I was chatting in Twitter the other day with Zoe Winters and Amanda Hocking about some new productivity tools Zoe has been trying out lately: Freedom and Focus Booster. So I figured I'd download them and give them a shot. Freedom is software which shuts down your internet completely for a time period you specify, up to eight hours. Focus Booster is a little device which encourages you to stay on task for a period of time you specify. I tried them both out. Of the two, I found Focus Booster to be the bigger help, so I thought I'd make some notes about it here. You can download Focus Booster for free, and installation is simple. Once it's installed, you launch the app, opening a long, straight bar on your screen. There's a control to shrink the bar to a small box, or put it back to full length. Another control minimizes it to your 'active programs' section, and the X button shuts it down. Pretty standard controls. The i button opens another window, which allows you to set session length, set break length, play a ticking sound (hate it), play alarms at the end of sessions and breaks (like it), and toggle yes/no to keep the window in front (by default, it is, and I prefer this).
So what does it do?
You set your session length and your break length. The defaults are 25 minute sessions with five minute breaks. Then you press the start button with your mouse, and you're off. The timer starts counting down your session. Your mission? Stay on task for the entire time you've set for yourself. No breaks. No surfing. No tweeting. No phone calls. Just do your work, stay on task, stay "focused".
The display shows a bar gradually growing, starting in green then fading to yellow, orange, and finally red toward the end. When the timer stops, an alarm goes off, and the break period starts. When the break ends (however long you set it for), the program patiently waits for you to click start again to begin your next session.
I found this pretty useful and quite a bit of fun. The color change and bar growth lets you sort of keep track of time passing even in your peripheral vision, so after using it a bit you're no longer really peeking at the timer every two minutes. And I found the challenge to "do as much as you can in 25 minutes" to be pretty powerful. It also meant that I could tell certain twin four year olds "when that bar reaches all the way across, Daddy can take a break with you". ;)
My first runs were a pair of 25 minute sessions, during which I wrote 1063 fresh words of fiction. Not an amazing pace for me (I can get 1500 an hour when really moving), but not bad considering I was working on something brand new, with new characters and setting to think about. I did two more sessions later, for a total of about 2400 words over 100 minutes.
I'm very happy with the program, and will be trying more experiments with it. I'm not sure it increases my per-hour productivity compared to when I'm "really going" on my own. But it does seem to be a useful tool to get some of those sprints in here and there during the day. Somehow, it seems mentally easier to fit in 25 minutes a few times a day, rather than just sitting down to type.
There's some articles about the psych theory on the Focus Booster website which have interesting thoughts about how and why this process works for people. They make for interesting reading.
I'd encourage folks to give this a try for, well, just about whatever you want. Writers can certainly use it. But anyone who needs something to kick start their productive cycles might get some value from Focus Booster.