Distraction-preventing Software and Tools

March 20, 2020

Since lots of peo­ple are cur­rent­ly stuck at home because of the coro­na virus, and I real­ly want­ed to con­tribute to not­GDC this year, I’ve decid­ed to write about some­thing that I want­ed to share for a while now: tools to pre­vent your­self from get­ting dis­tract­ed while using a com­put­er.

When using any inter­net-con­nect­ed device, the line between exer­tion and relax­ation can blur very quickly—and I can relate. In my case, one time dur­ing an intern­ship , I got side tracked and start­ed watch­ing… a Tetris com­pe­ti­tion. Of course I got caught: that was the moment where it dawned on me that the free­dom to get dis­tract­ed was too much respon­si­bil­i­ty for me. So I decid­ed to take away some of that free­dom, and opt­ed to add mea­sures on my com­put­er to achieve that. I’ve used a lot of pro­duc­tiv­i­ty tools over the years, so I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned and what worked for me.

Some con­text, though. I’m 22 years old, lived in a stu­dent house for around the past four years, and for the last months I’ve lived in an apart­ment by myself, work­ing remote­ly. Most of the rec­om­men­da­tions here will be Win­dows appli­ca­tions or brows­er exten­sions. I also have as few apps on my phone as pos­si­ble to min­i­mize dis­trac­tion there (a “dumb­phone” of sorts).

Some of the meth­ods I’m using might be a lit­tle extreme, because I need it to stay sharp and moti­vat­ed. So you might not be able to use very sin­gle tip here, but I still hope these pieces of soft­ware and oth­er tips will suit your use cas­es!

Recommended productivity software

LeechBlock 🔒

Leech­Block is a Fire­fox exten­sion that blocks off access to sites dur­ing sched­uled blocks of time. I like this pro­gram because there are tons of set­tings you can tweak. Which means that it might take a while to find a com­bi­na­tion of set­tings that work for you, though!

In my case, it’s pret­ty strict. I can over­ride it, but the method I’ve set (typ­ing over a ran­dom 32-char­ac­ter string before over­rid­ing 10 min­utes) is annoy­ing enough that I only do it if I real­ly want! I use it to block social media an news sites dur­ing work from 9 to 12 and 13 to 17, then lock those again at around 21.

This is the only tool I’ve used that allows me to set it up in such a way that I will play along with the restric­tions I’ve set up, yet is just not strict enough that I’ll attempt to bypass those restric­tions. That rea­son alone is why I’ve placed it on top of this list. I rec­om­mend it a bunch! (It also has a Chrome ver­sion.)

uBlock Origin 🙈

Ads can be pret­ty dis­tract­ing, and mak­ing your­self invis­i­ble on the net might be just what you need to keep focus, espe­cial­ly if your work involves surf­ing to a whole lot of ran­dom sites (like game dev!).

uBlock Ori­gin is the one I rec­om­mend, because it will also allow you to man­u­al­ly fil­ter site ele­ments that aren’t ads, if you don’t like those for some rea­son. For exam­ple, I use it to fil­ter cook­ie per­mis­sion ban­ners, but­tons in menus that I nev­er use, and for some dis­tract­ing sites I’ve even used it to sab­o­tage site func­tion­al­i­ty, so that using the site becomes a very annoy­ing.

Max Tabs 📑

Max Tabs is a Fire­fox exten­sion that lim­its the amount of tabs you can have opened in a sin­gle win­dow at the same time. I use this to make sure I close tabs I don’t need, since mess is usu­al­ly a main source of dis­trac­tion for me.

You can set the max­i­mum of tabs your­self. This caus­es my tabs to be spread out across mul­ti­ple win­dows (usu­al­ly pri­vate win­dows in my case), each win­dow car­ry­ing relat­ed sub­jects, which can be closed quick­ly when I’m done with them. (You could also look at some­thing like Tab Groups if you’re pri­mar­i­ly look­ing to orga­nize your tabs.)

Tools and other tricks

You can use these tricks most­ly with­out installing addi­tion­al apps on your PC.

Do Not Disturb mode ⛔️

I use this on every device that sup­ports it. On most Android devices, you can indi­cate a time peri­od in which your phone auto­mat­i­cal­ly jumps into a “Do not Dis­turb” mode. If that does­n’t give you enough con­trol, there are also apps that allow you to auto­mat­i­cal­ly tog­gle things like WiFi or Air­plane Mode on and off at cer­tain times, like Timer­iff­ic (although its inter­face is a bit dat­ed).

Writing down stuff ✏️

When I have a real­ly cool idea, but I can’t act to it right away, it remains in the back of my mind until it’s doc­u­ment­ed. For solve this, I usu­al­ly use a Trel­lo board if it’s relat­ed to one of my projects, or a phys­i­cal note­block if I need to draw out new ideas.

I real­ly like note­blocks, because they allow me to record idea’s when all my devices are off, and make draw­ings or dia­grams that are dif­fi­cult to cre­ate (quick­ly) on devices. My note­book also has a sleeve which allows me to car­ry it with one hand and draw with the oth­er, and has a slot to stick a pen­cil inside, so I have every­thing I need to make anno­ta­tions any­where quick­ly.

Night light & grayscale display modes 💡

I have a real­ly bad habit of stay­ing up too late behind the com­put­er. The Night­light fea­ture in Win­dows 10 helps with this: it fil­ters out the blue light that tells your body you’re look­ing at the sun. The blue light pre­vents your body from pro­duc­ing the oxy­tocin you need to fall asleep, because it makes your brain think the sun is still up. (Twi­light on Android serves a sim­i­lar pur­pose.)

Sim­i­lar­ly, some devices have oth­er options for screen col­or­ing, includ­ing a greyscale mode. It looks cool (I some­times use this option on my Nin­ten­do Switch to turn it into an enor­mous Game Boy), but it also fil­ters out col­ors that would nor­mal­ly be eye-catch­ing and thus dis­tract­ing. Look into the acces­si­bil­i­ty options on your device to learn more.

User time limits ⏰

The pre­vi­ous night light tip only soothes the prob­lem of late com­put­er work: it does­n’t pre­vent it. There’s also a set­ting in Win­dows 10 that pre­vent users from log­ging in dur­ing cer­tain peri­ods of time. So if you’re still using your com­put­er when the peri­od goes in, you’ll be able to con­tin­ue using it, but if you lock it or are oth­er­wise logged out, you can’t get in until the peri­od has passed.

This is the most extreme mea­sure I’m cur­rent­ly using, but it’s also the most dif­fi­cult one to set up because you’ll need to do it in the Com­mand Prompt. Addi­tion­al­ly, you can set up one user account with only your pro­duc­tive stuff installed, and put the rest in anoth­er account with a real­ly long pass­word.

Or you can look into T‑Clock, with which you can set alarms and hourly chimes to remind you to take a break.

Know your shortcuts ⌨️

For me, if I can stay in the flow of the work I’m doing, then the chance that I’ll trail off becomes much small­er. I’ll assume you’re already famil­iar with short­cuts like Ctrl+V and Alt+Tab, so here are some of the less­er known ones that are equal­ly as use­ful (espe­cial­ly for game devs):

Here’s a pret­ty com­plete list of short­cuts on Win­dows. One extra tip: in Win­dows Explor­er, typ­ing “cmd” in the nav­i­ga­tion bar will open the com­mand prompt in the cur­rent fold­er. Super use­ful to get com­mands run­ning quick­ly!

 

Additional tools

Here are some things I’ve used pre­vi­ous­ly but did­n’t work for me, but might for you:

RescueTime 📈

Res­cue­Time tracks what kinds of soft­ware you use through­out the day. It already knows of most pro­grams which ones are dis­tract­ing and which ones are pro­duc­tive, and you can adjust this your­self too.

While this tool is great for track­ing your behav­ior, there’s lit­tle incen­tive pro­vid­ed to actu­al­ly improve this behav­ior. Still, if you are in the ear­ly phas­es of fig­ur­ing out which things cost you the most time, Res­cue­Time might be just what you need to ana­lyze it!

Habatica ⚔️

Habat­i­ca is a Trel­lo board com­bined with an RPG. I did­n’t like it because it Habat­i­ca does­n’t actu­al­ly track any­thing: it trusts the user to set all their tasks and habits and report accu­rate­ly, and you need to play it with mul­ti­ple peo­ple to make any mean­ing­ful pro­gres­sion in the RPG bit. There are more gam­i­fied tasks lists out there, if that sor­ta thing moti­vates you, try out some and see which one works best for you!

Cold Turkey 🦃

Cold Turkey has none of the edge cas­es that oth­er app block­ers might have that will allow you to use blocked stuff while you actu­al­ly should not be able to. It’s fea­ture set is very sim­i­lar to Leech­Block, but it runs on your desk­top instead It did­n’t click with me because their free ver­sion is pret­ty basic. How­ev­er, it might be just what you need if you often want to man­u­al­ly lock down your com­put­er to get a cou­ple hours of com­plete focus on work for a near­by dead­line or deliv­er­able.

Conclusion

I have used a lot of pro­duc­tiv­i­ty tools because I know myself all too well, and rec­og­nize that I need them to use a com­put­er prop­er­ly. Hope­ful­ly I’ve con­vinced you to try some of these tools to keep your own dis­trac­tions at bay! If any­thing, try out Leech­Block, since it’s gen­er­al­ly the most effec­tive tool for me. Thanks for read­ing, and good luck!

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