10 focus apps to help you concentrate
10 focus apps to help you concentrate

This is a piece about focus apps. Focus. Wasn't that the name of a Will Smith movie? The one where he and Margot Robbie were pickpockets? Google confirms and, hey, also says he's up for best actor this year? That's cool. What's Twitter saying about the rest of the Oscar noms?

Whoa! First thing that comes up on the timeline is a blockbuster NBA trade. Checking Reddit to see the discourse and, unsurprisingly, everyone's making fun of the Sacramento Kings. Friend in a group text thinks it's a decent trade, though.

Scrolling through more texts. Cousin had a baby. Where online does one buy those tiny little slippers? It's lunch time already? I'm hungry. What was I supposed to be talking about again?

Does this resemble your brain, on internet, when you should be, I don't know… working? If so, there's no shame in putting guardrails in place.

Why? Because the enemy of productivity isn't always malaise. Or procrastination. Sometimes, we can't buckle down because the endless stimuli of the attention economy work overtime to pluck us out of deep work, into quick dopamine hits of frivolous distraction.

You can try to resist all these urges yourself. But you don't have to. Enter: focus apps…

What is a focus app?

Focus apps are tools that minimize distractions to help you concentrate on whatever your most important tasks are. They allow you to accomplish more within designated time slots, so that you're not thinking about work while playing, or about play while working. Think of it as the proverbial garlic that repels all your time vampires.

Most focus apps worth considering should:

  • Block messages, websites, and apps of your choosing.

  • Let you schedule out how long those distraction-free focus sessions last (à la Pomodoro technique).

  • Be tricky (or even impossible) to disable.

  • Motivate you to stay on-task.
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How can focus apps boost your productivity?

Focus apps are designed to help you get more done. But here's why they actually work.

Block distractions

Distractions are everywhere. In a UK survey of almost 2,000 office workers, respondents said they spent an average of only two hours and 53 minutes of an eight-hour work day working productively — which jibes with the fact that it can take an average of more than 23 minutes to refocus on a task after a distraction.

What's more, 65% of respondents said they couldn't get through the workday distraction-free. And the four most time-consuming distractions they cited — reading news, checking social media, chit-chatting about non-work activities with colleagues, and searching for new jobs — are all mostly done from computers and other devices.

what are people doing while working

Focus apps can prevent you from falling into any of these rabbit holes. Some notify you when you're on any time-wasting websites, nudging you to refocus. Others prohibit you from visiting those sites entirely. No matter their exact function (and we'll get into how the best ones compare below), they'll all have you second-guessing the moments you want an easy out from important work.

Cultivate a flow state

Flow is that fleeting mental state we all crave when working. It happens when you're so immersed in a task that you lose track of time and any extraneous worries. And it can quintuple your productivity.

But you have no chance getting there with the deluge of pings, vibrations, and temptations emanating from your devices all day.

Focus apps help you achieve flow. By blocking out distractions, you can get into the flow state easier and stay in it longer.

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Minimize task-switching

"Multi-tasking" gives the seductive impression that you can save time by doing several things at once. But it's not how our brains work.

In fact, any time you switch tasks — whether it's to something similar or different from what you were working on — there's an associated cost that impairs your concentration. Research also shows that your brain continues to think about the previous task for as long as 25 minutes after you switch, a phenomenon known as "attention residue".

By either prohibiting or advising against switching tasks, focus apps can get you working more efficiently.

Automate monotonous tasks

Every day, we're faced with an endless barrage of choices, and making each and every one can lead to decision fatigue. But focus apps can help.

For instance, you can snooze messages from certain recipients until a specified date. Or budget out how many daily hours you're allowed to spend on Twitter.

By making these small decisions for you and motivating you to stick with them, focus apps can both boost productivity and save you time.

10 focus apps that steer you toward work that matters

There are tons of productivity apps available. The right solution for you depends on what's likeliest to ease you into a flow state. Does that mean music to help you concentrate, or data that points out your time vampires? Do you want to be gently nudged away from distractions, or completely isolated away from them?

No matter your use case, here's a rundown that has what you need.

Superhuman: the best focus app for dealing with email distractions

It's painfully ironic, but one of your most dangerous time-wasters is (likely) one of the tools you need most: your email. In fact, the average worker spends almost a third of their workweek on it.

A cluttered inbox is a hotbed for distraction — vital messages from colleagues are bunched with newsletters and promotional emails, making it tricky to discern what to address now, what to revisit later, and what to disregard.

But Superhuman is a powerful platform that saves you three hours per week or more on your email. Its Split Inbox feature groups messages by category to minimize task-switching, and you can employ pre-written templates that help you respond to common messages within seconds.

The tool also employs more than 50 keyboard shortcuts designed to keep you focused on relevant tasks instead of clicking through to distractions, and even lets you temporarily snooze messages from recipients who are pulling you away from more pressing tasks.

Whether you want to focus on the tasks within your inbox or the pressing work outside of it, Superhuman will turbocharge your email efficiency, helping you nail all your productivity and time management goals.

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Freedom: the best focus app for blocking distractions across all your devices

freedom

What it does: Freedom blocks websites and apps across all your devices at the same time. If you try to access any of those distractions during an active session, they won't load. It works for Mac, Windows, Android, iOs, and Chrome, and is used by more than two million people.

How it helps you focus: Will blocking Twitter on your computer keep you from using it when it's also lurking on your phone three inches away? Or on your tablet in the other room? Freedom ensures that once you start a focus session, none of your connected devices will tempt you with distractions.

Why we love it: You can set up different "blocklists" for different occasions, and schedule when to tune out distracting websites, distracting apps, or even the whole internet. There's also a "lockdown mode", which prevents you from editing a list during a session, and gives the option of adding in background noises to boost productivity.

Cold Turkey Blocker: the best focus app for creating a site-blocking schedule

cold turkey blocker

What it does: Like Freedom, Cold Turkey Blocker lets you create lists of websites and apps that won't work during active sessions. It also lets you fully customize a site-blocking plan.

How it helps you focus: Different apps and websites can prove distracting at different times. You may want unencumbered access to Instagram and online games past 6 PM on weekdays, but find that Slack and other work apps are distracting from well-earned evening leisure. Cold Turkey Blocker lets you easily plan when to tune out which distractions.

Why we love it: There's a special feature, called "Frozen Turkey", that totally prohibits you from computer use when you're better off unplugging. You can also set your own Pomodoro timer by scheduling in short breaks.

Brain.FM: the best focus app for research-backed concentration music

brain fm

What it does: Brain.fm plays ambient music that's scientifically proven to encourage your brain to focus.

How it helps you focus: Creators of this app collaborated with academic institutions to discover music that primes neurons to remove distracting sound and focus on coordinated activities.

Why we love it: At its best, music and other ambient noise can be a soothing motivator. But if you're listening to the wrong sounds, it can quickly turn into a distraction that takes you out of deep work. Brain.fm is a research-backed solution that gets you all of the good of work music, with none of the bad.

SelfControl: the best focus app with a no-cancelation policy

self control

What it does: SelfControl lets you set an amount of time to block access to anything that's distracting you online. And you can't undo it.

How it helps you focus: This tool cleverly anticipated that you may give anything to circumvent a focus session — say uninstalling a focus app, changing your computer's time, or disabling a browser extension — and designed features that give you no such outs.

Why we love it: SelfControl comes with no bells and whistles. Just add to your blocklist, set how long you want to avoid certain corners of the internet, and get to work. If you want to guarantee you'll last through an entire focus session without bailing, this is a great option.

Forest: the best focus app that gamifies your concentration

forest

What it does: When you start a focus session with Forest, you plant a virtual seed on your phone. If you keep your smart device (whether iPhone, iPad, or Android) down, that seed sprouts into a plant, or even a whole tree if you work long enough. But if you use your phone for longer than a few seconds during a focus session, the plant dies. You can download it on Apple's app store or on Google Play.

How it helps you focus: Forest keeps you untethered from your phone by turning your focus into a game. Anytime you tinker with your phone for too long, you get urgent notifications that your seeds are in danger — keeping you motivated to stay on-task.

Why we love it: The more you focus, the more trees you can grow, which proves a satisfying way to track progress. You can end up growing a verdant forest (hence the name) on your app's dashboard if you log enough hours away from your phone. The app also monitors which days you've used it, and for how long. Since we check our phones as often as 344 times a day (yikes) this is a helpful salve.

StayFocusd: the best focus app to give your time vampires an allowance

stayfocused

What it does: StayFocusd is a Google Chrome extension that lets you set a limit of how much time you can spend per day on time-wasting websites.

How it helps you focus: Once you've used up all your allotted time for any of the sites on your blocklist, said site will be completely inaccessible for the rest of the day. You won't be able to quadruple-check whether your ex posted an Instagram story. You'll have to get to work.

Why we love it: Some focus apps block you out of sites entirely. But nothing's too bad in moderation. StayFocusd works backwards so that you can humor your online distractions without overdoing it. After all, the occasional detour from focused work can be a good thing.

RescueTime: the best focus app for time tracking

rescuetime

What it does: RescueTime tracks where and how you're spending computer time, giving you tips and guidance on how to kick distracting habits and increase focus. It's all about helping you nurture your perfect work/life balance. It also has a built-in website blocker.

How it helps you focus: This tool has a handy feature called "FocusTime" that draws from your time-tracking history to suggest different websites to block.

Why we love it: RescueTime learns from your computer use and helps you make informed decisions about which distractions to block. You can also flag apps and websites as productive, distracting, or very distracting, and get personalized daily "Focus Work" goals to keep you motivated to stay on-task.

Serene: the best focus app for goal setting

serene

What it does: Serene is a macOS (coming soon to Windows) app that first helps you set daily goals, then helps keep you focused enough to meet them.

How it helps you focus: Serene asks you to plan your day around goals. Once you choose which websites and apps to block and set a customizable timer, you'll be reminded of what you're trying to accomplish every time you err and try opening a blocked website.

Why we love it: This tool is a distraction blocker, goal-setter, task list, and concentration-music-player all in one. It's easy to get flustered with some focus apps mercilessly prohibiting distractions you find escape in. But Serene makes sure you remember why those blockers are in place: you have important stuff to do, and you'll feel better about yourself once you finish.

Taskade: the best focus app for teamwork

taskade

What it does: Taskade is a to-do-list app that helps teams of all sizes map out their workflows and easily collaborate.

How it helps you focus: Distraction blockers are designed for individuals. This task management app is a great supplement for teams, because you can brainstorm ideas, manage projects, and organize tasks as a group. This way, none of the important work you're responsible for slips through the cracks.

Why we love it: You can visually organize tasks, establish hierarchy, and track progress on every project. It also works across iOS and Android devices and for Windows and Mac desktops. While the other apps on this list will help you manage your own time, this productivity tool helps you respect everyone else's.

Focus now, thank yourself for it later

Distractions are so seductive for a reason. They're the path of least resistance when you're in the throes of a daunting task that'll test the limits of your focus and creativity.

But the more complicated work is always way more fulfilling. If you can block out all that extra noise, it's way more fun, too.

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