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Your Guide to Apps that Eliminate Distractions

Your Guide to Apps that Eliminate Distractions

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    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.

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    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.

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    1. WriteRoom

    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.

    2. JDarkRoom

    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.

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    3. Think & Isolator

    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.

    4. JediConcentrate

    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.

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    5. Camouflage & Dropcloth

    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.

    6. MinimOther & Swept Away

    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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    Joel Falconer

    Editor, content marketer, product manager and writer with 12+ years of experience in the startup, design and tech digital media industries.

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    Last Updated on July 8, 2020

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

    This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

    Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

    When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

    This is why setting priorities is so important.

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    3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

    There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

    1. Eat a Frog

    There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

    Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

    When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

    2. Move Big Rocks

    Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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    You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

    If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

    For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

    To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

    In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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    3. Covey Quadrants

    If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

    Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

    1. Important and Urgent
    2. Important and Not Urgent
    3. Not Important but Urgent
    4. Not Important and Not Urgent

      The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

      Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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      You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

      Getting to Know You

      Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

      In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

      These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

      More Tips for Effective Prioritization

      Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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