We live in a world of perpetual distraction. While we produce our best work in a state of deep focus, there seems no end to the tools, tasks and people that break it. From Slack pings and routine email checking, to poorly spaced meetings and the lure of sites that tap into our psychology, staying focused at work has never been so hard. Luckily, there are dozens of unobtrusive apps that can help improve your focus and take back control of your productive attention. Here are five of our very favorite tools to improve your concentration.
Understanding where your focus goes is an essential place to start. Instead of being just another task stealing your focus from ‘real’ work, Timely makes time tracking completely unobtrusive by doing it for you. It automatically tracks everything you do and lays it out in a revealing private timeline. It essentially holds up a mirror to the way you work: you can see how you perform against your plans, how long you spend in different work tools, and isolate the distractions, behaviors and unproductive tasks that hold you back. It’s intuitive calendar interface also lets you plan your time more intelligently – using insights from previous task lengths to time block your day effectively.
If you find the temptation of social media too hard to resist, or frequently find yourself reading about random topics on Wikipedia, then StayFocusd is for you. This handy Google Chrome extension helps improve your concentration by restricting the amount of time you spend on websites that steal away your productive time. You can set your own limits – like capping Twitter use to 20 minutes and Reddit to 30. Once you’ve reached your browsing time limit, that’s it: StayFocusd cuts you off. You can block entire sites, certain subdomains, individual pages, and even specific in-page content like videos or games. StayFocusd limits rather than totally restricts your usual distractions, to make abstention a little more palatable.
Our brains are incredibly varied and complex, but one thing we know for certain is that they like music. Studies show that listening to music can increase your productivity, spark creativity, allow you to be more present, and boost your efficiency while you perform repetitive tasks. If that wasn’t enough, music also causes your brain to release dopamine, which improves your mood. The kicker is that it needs to be the right kind of music; no matter how much you might like hip hop, science tells us it doesn’t usually aid focus. Thankfully there’s Brain.fm to help you out: a music library designed to improve the quality of your concentration. The tool promises that you’ll notice a difference within the first half hour – though it usually takes just 15 minutes. Powered by AI, Brain.fm also has music to aid relaxation and sleep… so after you’ve worked your socks off, you’ll be able to unwind just as easily.
Many of us are guilty of keeping multiple tabs and apps open on our desktops, but when you’re trying to focus the last thing you need is to see emails pinging away in another tab. Even for the most disciplined among us, this is an unnecessary distraction, even though our work often requires us to keep chat threads open. Understand: multitaking completely destroys concentration, so if you want to really focus check out HazeOver. It fades out all your inactive background windows… fading out your distractions at the same time. HazeOver stops you getting overwhelmed by windows and tabs blinking at you, and allows you to focus on one thing at a time. The tool automatically highlights your new active tab whenever you switch to another one, effectively trying to hold your attention where it’s needed most.
If your phone is the main cause of your distraction, then check out Forest – a simple yet highly visual app that helps to lock your focus. The concept is pretty cute – whenever you want to concentrate deeply for a set period, you “plant a tree” on the app. Over the next half hour, the tree grows – but only if you stay on the app! If you leave the app to check your phone, even for a moment, the tree dies. At the end of the week, as long you’ve enjoyed some good focused working time, you’ll have grown a visual forest. One of the great things about Forest is that you don’t have to use it just for work; if you’re guilty of checking your phone with friends or over dinner, you can use it for that too, and enjoy being present while watching your forest flourish. If you think it sounds too gimmicky, just give a try... And maybe plant a tree or two in the real world, too!