Tag Archives: project planning

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.


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.


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 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.


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.


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:


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.


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.


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 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.


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.


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.


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.


ConceptDraw Office

When I first got out of college, I worked for a company that allowed me to have a Mac. The Mac SE was my favorite tool. Back then, just after we moved from chiseling tablets, the Mac had a program called HyperCard. It was an interesting program with its own coding language. I used it to create an MRP system (material requirements planning). The system allowed us to track inventories, production requirements, purchase orders, and so forth. It even gave us graphs of expected inventory levels. It was much better than the $50,000 system that my company had purchased (running on DEC…ever heard of it?).

When I moved to IT, I began managing PC’s also. A co-worker and I had moved the HyperCard system to Excel. We found out something very unfortunate. Although I could attach a modem to a Mac and have it working in less than a half hour (versus the four hours plus it would take to put a modem into a PC), our MRP macros ran at least 4 times faster on the 486 PC running Excel than they did on the Mac. This, unfortunately, was the beginning of the end of my Mac experience.

After that, I found myself in positions where the Mac wasn’t an option. My employers were so locked into the PC world that a Mac was out of the question. This year, I decided that if they upgraded the graphics on the iMac, I would buy one for myself. In the spring, they did exactly that. With some trepidation, I ordered my 3.06 Ghz iMac.

Wow. Suddenly, after 14 years, I enjoyed using a computer again. Using Fusion, I was able to put XP on my iMac but I rarely found a reason to use it. Then, one day, I realized that I hated using my Dell laptop for work. Since I have to produce project plans for my clients, I began looking around for a Mac product that would allow me to create the project plans I needed and yet provide them to all the Windows users with whom I worked.

After some searching, I found ConceptDraw Office. I loaded it onto my Mac and immediately fell in love. The product allowed me to mind map my projects, then convert them into project plans that could be exported to MS Project, then produce dashboard-style status reports that could be exported to MS Powerpoint or Visio.

This is a great product. Before finding it, I had been using FreeMind to create mind maps. There is absolutely nothing wrong with FreeMind; it’s a great product and the price is right. However, it didn’t provide the links into project management like ConceptDraw Office did. As I looked into it, I realized that ConceptDraw Office would be considerably cheaper than what I currently use (MindGenius, MS Project, Visio). We’re talking $499 vs. $940. Plus, the integration is better and ConceptDraw exports to all the necessary products.

Additionally, I found out that purchasing a license from CS Odessa actually means that you can install the product on three PC’s, regardless of OS. This means that I could use it on my XP laptop for work and also install it on my iMac to use while working from home.

Although the PC version isn’t as user friendly as the Mac version, it actually seems more stable. In both versions, it’s an excellent product. If you are comfortable using mind maps, need to produce project plans, and would like more attractive updates for your “customers,” you should definitely look into ConceptDraw Office.


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