I Needs Me Some Focus

The Internet is an ocean teaming with distraction after distraction, as is the computer you’re sitting near right now. You can easily lose sight of your daily goals when the siren songs of diversion begin. Today we look at two different apps aimed at keeping your inattentive mind on task. To be honest, it might not be fair to call this a showdown because they have different philosophies and approaches aimed at keeping you out of the swamp.

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The two products are Concentrate by Rocket and Vitamin-R by Frank Reiff.

Sameness

First, the similarities. Both apps encourage you to work in short bursts of time, similar to the Pomodoro Technique (which Vitamin-R adheres to more closely). You set a work interval and can attach sounds or voice to the interval (for example, an encouraging statement or a reminder to stay on task that repeats regularly throughout the time block). Both allow you to hide distractions, while you’re supposed to be focused. Both provide a countdown clock so you can see where you are in your time interval. Once you get past these similarities, the two apps begin to diverge.

Differentness



To cut to the chase, Concentrate is the nun with the ruler, hovering over you and keeping you honest. Vitamin-R is the motivational speaker, providing tools for you to set goals and helping you to break those goals into bite-sized chunks.

Concentrate

Concentrate is all about controlling your environment because you don’t have the willpower to to avoid the distractions yourself. When you start it, you’ll see the main activity screen.

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From here, you can begin a concentration session, edit an existing activity, or create a new activity. Basically, an activity is a set of applications and actions combined for a specific task or project.

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From this window, you begin to shape the environment in which you want to work. Along the left side are the different actions that you can link to this activity. For example, you can see that I have created an activity called “Blogging” which, when initiated, opens the three apps I use most while working on this site. Once those apps are launched, you tell Concentrate what to do with the other apps. You can:

  • Hide all other apps
  • Quite all other apps
  • Do nothing

For the purpose of testing, I took advantage of several other options. I told Concentrate to close the DVD Player, block any social networking or video sites, set my Adium status to “Away”, and give myself friendly little reminder:

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As you can see from the edit window, there are other actions that I could have taken advantage of but did not. You then set the size of the time interval along the bottom of the window.

In my testing, Concentrate worked as advertised. Applications were properly opened and closed, statuses were properly set, and distracting websites were successfully blocked. When the session ended, everything was set back to the pre-session conditions.

To simplify setup, there are two group types that you can define.

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You define domain groups to limit your access to the Internet. Since the blocking is based on IP address, you may or may not have success blocking sub-domains (depending on how those sub-domains are defined). You define application groups to link together those applications most commonly used for one or more activities.

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When a session is activated, Concentrate becomes your little gatekeeper, keeping you out of applications or websites that might otherwise keep you from your duties. Once the session is ended, it lets you out of the headlock and you are free to go about your business. If you struggle with staying focused and need a little tough love, Concentrate serves that purpose well.

Vitamin-R

Vitamin-R is a whole different animal. It trusts you to stay focused because it believes you are a goal-centered machine. It will hide apps from view but that’s about it. You can activate any program you want, hidden or not, and no website is off limits. Instead, it provides the tools you need to (in GTD fashion) clear your mind of all those tasks that can be distracting you, focus on one of those tasks, and, if necessary, break that task down further into actionable steps.

One of the tools that Vitamin-R provides is the Now & Later Board. The board can be activated via hot keys, with each of its four boards having its own specific keys. The intent of the board is to provide a space for getting everything recorded so that you can stop worrying about things you might forget and instead focus on small, precise, achievable tasks.

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Now — This is the repository for your current “working memory.” Put those thoughts here that are related to the active task.

Later — This is the place for all of those other things you keep thinking about; those things that need to get done but don’t need to get done right now.

Scratch — As you would expect, this is a place for you to type anything else crossing your mind; anything unrelated to the other categories.

Objective — Your current objective goes here. It serves as a reminder of where your focus should be.

When it’s time to activate a time slice (the Vitamin-R term for your work interval), Vitamin-R will lead you through the process of defining your objective, hiding distractions, and setting the time limit.

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Your objective is text but you can have Vitamin-R read it to you. When you are ready to eliminate distractions, pay attention to the buttons along the right side; they are what will determine what happens to the active applications. Hiding the apps does nothing more than that. You could ⌘-Tab and bring them right back. Finally, you establish the length of the time slice and start your session. Since Vitamin-R keeps a log of all your time slice events, you can also set your motivation and resistance levels before starting the session. When the session ends, you are asked to evaluate your time slice.

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This information also goes into the log. You can then look at the relationship between motivation, resistance, focus and success. When the session is over, you have the option to take a fixed time break or an open ended break. In the Vitamin-R philosophy, the breaks are just as important as the time slice sessions. Make sure you take a few minutes to refresh, clear your mind, and look off in the distance.

Finally, Vitamin-R provides two additional concepts: Breadcrumbs and priming. Breadcrumbs are little tidbits of information that you need to record as a session is ending. They are meant to act as seeds/reminders for the next session, so you don’t spend too much time trying to remember what you need to do next. Priming is a means for dealing with potential obstacles in future tasks. The idea is that you record information about these obstacles and then let your subconscious mind work on ways to overcome those obstacles.

Which to Use?

If you’re a left-brained, type-A personality, Vitamin-R is probably your tool. If, however, you are more right-brained and are easily distracted by shiny things (like me), Concentrate will help you stay focused. An app that combined the features of both of these programs would be ideal for me. Given the rate at which updates are pushed out for Vitamin-R, perhaps that is a possibility.

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2 responses to “I Needs Me Some Focus

  • James Levine

    Not sure what put these two apps in the forefront of my ponderings today, but I’d be more interested to know how those last two features of vitamin-R work, Breadcrumbs and Priming.

    I like how Concentrate has different activities, because it lends itself to rotating, cycling or batching, depending on how something is more easily tackled, whether this is due to resistance or otherwise. I also like these shut-out options, but what happens if I simply quit the concentrate app? If I was really addicted, would that whack of a ruler really phase me?

    Alternately, I don’t know if I want a quick jot pad like vitR for tasks that come to mind, unless the app itself really leverages what I’ve placed there with its priming methods. Otherwise, I like that my tasks go into my one chosen place, in my case Bento and iCal, but the competition is amass with task managers. What else would compel me to list tasks in a scratch pad area if I was just going to rewrite them again?

    What all this boils down to is price, because Pomodoro for OS X has the spirit of it, if not feature loaded, at least free.

    • mgrego2

      Hello James,

      If you have read Getting Things Done, breadcrumbs provided a means for dumping RAM to clear your head. You use the Now & Later Board to record things you have thought of but about which you have decided not to take action yet (sort of like the Someday/Maybe list).

      Priming is a technique by which you seed your problem solving faculties. For example, you’ve hit an issue that you need to think about. Record a snapshot of your thoughts and then go to lunch. Let your mind struggle with it while you eat. When you return, revisit that issue.

      I don’t know what to tell you about Pomodoro. I’ve downloaded it but never used it. Don’t know if this helps or not, please let me know.

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