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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 September 18, 2019

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

    I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

    One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

    Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

    The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

    And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

    What to Write Down

    Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

    Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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    Dates of Events

    Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

    For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

    Names of People

    Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

    Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    Definitions

    Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

    Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

    Arguments and Debates

    Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

    This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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    Images

    Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

    Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

    Other Stuff

    Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

    Your Own Questions

    Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

    3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

    1. Outlining

    Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

    Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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    For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

    2. Mind-Mapping

    For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

    Here’s the idea:

    In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

    The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

    If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

    You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

    3. The Cornell System

    The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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    About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

    You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

    In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

    You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

    I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

    More About Note-Taking

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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