The 10 Best Apps to Help You Focus and Block Distractions

Stephen Altrogge
Stephen Altrogge / December 4, 2018

The internet is one massive distraction. One minute I'm aggressively knocking out my to-do list, and the next I'm sucked into a "Which Harry Potter character are you?" quiz (Ron). Notifications from Facebook, Slack, and Skype, not to mention alerts on my phone, pull my attention away from what I should be doing. When I need to block these distractions and focus, however, I can turn to some apps for help.

Apps that help people focus work in a variety of ways. Some are browser extensions that block you from seeing certain websites. Others are desktop apps that hide from view anything except the active window. Some apps gently nudge you from bad behavior while others aggressively stop you from going down a rabbit hole. Which apps you choose to use will largely depend on how strict you want them to be.

While we sometimes think of distractions as being little more than a bad habit, they also waste money. In 2010, researchers estimated that distracted workers cost businesses $650 billion per year. Additionally, researcher Matt Killingsworth found that distractions makes us less happy. People who are able to focus on one thing at a time are much more satisfied with life than those who can't. Distractions are destructive.

This list of the best apps to help you focus and block distractions considers technology solutions only. That said, there's nothing wrong with picking up a pen and paper to cut yourself off from computing distractions. Heck, you could write an entire proposal or lecture by hand and, when you're done, scan it using a mobile scanner and OCR app and turn your writing into digital text almost instantly.

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

The 10 Best Apps to Help You Focus and Block Distractions

  • Brain.fm (Android, iOS, Web) for focus-boosting soundtracks
  • Cold Turkey Blocker (macOS, Windows) for locking yourself out your computer
  • Focus@Will (Android, iOS, Web) for lyric-free audio and tracking your productivity
  • Hocus Focus for viewing one window at a time on a Mac
  • Freedom (Chrome, Firefox, iOS, macOS, Opera, Windows) for blocking anything you want, anywhere you want
  • LeechBlock (Chrome, Firefox) for using timers to block or allow website access
  • Mindful Browsing (Chrome) for gentle nudges away from time-wasting sites
  • RescueTime (Android, iOS, Linux, macOS, Web, Windows) for tracking productivity and blocking distracting sites
  • Self Control (macOS) for free focus app for Mac
  • StayFocusd (Chrome) for blocking sites in Chrome

Brain.fm (Android, iOS, Web)

Best for focus-boosting soundtracks

Brain.fm

Brain.fm is a website and mobile app that provides two-hour long soundtracks designed to help you focus, relax, or sleep. You get to choose the type of audio you want to hear, such as chimes and bowls, electronic music, rain, atmospheric noise, and more.

According to the site developers, the idea behind using soundtracks to focus is rooted in scientific research and have been proven, at least to some degree, to enhance brain activity. Your mileage may vary. 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 Brain.fm.

Pricing: Free for five free sessions and limited options; from $6.95/month for unlimited

Cold Turkey Blocker (macOS, Windows)

Best focus app for locking yourself out of your computer

Cold Turkey

Cold Turkey is an app for macOS and Windows that helps you focus by letting you choose websites and apps to block when you need to buckle down. The one unique feature in this app is called Frozen Turkey, a setting that locks you out of your computer completely for a set period. This Pro-only feature could be compelling if you have a hard time shutting down your electronics at night and going to bed. It's also useful if you have bad computer habits when you should be spending time with others.

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

Cold Turkey Blocker Pricing: Free with limitations; $25 (one-time fee) for Pro on all your computers

Focus@Will (Android, iOS, Web)

Best focus app for lyric-free audio and tracking your productivity

Focus@Will

Similar to Brain.fm, Focus@Will provides lyric-free audio tracks designed to help you focus, the primary difference between them being Focus@Will lets you make a note of how productive you felt while listening, which it tracks over time.

In addition to giving you tools to track how productive you were while listening to different soundtracks, Focus@Will also starts you out with a short quiz to determine whether you are a creative type or a more logical thinker, and assess other preferences you may have to suggest an optimal style of music for you to listen to while trying to focus.

One more difference to point out between Focus@Will and Brain.fm: Focus@Will costs more and requires a credit card for its free trial, whereas Brain.fm offers a free, though limited, tier of service.

Focus@Will Pricing: $9.95/month, $99.95/year, or $299.95 for lifetime membership

Hocus Focus (macOS)

Best focus app for viewing one window at a time on macOS

HocusFocus for macOS

Hocus Focus is a free Mac app that helps you focus by clearing clutter from your screen. (Formerly, it was known as Houdini, but the current release is a ground-up rewrite.) Its main function is to minimize windows that aren't active so that only one app is in view at a time. If you're the type of person who app-switches frequently, Hocus Focus can help you curb that behavior and stick to one application at a time.

Hocus Focus comes with settings that let you hide apps after a set period of inactivity or immediately when not in use. You can also create and save profiles with the settings you want for different activities, such as writing, researching, or video editing.

The app is entirely free with no upsells or paywalls, and you can download it directly from the developer's site; it's not available in the App Store.

HocusFocus Pricing: Free; donations accepted

Freedom (Chrome, Firefox, iOS, macOS, Opera, Windows)

Best focus app for blocking anything you want, anywhere you want

Freedom

Freedom is an all-in-one distraction blocker. It prevents you from opening extraneous apps and accessing websites that you find distracting, no matter if you're using a computer, iPad, or iPhone. You can even crack down hard on yourself by blocking the entire internet, basically turning your computer into something straight out of 1994, but with more RAM and fewer free hours from AOL.

When you want to focus, you create a Freedom session and then choose what you want to block. You can also create recurring sessions if, for example, you want to avoid Twitter and Facebook between 8 a.m. and noon every day.

Freedom also has a Locked Mode for when your distractibility is outrageously high. This mode prevents you from changing the settings in the middle of a session. Freedom is one of the best focus apps because it offers plenty of customization for helping you focus on both desktop and mobile devices.

Freedom pricing: $6.99/month, $29.04/year, or $129 for life. Free trial for seven sessions.

LeechBlock (Chrome, Firefox)

Best free focus app for using timers to block or allow website access

LeechBlock

This extension for Firefox and Chrome lets you specify which sites to block, when, and for how long. One of LeechBlock's better features is its timer. You can give yourself a set amount of time, say 15 minutes to read The Washington Post online each day or browse Google News, but you'll be locked out for the day after those 15 minutes are up.

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 (or you can opt for a random access code), intended to slow you down in moments of weakness. It's a similar tactic to freezing credit cards in blocks of ice so you have to wait for them to thaw while mulling over whether you really want to make a purchase. It gives your sanity time to catch up with your impulses. Of course, if you really wanted to stay focused, you could give the password to someone else.

LeechBlock Pricing: Free

Mindful Browsing (Chrome)

Best focus app for gentle nudges away from time-wasting sites

Mindful Browsing

This free and open-source extension for Chrome gently flags your attention when you try to access sites that you know are time-wasters and instead reminds you of how you'd rather spend your time. When you install and set up Mindful Browsing, you first list a few websites that you'd like to avoid and then write a few short words about what you should be doing instead. The next time you try to visit one of the sites on your list, Mindful Browsing splashes an enormous photo of something tranquil, like a landscape, and reminds you of the little goals you set for yourself when you were in your right mind and not eager for a distraction.

You can bypass the blocker for a 10-minute quickie with the guilty pleasure of your choice (I'm really not suggesting it's a porn site, but maybe it is, and no judgement there, friend). Or you can stick to your guns and get back to focusing on something more important.

Mindful Browsing Pricing: Free

RescueTime (Android, iOS, Linux, macOS, Windows)

Best focus app for tracking productivity and blocking distracting sites

RescueTime

RescueTime is a multipurpose productivity app and distraction blocker, cutting off your access to distracting websites when needed, while also recording how much time you spend working in different apps and sites. Once you install and configure RescueTime, it runs and invisibly in the background, monitoring every website you visit and software product you use, and for how long. Bear in mind that you must grant it permission to watch your every move. Otherwise, it's useless.

Over time, RescueTime tallies up how you spend your time on your computing devices. It creates detailed reports showing time spent in work-related apps versus time spent on social networking sites, online shopping, and so forth. It also generates detailed reports about what types of apps and sites you tend to use during different times of day. For example, if you surf Twitter and Facebook every day in the late afternoon, RescueTime will spotlight that trend. If you typically work hard in business apps in the morning, you'll see that pattern, too.

Because everyone defines "work" differently, you get to create the rules for what RescueTime classifies as productive versus unproductive app or website. You can also classify apps and websites by category, such as business, social media, news, shopping, and so forth, and your classifications here will also depend on the type of work you do. For its emphasis on productivity tracking in addition to blocking distractions online, RescueTime is among the best apps for boosting your ability to focus.

RescueTime Pricing: Free Lite version; Premium for $9/month or $72/year

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Self-Control (macOS)

Best free focus app for macOS

Self-Control

Self-Control is a simple, free, and open-source Mac app that helps you focus by letting you blacklist websites or anything else on the internet (such as mail servers) as you see fit. Then, you set a timer for yourself and dedicate the next however many minutes to a distraction-free focus session.

Alternatively, you can create a set of whitelisted sites and use the Self-Control mode to let you access only the sites you listed, nothing else.

Self-Control is hardcore. Once you start a session, you cannot stop. Well, you can, but you have to reboot your computer, which is a pain. But that's the point. Self-Control makes it difficult and painful to access the sites you've decided to have self-control over visiting. This app wins hearts for being completely free and open-source, although it's only for macOS.

Self-Control Pricing: Free

StayFocusd (Chrome)

Best focus app for blocking sites in Chrome

StayFocusd

StayFocusd is a free Chrome extension that lets you choose how you want to block distractions. For example, you can give yourself permission to spend a set amount of time each day on distracting websites, say, 30 minutes total on Twitter and Buzzfeed. Once you reach your limit, StayFocusd kicks you off and doesn't let you extend your time. Another option is to create time restrictions for certain sites during days and hours you set, such as Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

StayFocusd's most severe option, however, is called the Nuclear Option. With the Nuclear Option, you choose to block one of the following: 1) all websites, 2) all websites except those you've whitelisted, or 3) all those you've blacklisted. Once enabled, this option cannot be undone or deactivated.

Of course, the easiest way to circumvent Stayfocusd (or any browser-based tool for blocking distractions) is to open a different browser, such as Firefox, Opera, Explorer, or Safari. Regardless, Stayfocusd offers an excellent array of features and options, helping you stay focused the way that works best for you.

StayFocusd Pricing: Free; donations accepted


Set yourself up for success with these apps for helping you focus. You may find that with a little effort and practice, focusing on the task at hand for stretches of time becomes easier. There are other tricks to strengthening your willpower that can't hurt either.

And 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.

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