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Focusing

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.)

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 (131)
  • Deb

    We’re all on a spectrum. Inattentive ADHD (not the hyperactive kind) hits many more people than most people realize. Having apps and other online solutions to make their lives better is a great thing, especially for those who need to be on the computer. If someone were blind or deaf, or even just had difficulty seeing or hearing (another spectrum!), we wouldn’t begrudge them apps to help them get what they need. Congratulations on your ability to focus. Don’t take it for granted, and don’t assume everyone has your gift.

  • PCuser

    Your first initial “T.” must stand for Troll.

  • Nicole Pyles

    I disagree! No matter what we are doing we can get distracted – yes, sometimes the things we love to do (for me it’s writing) can be tough to just sit down and get started, but having the discipline to just START is wonderful. And once you start it’s amazing.

    Nothing is black and white like that. Sorry. it just isn’t.

  • Nicole Pyles

    I was thinking the same thing. These apps could distract me, not help me. For me, I use pen and paper for my first draft and type the second draft of stories when I’m done. The computer just distracts me completely.

  • Momo

    If I didn’t have friends that had PCs, I would say that PC users must also be crass(holes). Or just crabby old dinosaurs. But that would be a poor choice, because that would be making an assumption based on one source-you. Most people in the younger generation HAVE macs. They were also born into the technology era, so naturally it’s easier for many of us to get distracted because we are used to the technology being around. I believe I can also safely say that a large majority of the people who
    get distracted happen to have a disorder called ADD or ADHD. Maybe
    you’ve heard of it, Señor Dinosaur. It disables people with the
    condition from being able to concentrate well, no matter how much they
    want to/know they need to. Your reasoning is out of context and
    therefore invalid. Most of the younger generations today that own
    laptops, have Macs. Many of the people in our younger generation ALSO
    have some kind of ADD or ADHD. You, sir, are innacurately inferring
    information from whatever source, or maybe you’re just making a poor
    [ass]umption, making you an ass.
    By the way, take in some quotes about creativity, and then think again about what you wrote down.
    “Too much of our work amounts to the drudgery of arranging means
    toward ends, mechanically placing the right foot in front of the left
    and the left in front of the right, moving down narrow corridors toward
    narrow goals. Play widens the halls. Work will always be with us, and
    many works are worthy. But the worthiest works of all often reflect an
    artful creativity that looks more like play than work.”
    — James Ogilvy”There is no doubt that creativity is the most important human
    resource of all. Without creativity, there would be no progress, and we
    would be forever repeating the same patterns.”

    — Edward de BonoThink about it.
    I’ll cite my source- <http: creativityquotes.html=”” http://www.leadershipnow.com=“”>. Check the source out. It’s got some great quotes about creativity from the greatest minds in history. Maybe you’ll learn your place.  Trololol, jerk  :P</http:>

  • Momo

    Oops! My mistake. Somehow the URL got mixed up. Here it is again:

    <http: creativityquotes.html=”” http://www.leadershipnow.com=“”></http:>

  • Momo

    Numbers 9,8,7,5, & 1 have options for someone with a PC. It’s not a hopeless thing! I’m sure you’ll find something you like  🙂
    If not in one of these apps, then somewhere online. Don’t give up  🙂

  • Momo

    Numbers 9,8,7,5, & 1 have options for someone with a PC. It’s not a
    hopeless thing! I’m sure you’ll find something you like  🙂

    If not in one of these apps, then somewhere online. Don’t give up  🙂

  • Online Associates Degree

    i like focus writer its a very good and simple application to use..

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  • Facebook Application Developer

    Just amazing and informative to me, it impressed me a lot.

  • Taylor

    Why are 40% of these exclusively for Mac users when Macs only have 10.7% of the market share?*  Do Mac users get distracted more easily, or is the author just a Mac user with bias, or is it something else?  Very interesting…

    *Source: http://www.gartner.com/it/page

  • FocusMe

    I am the creator of a program called Focus Me for Windows PCs. It has taken me years to develop and I am very proud of it. PC users please have a look! It is a very feature rich program which I think you will like.
    http://focusme.co

  • Facebook Application Developer

    hmm the site is full of great informative knowledge. Thanks.

  • Mcuttino

    Great info! I need some help with this area.

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    Every day we pick what we call the Good Free App of the Day, an app that we have downloaded, tested and certified: It can’t have a ton of ads or just a little content with a ton of in-app purchases.

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  • El Sid

    I agree with post somewhat, but it really doesn’t change the problem.  Does ANYONE have a job that they love 100% of the tasks.  Even if you like 90% of your work, the 10% that you don’t like can really bring down you total productivity.  

    It all has to get done and so if you can’t delegate what you don’t like, you have to do it.  Any tool that can get me through those rough patches is a freaking godsend as far I’m concerned.  

    If you have a job you truly enjoy 100% of the time, I envy you.

  • Optimisation

    I do agree on what is the topic of this blog. It is very important to have a mentally present because without this maybe we will get crazy and get addictive about the things that we usually do that is wrong if we abuses.

  • Ryan

    Hello, Leechblock for FireFox…Also for a permanent solution use OpenDNS .com as your free dns provider and block entire categories from even connecting to their ip from your comp no matter what browser you use

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  • Jeremy

    It is so much easier to procrastinate than actually do work. If you dont have self-discipline, you will find something else to keep your mind off what your supposed to do. I like track time, it worked out for a good couple of days, till my inner idler came back.

  • Digital Asset Creation

    Thank you for providing such a useful tools that can help us to boost the attention that we need from our costumers of our website.

  • Digital Asset Creation

    I found out that those 10 Tools are very effective and useful for Better Attention & Focus. Thanks for sharing nice blog post

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