Focus apps can help you get more done in less time. The trick is finding the right one. This guide will walk you through your options to find the best pick for you.
Focus is hard to come by these days. The Sunday ‘scaries’ are more than a trendy Instagram trope. Friday tasks often bleed into Monday because you ran out of steam. You sit at your desk all day but fail to muster any useful brain power past 3:00 pm. There are whole workdays where every task feels like a herculean effort to check off your list. If any of this sounds familiar, this guide is for you.
There’s no magic pill that will give you more productivity. However, there are focus apps. This guide will walk you through what focus apps can do for you. We’ll also compare the top-five focus apps side-by-side to help you choose which to try first.
What are focus apps?
Focus apps are aimed at helping you avoid distractions and stay on-task to ultimately get more done in less time. They often target a specific distraction, bad habit, or other barrier to break you free and give you back some of your precious time.
Focus apps will often:
- Block access to your most distracting non-work websites
- Track how much time you spend on different tasks and websites
- Compile daily or weekly reports on how you spend your time
- Gamify and reward staying on-task
- Offer easy-to-use timers (like you’d use for the Pomodoro technique) to help you single-task
We’ll get more into focus apps and their features later, but first let’s talk about what focus apps can do for you.
How focus apps can boost your productivity
How is yet another app going to change your work life? Unfortunately, no focus apps can magically make your workload feel like there’s two – or even three – of you punching keys for 8 hours every day.
However, focus apps can help you feel more in control of your time. This helps you get more done at work, and gives you more time and energy for life outside of work as well. When you get more done at work you have an easier time enjoying your off-time.
So how can focus apps help you get more done in less time?
First, focus apps help you get into and spend more time in a state of flow. You know that feeling when you’re totally immersed in a problem or task with no awareness of time or the outside world? That’s flow.
Focus apps help you do less context-switching, which means you can work more efficiently. When you focus on a new task, research shows that part of your brain continues to think about the previous task for up to 25 minutes. Researchers like Sophie Leroy call this “attention residue.”
When you can fully concentrate on a task, you perform better. You’re more cognitively vigilant and intellectually alert. When part of your brain is focused on something else, you have fewer cognitive resources available for the task and as a result, you process information less carefully and systematically.
Focus apps also help save you time by automating certain tasks. They also preserve your mental energy by cutting down on decision fatigue.
For instance, rather than deciding in the moment many times per day when to check Facebook and for how long focus apps allow you to pre-decide when you’re going to check Facebook and how long you can spend on the site.
What are the best focus apps to increase productivity?
There are hundreds of focus apps on the market. Some streamline their features for ease-of-use. Others offer a more robust feature set, but can take longer to learn. Pricing models include free, freemium, and paid. Some are exclusive to one platform (Android or iPhone, for example). Others work across multiple platforms.
Which will be best for you depends on your unique challenges, your favorite productivity techniques, privacy considerations, hardware constraints, and more. I’ve compiled five of the best – in alphabetical order – based on operating system, price, compatibility with other productivity tools, and user experience.
1. Clockwise (Google Calendar)
Endless meeting requests, fast-approaching deadlines, and hunger pangs from forgetting to stop for lunch can all feel like neverending obstacles to the deep work that moves projects along. Clockwise is a free app that streamlines your work calendar to create more Focus Time for you and your team.
Set your desired number of focus hours and Clockwise automatically configures your schedule to protect those hours. Adjust it whenever you need more time ahead of a deadline or less time to accommodate for a busy meeting week. Clockwise also automatically resolves scheduling conflicts and suggests the best times to meet to save you time and energy. In addition to support articles and a web form for specific requests, Clockwise offers regular training webinars to get you and your team on board.
2. Freedom (iOS)
With free and premium features, Freedom works across Mac, Windows, Android, iOS, and Chrome devices to block distracting websites and apps while a built-in timer helps define work sessions. Starting from the app’s dashboard, you can set up a work session in any duration while selecting whether to block all websites and apps, or just those you previously designated as particularly distracting.
Session annotation is a standout feature for anyone used to breaking up a complex task into multiple blocks. The app offers a place to take notes on each session, so when you pick it up again after a break you know right where you left off.
You can also schedule work sessions and set up automatic repetition of sessions – which helps you stay in the habit of time blocking. Download their browser extension to get even more from the app while keeping time spent on other non-work websites in check. Freedom offers plentiful support articles and a designated support email address. Start with the free version to see how it integrates with your working style before upgrading to premium – which allows unlimited work sessions and devices.
3. Forest (Android and iOS)
Forest is a free focus app that gamifies focus. When you start a focus session the app plants a virtual ‘seed.’ As you continue working, the seed grows. If you focus long enough without getting distracted, your seedling reaches maturation as a full-fledged tree. The catch is that the more time you spend on your phone, the slower your tree grows and the more you risk it dying.
With such a cute aesthetic, Forest can be a good way to get you to put your phone down long enough to make headway on that stubborn project. With its low price of free (ad-supported) and an option for a paid ad-free version, it’s easy to pair with the other apps on this list for even more focus power without another subscription fee.
Support is available through a contact button on their website, but with the simplicity of the app, you likely won’t need it.
4. Serene (iOS)
Serene is the closest thing on this list to an all-in-one productivity tool. It’s a focus app with a bevy of features, including website blocking, time tracking, and analytics. It’ll even play music to help you focus.
What really sets it apart from the others are its integrations with task management and project management tools like Todoist, Trello, and Asana.
While they may expand to Windows sometime in the future, for now only Mac users can enjoy Serene. The bright ombre orange of the interface is a sunny addition to an intuitive interface with your days laid out in a Monday to Sunday view. Fill out a contact form on their website for direct support and answers to questions.
5. Timing (iOS)
Fundamentally a time tracking app, Timing offers features that help you build a better routine – and focus. The best part is it works equally well for those who want an occasional audit and people really interested in making micro-adjustments to their time based on their weekly reports.
Timing tracks how much time you spend on various apps, websites, and projects across your Apple devices. Their reports show how much time Chrome, Safari, and Firefox browsers take up, as well as chat tools like Messenger and Slack.
A Zapier integration gives you and your team the ability to automatically create a new project in Timing when one is added in your project management platform – like Trello or Asana. It’s offered as a subscription and for about $100 a year you can automatically create time entries, track time spent specifically on calls, use filters to categorize your time, and more. Find support on their help page – or reach out to them directly.
Bonus: Android phones and iPhones come with ‘Do Not Disturb’ (DND) functionality built-in. It’s the digital version of closing your door at the office – or putting on your noise cancelling headphones from your hot desk. You can even add emergency contacts to allow urgent communication in DND mode. Focus mode and screen time are also features built into Android and iOS devices, respectively. They can track where you spend time and offer timers to limit daily use of certain apps.
If you’re not sure where to start on choosing a focus app, this list should help you narrow it down. If you need more time to focus without getting distracted by meetings, Clockwise can help you carve out more Focus Time. Windows users who need an app to block distracting websites should look into Freedom. If you need an extra boost of motivation to stay away from social media or chat apps, Forest makes focus a little more fun. For a focus app that integrates with your favorite task or project management apps, Serene is a great pick. And for those who need time tracking along with website blocking, Timing is a great tool.