The Zen productivity guide: tools and tips for distraction-free work

The Zen productivity guide: tools and tips for distraction-free work

Tools and tips for working without distraction.

You suck at multitasking. Don't take it personally everyone does. According to a 2009 Stanford study, chronic multitaskers can't concentrate, have bad memories, and are terrible at switching from one task to another. And you don't look more efficient to your boss and coworkers, you just look unfocused, overcommitted and generally not in control.

We don't want to destroy one of the workplace's most cherished myths without offering you a better solution, so we've rounded up some distraction-free apps as well as tips for resisting the seductions of the software you're currently using. The result is a more mindful, methodical way of working and a calmer, more focused you.

OmmWriter: distraction-free writing

Distraction has long been a bane to writers, but it has become a particular nuisance since writing machines started coming with Internet access. If you're looking for a full screen, distraction-free writing app, you're in luck there are several on the market. But our favorite program is OmmWriter (Windows, Mac OS X, iPad), a simple program that does an excellent job of creating a Zen-like environment.

OmmWriter is a full-screen writing app with a minimalist interface that fades away as you type. The program comes with eight muted backgrounds, seven ambient-sound audio tracks, and seven keystroke sounds to inspire your writing. It also offers some basic text formatting, such as bold, italic, and underline, and three saving options: .omm, .txt, and .pdf. According to the creators, it's not meant to replace your existing word processor, just to help you write in a distraction-free environment. Too many options, they believe, are a distraction. So think of OmmWriter as a place to get your ideas down on paper, not as a place to format your next e-newsletter.

OmmWriter is donorware with a minimum required donation of $4.11,--a small price to pay for peace of mind and a productivity boost. But if you'd rather not spend the money, CreaWriter (Windows) is a free alternative that's similar in style and functionality.

SelfControl: email and website blocking

If you frequently find yourself refreshing your inbox to avoid doing actual work, consider SelfControl. It's a free, open source app and Web blocker for people who can't get by on willpower alone. The app is customizable and can be used to block access to email (incoming/outgoing servers), Websites, and apps that access the Web. You just add them to your blacklist, set the duration of the block, and start the timer.

Once SelfControl is started, it's basically impossible to disable. Restarting your machine won't help, nor will uninstalling the program. Until the timer runs out, you will be unable to access those apps and sites.

SelfControl is currently only available for Mac OS X users, but Windows users can download similar programs such as SelfRestraint (Windows, Linux) and Cold Turkey (Windows). Both are free, open source apps that work on the same principle as SelfControl--once started, there's no disabling them, not even if toss your computer out the window.

Focus Booster: mindful time management

Focus Booster is based off of the pomodoro technique, a time management method that breaks tasks, into intervals (called "pomodoros" and typically 25-minutes) separated by short breaks. It allows you to work with intense focus, yet stay fresh.

Focus Booster is a digital timer with a simple, polished interface that keeps track of your pomodoros and your breaks. You just set the time for each interval (between two and 90 minutes) and break (between one and 30 minutes). Because it doesn't allow pausing, Focus Booster more or less forces you to stay on task and avoid distraction. It's only available as a download for Windows and Mac OS X users, but it can also be accessed online from any browser.

Tweak your settings to banish pop-ups and alerts

It's not always practical to work in a full-screen, distraction-free application or to block access to distracting Websites. But that doesn't mean you have to give into the temptation of Twitter or answer every incoming message as soon as you see an email notification. Follow these steps disable bothersome alerts in some common work tools.

Desktop alerts in Microsoft Outlook: Go to Tools > Options > Preferences. Click E-mail Options > Advanced E-mail Options. Under "When new items arrive in my Inbox," uncheck the box next to "Display a New Mail Alert (default Inbox only)." You can also turn off Outlook notifications by clicking on the down arrow on a desktop alert, and choosing "Disable New Mail Desktop Alert."

Chat sounds in Gmail: Click the gear icon in the upper right corner of your inbox and go to Settings > Chat tab. Under "Sounds," choose "Sounds off."

Notification sounds in Facebook: Click the gear icon in the upper right corner of your Facebook page and click Settings. You'll end up on the General Settings page. In the left navigation menu, find and click Notifications. Under "How You Get Notifications," click "On Facebook" and uncheck the box next to "Play a sound when each new notification is received."

Chat sounds in Facebook: Click the gear icon in the Facebook chat menu and uncheck "Chat Sounds."

Work like a Zen master

It's not possible to get rid of every distraction there's no app or tweak we know of to keep Jim from marketing from invading your cubicle the morning after every "Walking Dead" episode. But these tools and tips will go a long way toward keeping you on-task and peacefully productive.

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