It’s Monday morning. You’re not hungover after a night of partying, at least not today. (It’s 2020 after all.) You have a look at your schedule, and alas, you have a thousand and one things to do this week, and another thousand and one leftover from the last week. You sit at your work desk, resolving to crunch through all of this work. Like if it was that easy! Facebook knows exactly when you’re gonna start work, and decides to send you a notification asking to check those cute kitten photos your friend posted. After all, who can say no to kittens? You check the notification, and when you realize what you’re doing, half of the day has magically already vanished.
While this sounds exactly like an episode of Black Mirror, this is not some far-away dystopian nightmare future. Yes, I’m talking about our lives, everyday.
Probably one of the hardest things to do in the today’s connected world is to disconnect. Whether it’s your friends buzzing you on WhatsApp, or Facebook deciding to see why you haven’t checked your news feed in the last 30 minutes, distractions will eat away your valuable time. I’m going to show you how to take it back.
The first step in the journey is to figure out how much time you’re spending being distracted. Let’s see what your options are, to measure this.
Google Digital Wellbeing
Available on: Android (Free)
Google acknowledged that most of us waste a lot of time on our mobile devices, and have built the Digital Wellbeing tool right into Android. If you’re an Android user running a newer Android version, the Digital Wellbeing app should be already baked right into your OS. You can find it in Settings → Digital Wellbeing and Parental Controls on stock Android. (This might change according to your device. Some Googling will help.)
When you open this tool, you’ll be presented with a breakdown of your app usage today. You can also dig into past data to see where you spend most of your time on. The numbers shown might not be for the faint of heart. Yes, you waste that much time on social media.
The Digital Wellbeing tool doesn’t stop there as well. You can setup timers for any app that you’d like to control, and it will get automatically locked when you’ve used it for that long. This is super effective if you’re addicted to Facebook or YouTube, and keep scrolling for hours. With Bedtime Mode, you can setup a time you (should) go to sleep, and it will automatically cut-off distractions at that time. The Focus Mode let’s you block notifications from selected apps when you want to work focused on something, with just a tap of a button (or even on a schedule).
There’s more. On Android you have granular control about which apps can notify you. On recent Android versions, you can also tell what types of notifications an app can send you. This is super useful in certain apps where you only want certain notification types. (This way you can block notifications from those shopping apps that buzz you every hour with some random sale, while still keeping important stuff, like shipping notifications. Yay!)
Available on: Android (Free)
If you’re using an older version of Android or if your device manufacturer decided not to include Digital Wellbeing in their Android flavor, you’re still in luck! ActionDash brings all of Google’s Digital Wellbeing tools and even more, to all Android devices. It packs in screen-time tracking, notification history and device unlock metrics, as well as a focus mode and per-app usage timers.
Available on: iOS (Free)
“But, I’m not on Android!” I hear you asking. Fear not, Apple has their own suite of tools built into iOS for digital well-being. You can schedule Do Not Disturb so you don’t receive notifications at bed-time, or any time you want to concentrate. Apple also provides the ability to configure which apps can send you notifications, what they can send and how they can send them. Just like Android, these features let you configure which specific types of notifications an app can show you. The Screen Time feature tracks which apps you spend your time on, and let’s you set timers on specific apps, just like Android.
Available on: Desktop, mobile, browsers and more (Freemium; $12/mo or $78/year for Pro version)
Your phone is not the only device you use. And that’s where RescueTime comes in. With a wide range of apps, browser extensions and integrations, RescueTime can gather data from literally everything. It brings in all these data into a nice and concise dashboard. It intelligently groups your activity to categories and even let’s you configure which activities are important and which are distracting. You can also drill down to granular levels to see which specific apps and websites you’re spending your time on. My favorite feature in RescueTime out of all these is probably the Productivity Pulse. This metric is a combined score of your productivity within the day. This gives you an instant view of how you’re doing today.
The premium version of RescueTime adds controls to block distractions, real-time alerts and a bunch of more features for $12/month. I haven’t used the premium version extensively to give an opinion, but with over 3000 hours tracked, the free version gets a thumbs-up from me.
Available on: Windows / Mac (Freemium; $39 for Blocker, $9 for Writer and $19 for Micromanager)
Cold Turkey software are actually three different tools for blocking those pesky distractions on your desktop.
The Blocker enables you to block websites (and apps or even the whole computer in the paid version) and also comes with features to get statistics about your distracting websites and apps. It’s nowhere as extensive as RescueTime when it comes to tracking distractions, but implements a lot of features for actively blocking them. You might want to grab the Pro version which is $39 if you want to get the best out of it though.
The Writer is a writing app (duh!) which blocks out everything else until you reach a predefined writing goal. If you’re a writer or a blogger who’s getting continuously distracted, this might be a no-brainer for you. The Pro version is just a $9 one-time payment, and adds text formatting and a few more optional additions.
The latest tool from Cold Turkey, the Micromanager, let’s you select a bunch of applications you actually need and block out everything else while you’re working. This is perfect for people who have to switch between contexts a lot, but keep losing focus due to other work. The Micromanager is free for focusing on a single app. But if you want to keep multiple apps unblocked or take breaks while working, the Pro version at $19 is great value, especially with the time it’s going to save you. The real power of the Micromanager is in how hard it is to get around. For example, once you start a session, Micromanager won’t let you to close or kill it, or even uninstall it until the session is done.
Available on: Mobile / Browsers (Freemium; $1.99 for Premium version)
If you want a more light-hearted approach to distraction blocking, the Forest app (and the browser extensions) might be for you. Rather than going hardcore into blocking all your apps, Forest will motivate you to keep focused with, uhh…, a plant. Yes, you read it right. When you want to focus, you start by planting a tree (virtually, of course). It will keep growing while you’re focused, but will wither away if you get distracted. It sounds simple, but is very effective if you’re a bit disciplined. What’s more, Forest developers also plant real trees while you grow your virtual tree, by partnering with Trees for the Future!
I’m just scratching the surface of what’s available with this list. These are what I’ve found to be the most effective for me. As always, what works for me might not be the best for you. The best way to figure that out is to start using one of these and see if it works for you. If not, identify where you need to improve and implement changes.
If you’ve reached this point without getting distracted, good job! I hope these tools can help you on the journey of being more productive. Don’t forget that the real limitation is not time, but how you’re going to manage it. Everyone only has 24 hours after all. Let’s stay focused!