Staying on Task: Different Approaches to the Productivity App

Article by Alison K. Lanier | 977 words

Technology streamlines our work in countless ways. We no longer have to redo an entire page on a typewriter if we make a mistake, and we can multiply gargantuan numbers together in mere seconds thanks to calculators. Computers, tablets and smartphones bring together all sorts of tools, but they come with plenty of distractions as well. Fear not: our tendency to let apps distract us has given life to apps that help keep us focused—mostly by keeping us away from other apps.

Forest: Stay Focused, Be Present

Forest is a cutesy, minimalist app that guilts you into doing your work. The app’s functionality is so simple it’s almost startling. The user plants a virtual tree seed in a plot of virtual soil with a tap of the thumb. For the next thirty, sixty or ninety minutes—depending on how long you set the timer for—looking at your phone delivers a light reprimand instead of a reprieve into Twitter or Facebook. Closing the app or using any other app results in the death of your tree.

Forest app


It’s a very sad graphic: bare pointy branches sticking out miserably from a dead trunk. As far as incentives go, it’s a light but pointed motivator. And if that isn’t enough, the option to abandon your tree and close the app comes in the form of a small bottom-of-the-screen button that simply says, “Give up.”

The goal here is to grow the forest that gives the app its name. Every thirty minutes you leave the app running undisturbed, a tree grows. You can look back proudly to the digital plot of land with its many trees, all those half hours when you weren’t distracted by the temptation to reach into social media instead of staying on task.

Forest bills itself on its homepage as not only a workplace or homework productivity app, but also a socializing app. Out to dinner with friends? Don’t let yourself get sucked into your phone! Turn on Forest.


I’ve found Forest helps me stay on task and be more conscious of the reflexive, habitual movement to pick up my phone during a thought-lull. But one drawback is that I’m not able to open texts, Facebook Messenger or e-mail in order to check for or respond to messages until the timer runs down. This can be problematic if I believe I could be receiving an important message. The app is cute and easy to use, but it gives a certain steeled-nerve anxiety by entirely unplugging you from electronic communication for a while.


Focus Lock: App-Targeted Tool

Focus Lock app



Focus Lock is a more precise, more app-targeted distraction blocker. The app lets you block specific apps from a list for a set period of time. So, if you poke on a distraction like Facebook or Flappy Bird, a window will pop up telling you, “App Locked: Wait for the Break!”


With timed intervals to lock apps as well as timed intervals for breaks, the app is a self-scheduled, app-specific rendition of Forest, but without the cutesy positive feedback of a cartoon tree. The app is designed to eliminate things like game, video, shopping and social media apps while leaving options like email and texting untouched. Functionality remains, rather than shutting down the entire phone outside of the app, as with Forest.


However, Focus Lock is still only available for Android, unlike Forest, which can be found in both the Android and Apple stores.


Pomodoro Keeper: Cheerful, Customizable Self-Scheduler


This app uses a cool, colorful graphic timer to break up time into productive blocks and break blocks. As the name implies, the app is based on the pomodoro technique, which began with mechanical timers in the 1980s. The pomodoro technique asks the distracted worker to pick a focus task, remove all distractions, and work for twenty-five minutes on that task alone. Then, like growing a Forest tree, you’re rewarded with a five-minute break, at the end of which another twenty-five minute focus session starts up. Every four sessions, the free-time break gets longer, say, fifteen or twenty minutes.

Pomodoro Keeper app



While it doesn’t actually block apps, Pomodoro Keeper motivates users to stay away from Tumblr or Instagram by placing a bright red timer across the screen, quietly ticking away. The responsibility of staying focused is mostly on you. In a way, I found this methodology less strenuous to adhere to than Forest or Focus Lock. It’s more rewarding to choose not to meander into distractions rather than having to wait anxiously for the timer to run out so you can race back to your e-mail.

Pomodoro Keeper is one of many pomodoro-style timers that exist for free or for $1.99 on Android and Apple stores. This particular pomodoro app is more flexible than many other self-scheduling timers, though. It allows you to tweak the length of every working period or break period and adjust the goal number of “rounds” you’ll accomplish for the day—that is, how many working blocks paired with break blocks.


Focus: Your Productivity Timer


Focus is another evolution of the pomodoro timer for Mac products. While Focus does come with a steeper price tag ($19.99) than our previous, phone-based apps, it combines task-management checklists with its pomodoro timer. With a user-created goal checklist, the app guides you through each dictated task as you specify your top priorities. With the clean, minimalist layout you would expect in a Mac-based focus app, Focus also keeps track of your accomplished goals over time. This app also allows customization of pomodoro periods, intervals between working blocks and breaks.




While productivity timers and management tools abound on Android and Apple stores, the specifics of each app vary as broadly as the price range. I found that these apps, as a rule, were most useful when they became habit-forming: use your phone as a tool for productivity by default, rather than for habitual distraction.

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