3 Apps I Use to Stay On Track
Updated: Jul 20, 2019
One of the biggest battles I fight every day is staying focused. Like most Americans, my attention span has shortened over the years, and I find myself trying to "multi-task" all day. (Multi-tasking is a myth, by the way. The human mind can't actually do it, and you're kidding yourself if you think you are more productive trying to do two, or three, or four things at once.)
I struggle daily with distraction - email popping up, my phone dinging endlessly with useless notifications, people coming into my office and wanting to chat - and it seriously affects my ability to get my work done. Sure, I can respond to emails and knock out small tasks while distracted or "multi-tasking," but for a long time, I wasn't accomplishing anything creative, analytical, or more significant than simply staying afloat. I wanted more from my days, and that meant I needed more focus.
I started dialing in on focused time by having my work-from-home Thursday, where I wouldn't have the distraction of people wandering into my office (or coming in with legitimate, but still distracting, questions.) That was a good beginning, but I also need to be able to stay on track at home, where the lure of internet infinity pools is strong. Plus, the other four days of the week, when I'm in the office, I need to be able to focus and not lose 20 minutes to the internet news sites I visit when task-switching. So I did some research, and have now found three apps that are indispensable to my creativity and deep work.
Digital Wellbeing - I started with the Digital Wellbeing app on my phone about six months ago. (I have an Android, but Apple has a similar app called Screen Time.) I find all the beeps and boops of my phone terribly distracting, and this app allows me to shut off notifications for everything I don't want beeping and booping at me in one place. It also allows me to set timers for apps that waste my time. For instance, I have unlimited email time (which may or may not be a good thing), but I'm limited to five minutes on Instagram a day. This app also has a wind-down timer that filters the blue light on my phone starting at 8 p.m. and totally grays out my display at 9. It also shuts off all notifications from everyone in every app, except my starred contacts. So, my mom can reach me after 9 p.m., but my students can't. This app has seriously been a life-changer for me, and I could go on for HOURS about the improvement I've seen in my focus and creativity since I started using it.
StayFocusd - This is an extension for Chrome that allows you to set time limits on how long you are allowed to browse certain sites. Do you lose hours to Facebook or the news while you are supposed to be working? Use this extension to set time limits - or block a site altogether. I set a 30 minute daily limit for the three sites that drag me in and can waste hours of my time every day. Thirty minutes is enough time to catch up on the news and have a quick scroll on Facebook while I'm eating my lunch, but not enough time that when I'm done, I feel like I've wasted half the day. Plus, I love the fact that when you time out, it pops up a screen that asks, "Shouldn't you be working?" Yes, yes I should.
Freedom - This app is the next level. This is great if you've set up Digital Wellbeing/Screen Time and StayFocusd, but you want to turn it up to 11. This app will literally lock out your phone, tablet, computer, anything so that you literally CANNOT get into your email, the internet, games, apps, anything. Phone calls won't come through. Text messages won't interrupt you. You can't pop into your email real quick. You can only work in the programs or apps that are productive - Word, Excel, etc. This is obviously the nuclear option, but if you need concentrated time to get work done, it is amazing. You can set regular times to block it all, or you can do it on the fly if you find you need 30-90 uninterrupted minutes. I'm considering using it for dinner time at my house, too, just to keep the beeping and booping from disrupting family dinner.
Willpower is a tricky thing, and with these three apps, I don't have to have it anymore. I can just set the parameters and know that I'm not being forced to make decisions every day about how long I want to look at house plans on Pinterest, or scroll through news stories on Google. Plus, I can do both of those things now, and know that I'm doing it in moderation, so the guilt of a quick scroll is gone. Since setting up these apps, I've written more, been more focused and felt better about my creative output in the past six months than ever before in my life.