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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 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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