focus: tools for beating distraction
‘Man must shape his tools lest they shape him.’ ~Arthur Miller
This is a resource for those who need a little help in blocking out distractions. It’s software that will block websites and other time-wasters, or clear away everything on your computer but what you need to focus on.
It’s important to note, however, that these types of software are not a solution, but tools to aid your new habits of focus. It’s best to learn new habits of simplifying, clearing distractions, staying mindful of the task you’re working on. These tools can help you get started, but they’re not absolutely necessary, and if you do use them at first you might find you don’t need them forever.
Freedom – An extreme tool, but an effective one. Disables your entire Internet connection for a time period set by you. Perfect when you really need to focus for an hour or three at a time.
Selfcontrol – Disable access to mail servers and websites that distract you. For example, you could block access to Facebook, Gmail, Twitter, and your favorite blogs for 90 minutes, but still have access to the rest of the web. Once started, you can’t undo it until the timer runs out.
Concentrate – Create an activity (design, study, write, etc) and choose actions (launch or block websites, quit applications, speak a message, and more) to run every time you concentrate. When ready, just click “concentrate.” All your distractions will disappear and a timer will appear to help you stay focused.
WriteRoom – Perhaps the first, and still one of the absolute best, distraction-free text editors. Goes full screen so all you have is your text. No formatting, no nothing — just writing text. Beautiful program, copied by many others.
Ommwriter – Beautiful app just for writing. Has a serene backdrop with background music, perfect for creating the distraction-free writing environment (especially if you use headphones). Can adjust some of the settings but most of the time, it’s just your text, your Zen-like background, and the music.
Ulysses or Scrivener – Two great programs for writers, many more features than WriteRoom but great for longer works such as novels, screenplays, academic papers and more. Both feature full-screen text editors.
Megazoomer – A cool little app that allows you to put almost any Mac program into full-screen mode (ala WriteRoom) using a system-wide keyboard command or menu item. Requires you to install SIMBL — both programs are free.
Think – Little utility that will fade out everything but the app you’re working on at the moment. Allows you to focus on one document at a time, clearing the distractions.
LeechBlock (Firefox) – Specify what sites you want to block in Firefox, and when to block them.
StayFocusd (Chrome) – Choose certain sites to block, and you get 10 minutes total (by default) per day to go on those time-wasting sites. You can change the time allotted for time-wasting sites, and you can also “nuke” (block) all sites for a time you specify.
Readability (bookmarklet, Chrome extension) – clears the clutter on any web article or blog post you want to read. Removes everything — ads, icons, widgets, and more — and just leaves the content in a nice, uncluttered, readable design. Quietube does the same for videos.
Dark Room – WriteRoom clone for Windows.
CreaWriter – Distaction-free writing tool inspired by OmmWriter (above), with a peaceful background, full-screen writing, soothing ambient sound, and not much else.
Q10 – Full-screen text editor with a timer for focused writing, typewriter sounds as you type if you want them. Freeware.
WriteMonkey – new entry into the full-screen editor field. In the words of the makers: “Zenware for full screen distraction free creative writing. No whistles and bells, just empty screen, you and your words. WriteMonkey is light, fast, and perfectly handy for those who enjoy the simplicity of a typewriter but live in modern times.”
Emacs – One of the classic text editors (vim is a good alternative and we won’t into which is better here), Emacs runs on all platforms (PC, Mac, Linux) and can hid the menu bar (M-x menu-bar-mode) and tool bar (M-x tool-bar-mode) in any operating system, and can hide also the window title bar in most Linux window managers.
Typewriter – A minimalist text editor that runs in Java (which can run on most operating systems – Mac, Windows, Linux). All you can do is type in one direction. You can’t delete, you can’t copy, you can’t paste. You can save and print. And you can switch between black text on white and green on black; full screen and window. Perfect for writing without stopping, and getting out that first draft.
Next chapter: creating an uncluttered environment