Apps to help you focus online

Technology can guide us away from the distractions of the web.
 Apps to help you focus online

I’ll get this assignment started as soon as I’ve checked Facebook. And Instagram. And Gmail. Oh, is it time for lunch already?

Sound familiar? Most people arrive at work with good intentions, planning to be productive, collaborative, and successful, according to Greg Dewald, chief executive of Bright!Tax, an accounting company based in New York City that serves Americans living overseas. “In the internet age, though, this can actually be a big challenge, as we are constantly bombarded with social signals and alerts that divert our attention,” he said.

While the digital era has made a lot of work easier, it has done the complete opposite for focus. Smartphones and social media have joined chatty co-workers and office noise as workday time wasters, according to the Udemy In Depth: 2018 Workplace Distraction Report released earlier this year.

More than half of respondents to the Udemy survey said that workplace distractions cause them not to perform as well as they should, while half reported being “significantly less productive” as a result of them. Some 20% said that distractions were keeping them from reaching their full potential and advancing their career.

This trend is having the biggest effect among younger people, who report spending two or more hours per work day on their phone for personal reasons, the most of any age cohort. Some 74% of Millennials and the younger Gen Zers reported being distracted, and of those, 46% said it made them feel unmotivated, while 41% said it stressed them out, according to the report.

It does not have to be this way. “The answer is not as daunting as it may seem, and, in reality, is quite effective: organise, prioritise, and realise your goals. Do whatever is necessary to stay on the path toward superior productivity,” Dewald said. “More specifically, put it away, turn it off, or just plain block it. There are even useful online tools and apps that can help you to do just that.”

Here are some ideas, with the caveat that you need to be extremely careful before downloading anything to your computer or phone, particularly at work:

Analyse the issue. The first thing to do is to analyse how much time you spend on distracting sites. A pen and paper or a simple spreadsheet can get the job done, but there are more sophisticated routes. RescueTime, which has free and premium versions, tracks time spent on websites and applications and sends you a weekly email summary with a productivity score. The similar WiseTime, which offers a free 30-day trial, allows you to access your time-use history. Its information can be kept private or shared with others.

Limit time. Once you have identified problem areas, you could decide to spend a certain amount of time on your favourite sites. However, you may need help setting stricter limits. Freedom is available as a Google Chrome extension that lets you decide how much time to spend on a specific site. Once you reach the maximum duration, you are temporarily blocked. WasteNoTime, available for free on Safari and Chrome, lets you block sites for a specific amount of time that would allow you to focus on work for, say, an hour or two. On iPhones, SelfControl is a free app that lets you block everything from websites to mail for a period of time that you control.

Block the issue. If you still need help avoiding tempting sites, you might choose to block them. LeechBlock, a Firefox add-on, lets you block six sets of sites with different days and times. For work, you could do between 9am and 5pm — or longer during busy periods. The Freedom app allows you to shut off entire sites or block the entire web for a specified period.

Dawn Wotapka is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at