Working from home has its advantages, but one of the problems is the increased number of distractions—not only is it more likely that your brain will wander on to something else (Netflix, the leak in the shower, whatever your kids are doing), it’s less likely that there’s an authority figure watching over you (unless your company has put a very draconian Zoom setup in place).
You don’t have to give in to these distractions though: As tech takes away, so tech gives. You’ll find a number of apps for both desktop and mobile that are dedicated to keeping your mind focused on the task at hand (indeed some of the best come built into Android, iOS, Windows, and macOS).
While we wouldn’t say there’s anything inherently wrong with killing time online, if you really need to buckle down on an important job then these tools should help.
KeepMeOut is wonderfully simple: It works in any browser, creating customized bookmarks that you use in place of standard links. For example, instead of opening Facebook as you normally would, follow the KeepMeOut bookmark for Facebook. You can set limits on how often you can visit each website in a certain amount of time, and configure KeepMeOut to only operate during specific periods of the working day.
The aptly named FocusMe—which works across Windows and macOS—is one of the most comprehensive app and website blockers around, and even has protections to stop you from working around its restrictions or uninstalling it. It’s fully customizable, comes with break reminders and timers, and will track the time you spend on your computer as well. After a 30-day free trial, you’ll need to pay from $6 a month to carry on using FocusMe.
The basic but effective StayFocusd is a free extension for Chrome and compatible browsers that lets you specify which websites you can visit and which are off-limits. If you need access to the IMDB for your article on 1990s movie stars but want to block Facebook and Twitter, for example, then StayFocusd is ideal. It’s customizable, to an extent: you can set limits based on total time, specific times of day or specific days (such as Monday to Friday).
If you’re after a softer, gentler way of staying away from time-sucking websites, Mindful Browsing could be the Chrome extension for you: You tell it the sites you want to avoid, and if you try and open them, you’ll be met with a soothing background image and a text prompt that suggests, quite politely, that maybe you don’t want to open up Facebook or Twitter after all. It’ll even suggest something else (like taking a walk) to do instead.
LeechBlock is perfect for Firefox and Chrome users who want to take control of the sites and apps they’re visiting online. In a couple of clicks you can block the site that you’re currently on, or you can delve further into the options to organize sites into groups—in each case the software lets you specify certain times when the websites are out of bounds. There’s also a full lockdown mode for emergency distraction-free working when needed.
There are a lot more dedicated distraction blockers on macOS than there are on Windows, though don’t ask us why (Mac users think differently?)—whatever the reason, Focus is one of the tidiest and most competent out there, enabling you to block out the websites and the applications that you know will take you away from what you should be doing. The app costs $19, though you can try it out for free for seven days to see if it works for you.
Cold Turkey for Windows and macOS does exactly what its name suggests, blocking apps and websites on a timer set by you in advance. If you know you’ll start scrolling through Tumblr near the end of the working day, for example, use Cold Turkey to make sure that doesn’t happen. Pay CAD$29 (about $20) for a Pro license, and you can access some useful extra features, including more advanced scheduling, integrated break times, and more.
Google has released a range of experimental apps to try and encourage you to spend less time picking up and checking your phone—you can see them all here—but the one we like the most so far is Post Box. It basically collects up all of the distracting notifications coming into your phone and delivers them all at once at specific times in the day, as set by you. It means, in theory at least, that you’re not constantly checking and rechecking app alerts.
SelfControl (very much only for macOS) is a free application that can work in tandem with your own willpower to temporarily block access to websites and mail servers for as long as you like. Specify the sites you want to be kept away from, set the timer slider as necessary, and click Start—that’s really all there is to it. Even if you remove the app or restart your computer, the block remains in place until the amount of time that you’ve set has elapsed.
Serene for macOS (and apparently “coming soon” to Windows) combines time management, distraction blocking and focus enhancement into one complete package. It combines a desktop client with a browser add-on, letting you shut out distractions, and encouraging you to set goals for the day that are then split up into distinct sessions. You can use Serene for free for seven days, but after that the service will cost you $4 a month.
Something a little bit different, web app TomatoTimer uses the Pomodoro Technique to help you get things done. If you’re new to the Pomodoro idea, it involves short bursts of work broken up with regular breaks. TomatoTimer won’t block any distractions for you, but it does help you keep on top of the timings very easily from any browser (treat yourself to a five-minute burst of Animal Crossing for every 25 minutes of work, or whatever).
Block Site offers simple, customizable website blocking for Chrome, Firefox and mobile devices—if you don’t need too much in the way of bells and whistles, and just want something that’ll keep you away from online distractions, it’s perfect. We like the Work Mode, where you can block certain sites for a set duration rather than blacklisting them completely, giving you a certain period of time to stay focused and get your work done.
Freedom runs across all your mobile and desktop devices (though it’s a little limited on iOS), and after a free trial will set you back $7 a month, $30 a year, or $130 for life. You get your money’s worth though: It’ll block websites (or the internet in its entirety), block apps, and generally make sure you’re not doing anything you shouldn’t be during work hours. Its advanced scheduling and customization options help it stand out from the pack too.
Digital Wellbeing is now part of Android, though officially it’s still in beta—if you can’t see it as an entry in your Android Settings menu try downloading it from the Play Store. The app gives you a breakdown of which apps you’re wasting the most time with, lets you set daily timers on specific apps, and also features bedtime and focus modes that (respectively) help you get ready for bed and block notifications from the most distracting apps.
Apple’s equivalent of Digital Wellbeing is Screen Time, which pops up on macOS, as well as iOS and iPadOS. Again the idea is very similar: You can see which apps are taking up the most minutes in the day, and set timers to stop you from using any of them too often. One feature you’ll find in Screen Time that isn’t in Digital Wellbeing is the ability to block out apps based on category (games, social media) as well as limiting them individually.
As yet Windows doesn’t have anything like Digital Wellbeing or Screen Time, but it offers up a feature called Focus Assist, which was recently added to the OS. It’s essentially an enhanced Do Not Disturb Mode, and it’s in the System section of Settings: You can use it to mute notifications from most or all of the applications on your computer, and it can be enabled manually or based on a customized schedule set around your working hours.