It’s no news to our tech-savvy Livzo users that technology can be a big distraction from our work. From social media to email pop-ups to cleverly (some would say creepily) targeted online ads, the world wide web offers us lots of attentional forks in the road.
The good news is that certain technologies can also help us focus. For example, some actually prevent us from engaging with technologies that hinder us. Below we describe both high- and low-tech tools for optimizing workflow. Though technology can be an end unto itself (and a fun-to-use one at that), here at Livzo we’re firm believers that technology should ultimately be a means to improve your life – making you healthier, happier, and more productive – rather than frazzled, distracted, and mindless. In other words, the best productivity tool may not be the one with the most bells and whistles or the sleekest interface.
Note that we mention particular tools below not to endorse them or suggest they are the best options, but rather to give you a sense of what’s out there. As with any technology, the potpourri of tools that promote focus is constantly evolving, and you may want to do some Googling to find out what might work best for you.
Internet Restriction Tools
Internet restriction involves blocking or monitoring access to distracting websites. Software-based internet restriction programs come in varying levels of “severity.” For example they might block internet access entirely for a period, restrict only certain sites, set internet-surfing time limits (versus blocking access entirely), or track and provide feedback on your internet use patterns. Although internet restriction programs are convenient in that they are built in to the very thing that can be a source of distraction (i.e., internet access device) low-tech options can act as alternatives or complements to specialized software.
(Relatively) High-Tech Options
- Freedom (Windows, Mac, iPhone, iPad, Android) – Blocks all sites for specified time period.
- Self-Control (Mac; free/open-source) – Blocks blacklisted sites set by user for specified time period.
- Anti-Social (Windows, Mac) – Blocks social media.
- LeechBlock (Firefox extension; free) – Sets total-time restrictions on certain sites
- RescueTime (Mac, Windows, Linux, Android; free lite version) – Monitors daily site usage and provide end-of-day reports.
- Exposed monitor – Work with your monitor facing a peer (or your boss).
- Technology turn-off – Work with no computer, phone, and/or internet access (whatever is the source of distraction and is feasible).
- Physical cues and routinizing – Designate a certain room/area or time for work-only so that it becomes a cue and habitual place/time for work.
- Email vacation – Temporarily exit email software or turn off email pop-ups.
Time Management Tools
Sometimes just knowing that the clock is ticking is enough to get us moving – and there’s lots of research showing that deadlines are helpful for our productivity. Time management tools include calendars, to-do lists, sticky note reminders, project management software, and time-tracking apps. While timeline tools are probably familiar to you, time-tracking apps like FocusBooster can enhance productivity within work sessions by acting as “smart timers” and providing more frequent prompts and reminders. A big watch-out for any time management tool is that you have to defer to its suggestions – no tool is going to work if you choose to ignore it. Happily, some tools are more resistant to being ignored, and may have integration potential with tools that you already use (and defer to) regularly.
(Relatively) High-Tech Options
- Any modern calendar tool (Outlook, gmail)
- Todoist (Windows, Mac, or web-based versions; free lite version) – To-do list app that provides real-time syncing, sub-task functionality, location-based reminders, and graphics that reflect your progress.
- FocusBooster (Web-based) – Time-tracking app with daily report functionality.
- Paper-and-pencil it – Your functionality will be quite limited with paper-and-pencil time management tools but if your work plan is simple or if time management software tends to be more of a hindrance than an aid to your progress, this may be a good option.
- Explore built-in functionalities – You already have time management tools like alarms and reminder functions built in to technologies you use every day; before you upgrade to a more sophisticated tool you may want to explore how well basic features work for you.
Break tools take a different approach to productivity by actually prompting or forcing you to step away from your work, e.g. via dimming your screen at pre-designated intervals or customized reminders.
While most of us tend to struggle with becoming distracted, extended periods of work, particularly when sleep is impacted, can lead to mental fatigue and reduced performance as well. And whether or not it impedes your overall focus and productivity, sitting at a computer for extended periods is associated with negative health effects like repetitive strain injuries (RSI) and eye strain.
If you feel that lack-of-breaks might be harming the quality of your work, motivation, and/or your physical or mental health, you might want to consider a tool similar to those listed below. A huge (huge!) caveat is that, if you tend to procrastinate or are highly distractable you likely need to take fewer breaks, not more.
(Relatively) High-Tech Options
- Workrave (Windows, GNU/Linux; free) – RSI prevention software that prompts you to take pauses, rest breaks, and exercises, and sets daily restrictions on your work time.
- Time Out (Mac; free) – Blocks you from viewing your screen during designated break intervals.
- Mindfulness Bell (iPhone) – An unobtrusive alternative to screenblocking RSI prevention software that sounds a Tibetan singing bowl tone at pre-specified intervals.
Low Tech Options
- Social Lunch or Coffee Break – Get lunch with a colleague versus eating at your desk (or worse, not eating at all).
- Recurring reminder – If you don’t want to use a special software program, you can simply set a recurring reminder to take a break using your tool of choice (watch, phone app, calendar pop-up).
There you have it – a whirlwind tour of high- and low-tech ways to facilitate your productivity. With some old-fashioned trial and error and ongoing tune-ups to adapt to your changing needs, we’re confident you’ll arrive at a blend of tools and techniques that works well for you.