Katherine Boehret

Focus! No Willpower Required.

Sitting at a computer and trying to concentrate can be nearly impossible between incoming email alerts, ever-changing Twitter feeds, new instant message notifications and Facebook lurking a click away in the browser.

Sorry, what was I talking about again?


Sixty-two percent of teens who go online think that the Internet keeps young people from doing more important things, according to the Pew Research Center. And Americans spend more time on Facebook than any other website, says Nielsen.

This week I took a closer look at a few methods to avoid distractions while on the computer. They range from Web browser tools to computer software programs to controls built into the operating system.

Of course, these are of little use if you don’t banish received email. Still, the computer remains the place where people do most of their work. With a little help from one of these tools, you might be startled by how much more you can get done.

Cutting the Cord (Sort of)

Several solutions make computers behave as if they’re not connected to the Internet. Some can be set to a certain amount of time, while others limit social networks and still others limit specific websites.

A software program called Freedom works on Windows PCs and Macs and is free for up to five users. After that, it costs $10 for one copy that works on all computers with the same operating system (like a household with four Macs).

Each time it’s used, Freedom can disable your computer’s networking for up to eight hours. Since most people will try to turn this off, perhaps to quickly check something online, Freedom is designed so it can’t be disabled once a session is started unless a person reboots the entire computer.

Most people won’t do this, because they have several windows and other programs opened and don’t want to take the time to shut down and start up the computer.

In one of my tests, I set a Freedom session to last one hour. I was given the option to maintain access to my local network for things like connecting to a printer or another computer, but I opted to go whole hog. After entering my password (Freedom requires administrator access) and starting the session, I was startled by how much I use the Internet without thinking about it while working.

A $15 program called Anti-Social, made by the same man who created Freedom, specifically turns off social components of the Internet for certain amounts of time. These include Facebook, Twitter, and other programs you name like Skype and email. Anti-Social is currently only available for Macs, but a Windows version is expected to be available in early 2012.

StayFocusd is an example of a free browser extension that limits the time you spend each day on certain specified websites. It works exclusively with Google’s Chrome Web browser. Users can designate how much time each day they want to allow themselves on certain sites.

Setting this up seemed to take a little too much work. For those in need of extreme measures, StayFocusd’s Nuclear option blocks all Internet connections. It can only be disabled by performing a challenge, like correctly retyping a long, heavily punctuated phrase.

Help Has Already Arrived

Some programs that you may already use offer built-in ways of aiding concentration. One example is Microsoft Word for Mac 2011. When used in Full Screen View, all distracting alerts—including pop-up email or instant message alerts, TweetDeck notifications, and even the computer’s clock—are hidden from view. I use this regularly when I’m writing for work, and it helps me a lot.

The Windows and Mac operating systems have built-in parental controls that can limit the amount of overall computer time used by each family member each day. Neither operating system can be set to limit just the amount of online time each family member uses. But both operating systems can be set to limit access to certain websites and programs, so you could potentially set your computer up to disallow access to distracting sites, like Facebook.

Big Brother Is Watching

Another solution is to install monitoring software that tracks behavior and shows you the results. It works a bit like keeping a food journal: Seeing the raw data can shock you into changing your behavior.

I tried RescueTime, which I installed on my PC (it works on Windows or Mac) and it kept a log of the amount of time I spent with each program, including specific websites.

RescueTime sends weekly email summaries, or users can select the program’s icon at any time to see current stats. It collects user data anonymously and reveals how your productivity compares with other users of the product.

RescueTime is offered in a free version and a version that costs $72 a year or $9 a month.

Not everyone will respond the same way to the same distraction-proofing program, but using these types of programs could be the first step toward feeling more productive and in control of your work time.

Write to Katherine Boehret at katie.boehret@wsj.com

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