3 Ways to Prevent a Computer Time Suck

Your computer is an amazing productivity tool, yet it is also a great way to procrastinate. Instant messaging, email, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook can make it hard to concentrate on tasks at hand. Many of us lack the willpower to ignore pop-ups and notifications as they come in, minute after minute, over the course of the day. However, there is a wealth of inexpensive software that can protect you from your own bad habits, and make it much easier to avoid distraction. Here are three ways to use software to help you focus on your work.

1. Eliminate distracting windows

When writing or reviewing word processing documents, you can easily eliminate all the windows from view except for the one you’re working on, making it easier to stay away from distractions like email, LinkedIn, and IM. WriteRoom for Mac ($25), Dark Room for Windows (free), and FocusWriter for both Mac and Windows (free) are all very basic word processing applications that block out the desktop, all open windows, and all menus from the screen. There are other applications that blur out or darken all inactive windows, no matter what program you’re in. For Mac, these programs include Think (free), Isolator (free), Quiet ($2), and HazeOver ($2). For Windows, try Swept Away (free), which minimizes all active windows after a period of time you specify.

2. Take regular breaks

Productivity specialists often say that the best way to work is to focus intently for a short period of time (under an hour) and then take a break away from the computer. A break means you get up, stretch your legs, rest your eyes, and clear your mind. It doesn’t mean playing on Facebook.

Time Out for Mac (free), Break Reminder, and Kill-RSI for Windows (free) allow you to set how often you want to take a break, and how long you want that break to be. When it’s break time, you get a notification.

Pomodoro is a method of time management based around the idea of working for 25 minutes and then taking a five-minute break; this 30-minute block of time is called one “pomo doro.” A few applications that use this technique are Pomodairo and Focus

Booster for Mac and Windows (free), and Pomodoro for Mac ($5).

3. Block websites

The most common distractions often are internet-related. Use software that blocks access to specific websites, so you won’t be tempted to check in.

Self Control for Mac (free) and Freedom for Mac and Windows ($10, free to try) both take you off the internet completely, for a period of time that you set, so that means no email, no web, no IM. Easy to set up—not so useful if you need to be on the web to do your work.

Anti-Social for Mac ($15, free to try), DoNotDisturb ($40), and Internet Access Controller ($15) for Windows are more complicated to set up, but they offer a lot of flexibility. For example, you can create a blacklist of social websites, so you can go to Wikipedia and the New York Times, but not Facebook or Twitter.

To get started, pick one or two of these applications to test out over the next week—don’t try them all at once. You may want to add them to your computer’s list of startup items, so they run automatically all day. Keep the applications that help you focus, and add a new one each week to try out. Regular use of even one of these applications can make a huge difference in your productivity at the office.