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14 Tools to Help You Avoid Distractions and Stay Focused at Work

Stephen Altrogge
Stephen Altrogge / July 21, 2016

95% of the Internet is one massive distraction–and that's a generous estimate. One minute I’m aggressively knocking out my to-do list, the next I’m sucked into a "Which Harry Potter Character Are You?" quiz (Ron, in case you’re wondering). Not to mention the notifications from Facebook, Skype, and email on my phone, and the hundreds of other distractions that pull me away from what I really should be doing.

I know I'm not alone in fighting this daily battle. In 2010, researchers estimated that distracted workers were costing businesses $650 billion per year and that interruptions can take up as much as 6 hours of our day. Imagine what those numbers are now. For every interruption or distraction, it can take 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to where you left off. What a time suck.

Additionally, researcher Matt Killingsworth found that distractions actually makes us less happy. Those who are able to give their focus to one thing at a time are much more satisfied with life. Distractions are destructive.

As hard as it might be to avoid every kind of distraction, though, at least we have tools that can give us a boost when our willpower starts to waver. Try one of these distraction-busting tools to get back to doing what matters most.


Freedom (Web, Mac, PC, iOS)

Best for blocking distracting websites across a variety of devices

Freedom

Freedom is an all-in-one distraction blocker for your computer and mobile devices. Once you’ve installed it on your computer or phone, you can block websites and apps from the dashboard for all of your devices, as well as create scheduled focus sessions.

For example, if you really want to stay away from Twitter first thing in the morning, you can set up a Freedom session from 8:00-9:00 AM. During that time, Freedom will automatically start running and won’t allow you to accidentally–or intentionally–see what people are Tweeting. If you know your bad habits, you can set up Freedom sessions to counter those habits.

You can also go into "Locked Mode” when your distraction cravings are raging and you can’t be trusted. Locked mode prevents you from changing the settings in the middle of a session, meaning you won't be able to unblock distracting sites during Locked mode.

And if you really need to go into hardcore lockdown mode, you can block the entire internet, basically turning your computer into something straight out of 1994–but with more RAM and fewer free hours from AOL.

Price: Freedom costs $2.42 per month with an annual plan, and you can try it with 7-session trial for free.

Self-Control (Mac)

Best for a free website-blocking app for Macs

Self-Control

Like Freedom, Self-Control lets you create a specific set of blacklisted websites and then blocks those websites so you can't access them when you're supposed to be working. Or you can create a set of whitelisted sites and Self-Control will let you access only those sites.

Self-Control is a little more hard core than Freedom in that once you start it, you can’t stop it [insert ominous music]. Well, you can, but you'd have to reboot your computer, which is a pain. But that’s the point: it makes it as hard as possible to access the sites that take up your time when you really should be working.

The good news? Self-Control is completely free and open-source. The bad news? It’s only for Mac.

Price: Free

Cold Turkey (Windows)

Best for Windows users with self-control issues

Cold Turkey

If you’re a Windows-only kind of person, Cold Turkey is for you. Like Freedom, Cold Turkey allows you to block specified websites and applications. The one distinction that sets Cold Turkey apart is the "Frozen Turkey" option, which locks you completely out of your computer for a set period.

If you’re someone who is bedtime challenged (college student, entrepreneur, night owl), this is a particularly useful feature. It is also useful if you tend to make ill-advised eBay purchases or Tweets in the middle of the night.

Cold Turkey has a slick interface which makes it easy to schedule focus sessions. It may be aimed primarily toward young adults and college students, but it could be useful to anyone trying to restrict their computer time

Price: Free version with limited options; $19/month for full-features including Frozen Turkey and schedule session options

Focus Booster (Web, Mac, Windows)

Best for Pomodoro productivity technique fans

Focus Booster

Focus Booster is part Pomodoro timer and part time tracker, with a generous sprinkling of reporting and analysis. The app—which runs on Mac, Windows, and your browser—lets you run Pomodoro focus sessions to help you stay on track and fight distraction. These Pomodoro sessions are automatically recorded into timesheets, which is useful if you’re a freelancer trying to stay on top of billing or are required by your job to submit timesheets.

A slick dashboard shows how you spent your time, which clients you did work for, and your overall productivity levels. This is a great tool for freelancers especially or those who also want to record the details of their workday.

Price: Free basic plan; $5/month Professional account for full features

StayFocusd (Chrome)

Best for blocking all distracting sites in Chrome

StayFocusd

StayFocusd is a free Chrome extension which, like other blockers, allows you to selectively block time-suck websites. One advantage to StayFocusd is that it allows you to set an aggregate timer for all distracting websites. Want to give yourself a maximum of one hour on Buzzfeed and Facebook combined? You can do that. Once your time is up, it won’t let you extend the time. It doesn’t trust you, which is a good thing.

If you really need to buckle down, StayFocusd has a "Nuclear Option," which blocks everything on your list and can’t be deactivated.

StayFocusd

Price: Free

LeechBlock (Firefox)

Best for blocking sites after a set amount of time within Firefox

LeechBlock

LeechBlock is a Firefox extension similar to StayFocusd. You specify which sites to block, when to block, and how long to block them. LeechBlock also tracks how long you visit the specified sites when they’re not blocked.

The extension does have a few nice features that set it apart. You can set timers on blocks so that after a certain number of minutes, a site becomes blocked. If you only want to give yourself ten minutes to read the news, and then block it, you can do that.

To keep yourself motivated, you can set up a redirect page for when you try to access a blocked site. Imagine trying to access Facebook and suddenly finding yourself redirected to the Nickleback homepage. Yikes.

LeechBlock also has a password option, intended to slow you down in moments of weakness. By forcing you to enter a password before disabling, it gives your sanity time to catch up with your impulse. Of course, if you really wanted to stay focused, you could give the password to someone else.

Price: Free

Focus, by Brad Jasper (Mac)

Best for inspiring you to stop wasting time and get back to work

Focus

Focus is a Mac app that sits in the menu bar. Like the previous apps, it allows you to block specific websites, but it also has a few features that set it apart. Rather than simply returning an error message when you try to access a blocked site, Focus shows a quote in the browser. It comes with a number of pre-loaded inspirational quotes, but you can also add in your own quotes as well.

Focus can also block distracting applications, such as Skype and Apple Mail, to help keep constant notifications at bay.

You can even customize Focus by creating your own scripts from your terminal. It’s a small but powerful distraction-preventing tool.

Focus

Price: $19.99

Focus, by Foggy Noggin (Mac)

Best for forcing you to focus on one window at a time

Focus

This Focus app works by dimming all open windows except for the one you are currently working in. It’s handy for distraction-free writing, coding, and other thought-intensive activities.

The app is particularly useful for those who keep large numbers of windows open at one time or who use enormous monitors that allow them to see windows behind the one they’re currently using.

Price: $0.99 in the Mac App Store

RescueTime (Mac, Windows, Android, Linux)

Best for tracking time on projects and also blocking distracting sites

RescueTime

RescueTime is an all-in-one distraction killing beast. It blocks distracting websites, and also does much more. It runs in the background of both your computer and mobile devices, monitoring which websites and applications you visit. Then it provides detailed reports so that you can know exactly—down to the minute—how you’ve spent your time. You may think you’re focused, but your opinion may change when you see RescueTime’s data on your days.

RescueTime gives you weekly email summaries, for a handy way to analyze your time right from your inbox, and it lets you set daily goals, such as using the first 30 minutes of your day on productive work.

Finally, RescueTime analyzes all your activities and generates a productivity score, which allows you to measure your levels of productivity in a given time period. If you’re looking for an everything solution, this is a good one.

Price: Free lite version; premium version from $9/month

For a deeper look at RescueTime's features and pricing, check out our RescueTime review.

Zero Willpower (iOS)

Best for those who want a simple website blocker on iOS devices

Zero Willpower

If you only want to disable distracting websites on your iOS devices, Zero Willpower is a great option. And it’s super simple to use. Download the app, turn on content blockers in iOS, and then you’re off and running.

It has the standard options of adding websites and setting timers. There’s nothing particularly profound about this app, but it does exactly what it’s supposed to. And with most of us spending hours every day on our mobile phones, Zero Willpower might be enough to keep you focused.

Pricing: $0.99

Focus Lock (Android)

Best for blocking distracting apps on Android

Focus Lock

Focus Lock is perfect for the Android user who just can’t manage to put their phone down. Focus Lock allows you to selectively block apps during a specific time period so that you can focus on work that matters. You can also use this app in conjunction with the Pomodoro method (25 minutes of focus, 5 minute break).

The advantage of Focus Lock over other apps is that it doesn’t require you to shut down all applications or put your phone in airplane mode. Like Zero Willpower, this app isn’t particularly profound, but it gets the job done.

Pricing: Free

Brain.fm (Web)

Best for creating a focus-boosting soundtrack to work to

Brain.fm

Brain.fm is a bit different than the others on this list and would ideally be used alongside something like Freedom. It’s a website that creates an individualized soundtrack for you to enhance your concentration and focus—something that's been described as "Audio" Adderall. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the point.

You tell Brain.fm what you want to accomplish (focus, meditation, relaxation, etc.), and it builds a track tailored just for you.

These soundtracks are rooted in scientific research and have been proven, at least to some degree, to enhance brain activity. If you work in a loud office, have a coworker who eats celery all day, or just need to drown out any other kind of noise, consider this solution.

Pricing: Free for 7 free sessions; full features for $6.95/month

Pen and Paper

Best for when you need to get away from the screen

Pen and paper

Sometimes the best solution for digital distraction is to shut the laptop, turn off the mobile, and pull out pen and paper. There’s something soothing and even cathartic about scratching out your thoughts on paper. It might even be better for note-taking. And, of course, there are thousands of options here, starting with something as simple as a legal pad and ballpoint pen.

If you want something a bit more elaborate, a few great options are:

  • Passion Planner - A goal setting, note taking, schedule making, big picture shaping notebook. Perfect for mapping out your goals and dreams.
  • Self Journal - The Self Journal is very focused on goal setting, habit tracking, and action plans. It’s designed to promote both mindfulness and high achievement.
  • Moleskine Journal - For a blank notebook, you really can’t beat a Moleskine. They are gorgeous and simply a delight to write in. Plus they make you feel very artistic, as if you’re creating the next great masterpiece.

Freewrite or Other Word Processor

Best for hardcore distraction fighting

Freewrite

Odds are this solution might be a little too extreme for you, but it's a fun idea. Freewrite is basically a digital typewriter designed only for writing. No games, no browsers, no cat pictures, nothing. You write…and that’s it.

It's designed just for writing. The constant cloud backups ensure you never lose a thing, and the electronic type screen give you the flexibility of a word processor.

Yes, it’s clunky. Yes, it costs $499. But if you really need to focus on writing, this’ll do the job.

As an alternative, you can buy a $19 used old-school portable word processor or a vintage typewriter for similar singular focus.

Price: $19 to $499


Let’s be honest: If you really want to be distracted and are open to distractions, the only thing that’s going to stop you is setting your laptop and phone on fire. However, you can set yourself up for success without going to an extreme. With these apps and tools, you can almost completely block out distractions automatically–no strain on your willpower, no temptation to begin with.

With focus comes success. As Alexander Graham Bell said:

Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun's rays do not burn until brought to a focus.

Now, get back to work on what truly matters.

Title photo by: Ivan Hsueh; Pen and paper image by Helloquence

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