiding the phone in a box on a top shelf until the end of the work day. ;)

  • Garp

    Hello! Thank you for this!
    I ‘m desperately looking for a block like freedom for my iPhone. can anybody help? Thanks!

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