This strange and unsettling year has made it nearly impossible to focus fully on anything. Initially, it seemed strange: if we’re working from home, and our social lives are on hold, surely we should have more time on our hands – more time to work, and more time to focus? But that hasn’t been the case. Many of us feel like we’re living in a state of near-constant distraction, and since February, when the first lockdown went down, there has been a 300% increase in online searches for “how to get your brain to focus”. One probably cause of this, according Dr Christian Jarrett, editor of Psyche magazine, is Cognitive Load Theory.
Cognitive Load Theory suggests that when we’re dealing with unfamiliar experiences – like trying to navigate a global pandemic – our brains start to rely more on our “working memory”. The problem is that during stressful and unfamiliar times, our working memory becomes diminished. So essentially, we’re trying to depend on the part of our brain that’s most hindered. This makes it hard to focus – and trying to do so can leave us feeling drained.
There are tons of approaches to improving your focus – from establishing new behavioral patterns and training your concentration, to making changes in your environment. As more of us collaborate, interact and socialize virtually, addressing our digital environment seems like a logical place to start. To that end, here are top five apps to help reclaim your focus.
Most of us have experienced the frustration of finally getting into a flow state only to be interrupted by a barrage of “urgent” emails or IM requests. With Dewo, you can completely silence that digital noise. Capturing what you work on and using AI to analyze your productive patterns, Dewo acts as your “deep work personal assistant”. It recognizes when you enter a flow state and creates a protective force field around your work – automatically silencing app notifications and setting your Slack chat status to “do not disturb”, so your colleagues know not to expect a response. Alternatively, you can manually start a “Dewo Session” to achieve the same when you want to focus. Dewo also provides useful stats on app usage and context switching, to help you grade the quality of your concentration. This is a great app for anyone who needs help creating the conditions for prolonged focus.
If you find yourself visiting certain distracting websites when your mind wanders, you’re not alone. There are dozens of distraction blocker apps that can help you out, but Serene is one of the best. This is essentially a productivity system built around periods of deep work. First, choose a list of apps and sites you want to block when you’re working. Then, list the tasks you want to work on that day and how long they’ll take. When you begin work, click the “Go Serene” timer. From that point on, distractions will be blocked, focus music will start playing, and the countdown clock will flash up whenever you stop working, reminding yourself of what you’re trying to achieve. Simple, but very effective.
SelfControl is a great Mac app for people who don’t seem to have any right now. If you can’t make yourself focus and get on with your work, no matter how hard you try, you might have to take drastic measures. Enter SelfControl. It looks pretty simple – and it is. There’s a list of sites you want to block, a dial for setting how long you want the block period to be, and a start button. The thing that sets this app apart from the others is that it’s impossible to undo. No matter what you do – whether you close the app, delete it, or even reboot your laptop – there’s no way of unlocking those distracting sites. SelfControl is pretty hardcore, but if you’re looking for some serious focus time and don’t trust yourself not to cave, it’ll definitely do the job.
If you like listening to music while you work, you might want to think about downloading the Focus@Will app, which uses science to provide specially created music that’s designed to increase your focus. Most people can only concentrate for around 20 minutes before needing a break, but by using features of sound discovered by neuroscientists, Focus@Will promises to help you focus and retain information – even on those days when you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed. Backed by world-class neuroscientists, and with lots of different music genres to choose from – including Focus Spa, Ambient Chill and Baroque Piano, as well as thousands of unique tracks – you’re sure to find the right sound for you.
If you find it hard to put your phone away and are constantly distracted by apps, downloading one more can sound counterproductive – but not if it’s Flora. Combining the pomodoro technique with an attractive gamified aspect, Flora is a pleasant way to stay focused on your work, plough through to-do lists, and build positive and lasting habits. At the start of a focus session you plant a virtual seed, and as you work, it grows into a plant or tree. If you break focus and visit one of your distracting apps, the plant dies. Flora also works as a habit tracker, can be synced with friends’ accounts, and ultimately helps you focus on what’s really important in life.
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