5 simple tools to help you focus on what matters to you

By Jeremy Caplan

May 09, 2022

5 simple tools to help you focus on what matters to you

This article is republished with permission from Wonder Tools, a newsletter that helps you discover the most useful sites and apps. Subscribe here.

Hello! In this post I’m sharing resources to help you stay focused and get more done:

    5 simple tools to help you focus on what matters to you.

    2 plug-ins to block social media distractions.

    Some excellent recent books on how and why to avoid time-sucking distractions.

Self Control

Download this free, open-source Mac app. Then pick a list of sites to block yourself from visiting. Set a timer for your focused work period. During the timed period you won’t be able to use Facebook, email, or whatever else you’ve blacklisted, even if you restart your computer.

Cold Turkey

For Windows users, or Mac users who prefer it, Cold Turkey is a freemium alternative. The basic software is completely free. You can get some extra features for $39, like scheduling website blocks in advance or blocking applications (not just sites).


If you find yourself tumbling down digital rabbit holes on multiple devices, you may find Freedom helpful. For those who have mastered the art of focus, this is superfluous, like putting a lock on a snack cabinet you never visit.

But for those of us who succumb to temptation, Freedom blocks access to distracting sites and apps. Unlike Self Control, you can use your account across platforms. It’s free to try for seven sessions. If you find it helpful, it’s $7 a month or $29 a year to use across all your devices.


Rather than blocking sites or apps, Forest encourages you to avoid doomscrolling or otherwise wasting time on your phone by letting you grow virtual trees by leaving your phone alone. If you pick up your phone and switch apps, your tree dies.

If your phone is what tends to tempt you away from work on your laptop, Forest is a helpful way to keep yourself on task. And you don’t have to worry about not being able to get to an app you need to, because nothing is blocked.


If you find it helpful to have a human to help keep you on track, Focusmate offers “virtual coworking.” What that means is that you join a work session with someone else on the platform to help both of you stick to what you intend to do. I’ve used it a couple of times to try it out.

It’s free for up to three meetings a week, or $5/monthly for unlimited meetings. Pick a time on the site’s calendar and you’re paired with someone. When your time slot begins, log in and say hello to your partner. Share updates on what you’re trying to do and then work separately for 50 minutes.

One person I was paired with worked on a research report, another practiced piano. You’re encouraged to leave cameras on to ensure accountability. You’re not supposed to chat, just to work independently. Focusmate’s rationale is that working alongside someone—even across a screen—can help you stay on task and boost productivity. Works on any computer or on iOS or Android.

Caveday offers a pricier alternative ($40/month) with group work sessions hosted by a facilitator, as does Ultraworking ($49/month). CNN recently covered both. The free Focusmate is sufficient for me.

Apple Screen Time

I recently began using Screen Time on my iPhone and MacBook. (Android has a related “Digital wellbeing” feature. Windows also has helpful focus settings). Apple’s built-in’s Screen Time does several things:

    Lets me set time limits on particular apps.

    Counts how many notifications my apps send me (I can block those—and other interruptions, like calls— by turning on Do Not Disturb for my Mac or for my iPhone at any moment, or on a schedule).

    Gives me a summary view of how much time I’m spending on devices.

    The Downtime feature is what I use most. It basically shuts down my apps at a time I designate. I can override it – by extending for a minute, 15 minutes or unlimited time. But it adds friction to the process of late-night work, so it helps me reduce late-night working.

Limit Social Media Distractions

Distraction-free YouTube is a Chrome plug-in that disables YouTube’s autoplay function to keep recommended videos from sucking away time.

Facebook Newsfeed Eradicator replaces the stream of FOMO updates with simplicity. You can still look at accounts you’re interested in, without the distraction of seeing lots of unrelated posts. Also works for Twitter, Reddit, YouTube and LinkedIn.

Bonus: 6 Recommended Recent Books for Focusing

    Indistractable by Nir Eyal is full of surprising insights. The opposite of distraction isn’t focus, it’s traction, he argues. Technology isn’t at the root of distraction. Its source is often internal, not external. Eyal’s a frequent podcast guest. Watch or listen to this recorded conversation with Dr Rangan Chatterje?e?, whose podcast (Feel Better, Live More) I like a lot these days. Or this excellent interview with Shane Parrish of the Knowledge Project. In both of these, Eyal sums up the book convincingly.

    Distracted by James Lang is aimed at teachers. The book is overflowing with valuable ideas. It’s fundamentally about how we cultivate others’ attention. One takeaway: think like a playwright when planning classes, meetings or events. Map out your pacing & transitions, and set scenes of varied lengths.

    Make Time by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky suggests focusing on one highlight each day to avoid getting sucked in by email, and offers some great tips on conquering the temptations of our phones.

    Deep Work by Cal Newport I found helpful in exploring how best to delve beyond busywork. I’m eager to read his new book, A World Without Email.

    Off the Clock by Laura Vanderkam is full of great ideas about how we can make the most of the 168 hours we have each week to free us up to enjoy our leisure. Her original book, 168 Hours, is also excellent.

    Time Smart by Ashley Whillans — 80% of adults say they don’t have enough time to do what they want or need to do. Whillans, a Harvard Biz School prof, sums up smart and non-intuitive tactics for addressing this “time poverty.”

Jeremy Caplan is the director of teaching and learning at CUNY’s Newmark Graduate School of Journalism and the creator of the Wonder Tools newsletter.

This article is republished with permission from Wonder Tools, a newsletter that helps you discover the most useful sites and apps. Subscribe here.