Productivity and improving focus

application notifications

One of the biggest challenges to productivity in the digital age is focus. Our devices and apps are all vying for our attention, and our brains have become trained like Pavlov’s dogs to react to notification sounds and digital distractions.

Ping, a new email has come in, better stop writing this blog post to check what exciting thing has arrived in my inbox. Sure it’s just a reminder that there are only 12 hours left of a sale at a store I’ve never heard of, but (shrug) I had to check. Below are some screenshots of my own notifications this morning.

application notifications

The notifications taunt us, luring us with promises of a comment, a like, a conversation. Notification neurosis sets in. We must see what that urgent red indicator is about. It might be important! (hint: it never is)

application notifications
application notifications


We’ve already talked about some of our favourite productivity apps but now let’s look at some that are specifically designed to help you maintain focus when you're working.

Background sound and white noise

In 2013, The New York Times published a piece about using noise for focus and creative thinking:

In a series of experiments that looked at the effects of noise on creative thinking, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign had participants brainstorm ideas for new products while they were exposed to varying levels of background noise. Their results, published in The Journal of Consumer Research, found that a level of ambient noise typical of a bustling coffee shop or a television playing in a living room, about 70 decibels, enhanced performance compared with the relative quiet of 50 decibels. A higher level of noise, however, about 85 decibels, roughly the noise level generated by a blender or a garbage disposal, was too distracting, the researchers found.

Coffitivity is free to use in a web browser or you can download for iPhone 9/yr of premium.
Working in a noisy cafe, or with the Coffitivity app works really well to help some people focus and get work done. Personally, I find it stressful and distracting. My mind finds white noise and nature sounds much easier to focus with.

My favourites are from SimplyNoise. I use their SimplyRain, with lots of thunder, to help me focus when I’m working, especially when I have a lot of writing to do. If rain’s not your thing, SimplyNoise has options for crackling fire, waves crashing on a beach along with basic white, pink and brown noise.

SimplyNoise.com - adjustable white, pink, brown noise generator. Free version works in any web browser with Adobe Flash enabled. Simply Noise classic free download to iPhone or Android devices with options to add SimplyRain for 0.99, SimplyBeach for 1.99, SimplyFire for 1.99
SimplyRain has rain background noise - you can adjust to add thunder, adjust the intensity of rain, set timer (great for sleeping). Free version works in any web browser with Adobe Flash enabled. SimplyRain can be added to the SimplyNoise app for iPhone or Android for 0.99.


White noise is used to help with sleep, meditation, calming the senses and to help with focus. If you’re already using a white noise or background sound to help you sleep or meditate, I’d suggest finding a different type of sound to help focus when it comes time to getting work done.

Distraction-free writing

When it comes to writing blog posts, articles, web site content, or reports sometimes it’s the app you’re using to write in that’s creating the distractions. Automatic spellcheckers and grammar tools with their helpful red squiggly underlines or word suggestions can interrupt the flow of your work and lose focus.

Most word processing apps, like Microsoft Word and Google Docs, allow you to turn spellcheckers off and on as needed.

Scrivener, my preferred writing app, has "composition mode" which is a full-screen writing mode. It blacks out everything but the page I’m writing. No toolbars, menus, or icons are visible. Scrivener is available for Mac, Windows and iOS. Scrivener has a trial which is exactly the same as the full version but will stop working after 30 days of use. (If you use it every day, it lasts 30 days; if you use it only two days a week, it lasts fifteen weeks.) Scrivener is $45 for Mac or Windows, $20 for iOS.

FocusWriter is a free (with the option to tip when you download) app for Mac, Windows and Linux which allows you to turn spell checking off or on will enable you to turn typewriter sound effect off or on and allows you to write distraction free as well.

Screenshot of FocusWriter

CalmyWriter is an online browser-based option that gives you a clean white page to write on without distractions. Taking it to full-screen mode gives you a bright white full screen without menus and icons. I find it the all white to be a bit too much for me but it’s a free option that will work with any web browser.

Blocking websites and apps

For those like me, who are struggling to retrain their brain to focus when there are so many digital distractions.
Some free browser extensions let you set up a list of websites to block for specific periods of time. If you’re like me and have eleventy billion or so tabs open and wanting attention, using a blocker extension can really help with focus. (Wikipedia! I cannot guess how many hours have been spent going down the Wikipedia rabbit hole).

A few I’ve tried and find useful are:

WasteNoTime extension for Safari and Chrome

Stayfocused extension for Chrome

For those days when the procrastination monster has me in its grip I appreciate having the option to block out Mac apps as well as distracting websites.

Freedom app can block Mac or Windows apps as well as specific websites or even the entire internet for whatever period you choose. It supports multiple devices, so it’s easy to set up to work across your computer, tablet and smartphone. Freedom app is available for Mac, Windows, iOS, Android with browser extensions for Chrome, Firefox and Opera. Free trial then priced from 6.99/month, 29/year or 129 forever. The site usually has a 30% off coupon code for Freedom yearly and Freedom forever.

Forest is an app designed to help you to avoid looking at your mobile phone. "If you want to temporarily put down your phone and focus on what’s more important in real life, you can plant a seed in Forest. As time goes by, this seed will gradually grow into a tree. However, if you cannot resist the temptation of using your phone and leave the app, your tree will wither." Available for both iPhone and Android phones.


Next week we'll wrap up our productivity series with some tips for creating habits, including triggers or cues, to help with focus and productivity.

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