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Focus On Homework Application

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.)

Ahh, the freedom of freelancing. You set your own hours. You work on your own terms — within the scope of client deadlines and expectations, of course. You…

…You…

…Oops. Sorry — just had to check out the latest Grumpy Cat meme on Facebook. And sneak a peek at my email. Which actually reminds me, I haven’t updated my LinkedIn profile in a while…

Sound familiar?

While the Internet and all its glorious tools can make a freelancer’s work easier, it also provides so very many ways in which to avoid your work altogether and get lost in an abyss of never-ending stuff: some of it quasi-work-related (hey, LinkedIn’s a networking tool!), some of it just an excuse to procrastinate.

Luckily, you can get technology back on your side with a slew of super helpful concentration apps that help you focus, block out distractions and get to work. Here are some of the top ones: (Click to tweet this list)

1. Anti-Social

If you’re always lured from your projects by the siren call of Facebook and Twitter, this app’s for you. Anti-Social eliminates the temptation to update your status by blocking these sites altogether.

You can choose timed blocks from 15 minutes up to eight hours (if you’re feeling really determined), and the app “keeps you honest” by cleverly lacking a way to turn it off. That’s right — if you feel the itch and try to cheat, the only way to sneak around a timed block is by rebooting your computer altogether.

Anti-Social is made to block over 30 social networking sites, including Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Hulu and Reddit. You can also add any other sites that tend to pull you away from your work. Are you a secret Amazon shopper? A fantasy football roster-checker? Add these sites to your blocked list to have them blocked as well.

Operating System: Mac and Windows

Cost: $15 (with a 90-day money-back guarantee)

2. Concentrate

Okay, let’s say that most of the time, Facebook and Twitter are a horrible distraction for you. But when you’re doing social media management for your blog, they’re kind of necessary. Concentrate allows you to select which applications and sites are allowed and which are off-limits based on the task you’re doing. It even goes the extra mile by opening up necessary applications for you.

Let’s say that when you write, you need to access Word, your favorite online thesaurus site (we all use them in a pinch), and Pandora for a little background music. So, when you launch your “writing” action (for whatever time limit you allocate), Concentrate will open a Word doc for you (either a new one or one you’ve already saved), open up your thesaurus site and launch Pandora for you. It can also block out everything else, set your chat status to “away” and give you special messages and alerts to keep you on task.

Operating System: Mac

Cost: 60-day free trial, then $29 (with money-back guarantee)

3. Focus Booster

This app is specifically based on the pomodoro technique, a time management system that breaks tasks down into timed blocks separated by short breaks. Since its creation in the ‘80s, the technique has been done most often with kitchen timers; Focus Booster is its digital extension.

According to the rules of the technique, the app breaks your tasks down into 25-minute sessions (“pomodoros”), each followed by a five-minute break. After four pomodoros, you take a longer, 15- to 20-minute break.

This technique aims to keep your mind refreshed and agile as you work. If you’re the type who would plug away for two straight hours until your eyes start to blur, this more regimented system could help provide you with a little more structure and rest time.

Systems: Mac and Windows. An online version is also available if you work across multiple computers or don’t want to download an app.

Cost: Free (for now). They‘re currently crowdfunding on Pozible to keep the app free as they add new features.

4. FocusWriter

Eliminate all the sidebars and notifications that tug at the periphery of your vision and really immerse yourself in your writing with this app, which turns your computer screen into the simplest, most distraction-free blank page possible.

You can choose various themes, from a totally gray screen with black writing, to a screen over a soothing background image, to a retro green-type-on-black look. Everything else, including the app’s own user interface, which you can access by mousing over the edge of the screen, is whisked out of sight and out of mind.

Features include timers and alarms, daily goals and (my personal favorite) genuine typewriter sound effects, if that helps get your inspiration flowing.

Systems: Mac, Windows and Linux

Cost: Free (with the option to donate if you so choose)

5. SelfControl

If you lack it yourself, SelfControl has it for you. Unlike other apps, this one will not allow you to get out of your predetermined timed sessions — not even by rebooting your computer or deleting the application itself. If hardcore discipline is called for, this is about as strict as it gets.

Systems: Mac, Windows and Linux

Cost: Free (with option to donate)

6. StayFocused

Aimed at websites only, but highly customizable within that area, StayFocused limits the amount of time you can spend on certain sites. You decide how many minutes per day you’re allowed to access your guilty pleasure sites, and once you’ve hit your limit, the site is blocked for the rest of the day.

Not only can you block websites, you can also block subdomains, specific pages on certain sites, distracting in-page content like videos and images or the entire Internet itself. Better yet? If you try sneaking back on (you know, just to make sure the app is working), you’ll be guilt-tripped by a message asking, “Shouldn’t you be working?”

System: Google Chrome extension

Cost: Free (with option to donate)

7. Time Out and 8. SmartBreak

For those on the opposite side of the focus spectrum — workaholics who work too much for too long — these apps will remind you to take a break once in awhile.

Time Out reminds you by gently dimming the screen and showing you a message. You can take normal breaks (10 minutes after 50 minutes of work) or micro breaks (short pauses of 10 seconds every 10 minutes if you’re really doing something stressful). Once the break is over, your screen fades back in, and you can get back to work.

SmartBreak is aimed more at the ergonomic benefits of break-taking. Rather than using set break periods, it actually monitors the amount of work you’re doing (are you typing away like a fiend, or just pecking?) and reminds you to take a break based on when it thinks you need it. While this could get disruptive if you’re just looking to take breaks now and then, it’s great if you suffer from the repetitive stress injuries, back and neck pain, and eye strain that come from long hours in front of a computer.

Systems: Mac (Time Out); Windows (SmartBreak)

Cost: Free (Time Out) (with option to donate) ; $19.95 (SmartBreak) ($5 discount if you share or tweet about the app)

9. Sound Curtain and 10. White Noise

These are both mobile apps, but the idea behind them is a great one. While other apps focus on blocking out visual distractions and computer applications that can drain your focus, these smartphone apps help block out the distractions of a noisy work environment. It’s best if you have a headset to really get the full effect.

Sound Curtain masks noise with white noise and harmonic sounds — and if you have a mic on your headset, it will automatically adjust its volume, pitch and tone according to the level of noise around you.

White Noise mimics the sound of an untuned TV from back in the day when we still had static channels — not so jarringly that it’s a distraction in itself, but more as a means of absorbing ambient noise and “insulating” your mind.

Systems: iPhone (Sound Curtain); Android (White Noise)

Cost: $4.99 (Sound Curtain); Free (White Noise)

Did we miss any good ones? Share your favorites in the comments!

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