As I sit down to write this article tonight there’s a fly buzzing around the room. It’s driving me insane. Every few seconds it makes a pass by my ear and I lunge out to try and bat the life out of the thing. I can’t finish a sentence without this pest distracting me from the task at hand. I’m not good at killing flies. My wife’s grandmother has a talent for it, but I’m getting distracted here — you can blame the fly.
I’m not making this up just to have a cheesy anecdote to begin with — the fly is still buzzing around my head — but this is sometimes how I feel as an editor and writer making my living on the Internet. It’s probably how anyone tackling any task that requires presence of mind feels most of the day. Eliminating distractions is a lot more difficult than it once was in simpler times, that’s for sure, and the typical productivity suite of word processors and email clients aren’t making it any easier as the years roll by and the feature bloat in such simple tools increases.
That’s why I love software that eliminates distraction. The apps that let you turn your attention solely to the task at hand, to get that project report or article finished without a half-hour detour through some web comic’s archives. Here are a few apps that eliminate distractions so well, I might just ask if they can take care of the fly.
The classic example of distraction-free writing software is WriteRoom. It’s an excellent — if a little pricey for its scope — little Mac app that runs in full screen mode and blocks out all other distractions on the computer. Some have asked how it’s anything different to running Word in full-screen mode. When you run Word in full-screen, the toolbars disappear, but the rest of its distractions are still there: red squiggly spell check lines, formatting through keyboard shortcuts, and so on. WriteRoom is just you and the pure text. No bloat added — just remember to run that spell check when you’re done! Get WriteRoom here.
JDarkRoom is a Java-based (and hence cross-platform), free application that imitates the functionality of WriteRoom. A little less polished — if you think an app that runs in full screen and looks like a DOS text editor is polished — than its commercial counterpart, but good, free, and will work on all your computers with Java. Get it here. While we’re on the topic, there’s a similar freebie in PyRoom that requires Python to run, a native Windows freebie called Dark Room, and a web-based app of a similar nature called Writer.
Illuminate the application window you’re working with, and darken the rest. Focus your mind’s attention with the help of light and darkness. All sounds very Zen, right? Think does exactly this: when you launch the app, it’ll ask which window you want to focus on, bring it to the front, and darken the rest of the screen so you can focus more easily. Check it out here (OS X). Another option is Isolator, which can completely hide other windows, blur everything behind your active window, and do a variety of other things depending on your settings, such as hiding the dock when you want to concentrate. Take a look here — also OS X only. For an honorable mention there’s also Doodim which does the same thing as Think and Isolator.
One app that mimics the functionality of Think for Windows users is called JediConcentrate. It usually lives in the system tray and can be called up to enter concentrate mode and illuminate one window while the rest stay dark. The cool part comes from a third party mashup which combines JediConcentrate with WPMTray, an app that measures your typing speed. You can set it to enter concentrate mode in your active window once you hit a certain typing speed, so that any bursts of inspiration and verbosity doesn’t get interrupted by a distraction from another window. You can get the mashup here.
Are the icons covering your desktop that you haven’t bothered to tidy in the last 8 years a constant source of distraction? Got a funny TV show downloaded there that keeps stealing your attention or just curious to find out what a certain ancient file actually contains? Camouflage (OS X) and Dropcloth (Windows) both serve to hide the clutter on your desktop, which is useful for distraction elimination, and also for tidying up before a screenshot.
For Windows users: if you want to go a step beyond darkening everything behind your active window and simply minimize it all completely, there are two apps that’ll do the job for you — one is MinimOther, and the other is Swept Away by our friends at Lifehacker. Doesn’t seem to be too much out there in the way of minimizers for the Mac, which is ironic since everyone calls us minimalists. (I’ve used my bad joke quota for the day. I won’t put you through that again.)
I’ll confess that I broke the rules of productivity and wrote this article in a web browser without the assistance of any of the aforementioned apps, making myself vulnerable to all sorts of attacks from the forces of distraction. Blame me, or blame the fly. I prefer to blame the fly.
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