6 Apps to Help You Focus & Be Productive [Mac]

Jackson Chung 09-10-2009

I’m a multi-tasker. I’m not very good at it but I try very hard. If you’d suddenly spring up on me and took a look at my screen, it would often be very clustered with several applications running, work half done; not to mention having loads of screenshots and bookmarks on my desktop to remind myself of the tasks I have yet to complete.


When it comes to increasing productivity A Simple Productivity Guide for Everyone With all distractions that modern life brings, it's not easy to keep your productivity up. Whether you're an enthusiastic procrastinator, or just happen to have very little time at hand. Read More , I try to organize myself by using to-do lists but planning only brings me one step closer to finishing my work. Persistence and determination are the key to getting things done. Unfortunately, I have very little of those. I was born that way, I’m afraid.

While writing the first two paragraphs, I checked my mail several times, fired up Safari, updated my Twitter and browsed Facebook. See, I told you I was a multi-tasker.

But deadlines are deadlines. If you have a project due Tuesday — then there’s no choice but to complete it by Tuesday. Sure, you can try to push the deadline but there’s still one!

To help with the situation and motivate me to clear the work that are currently pending, I’ve come up with 6 great (and free!) tools, categorized into 3 groups.

Distraction busters

Yup, that’s right. Productivity’s number one enemy is distraction. The enemy is sly and cunning. It is a master of disguise and sneaks up on you when you least expect it — in the form of an email, an IM message or beeps and alerts from other applications.


To deal with distraction, I’ve come up with not one, not two but three applications. These apps will only allow you to work on one app at a time and hide the rest. Out of sight, out of mind.

The first one probably needs no introduction. It’s Think by Freeverse. This simple little app helps you concentrate by providing an overlay that blocks out everything but the active application. If the opacity of the overlay isn’t set to the maximum, the underlying apps are still in view but can’t be clicked on.

6 Apps to Help You Focus & Be Productive [Mac] think1

To switch between applications, Think provides an illumination panel which displays a list of programs that are currently active — just click on any to bring that to focus.


6 Apps to Help You Focus & Be Productive [Mac] think2

The next distraction buster is Isolator. Isolator is pretty similar to Think but it’s much more configurable. In addition to an overlay, you can choose from several different effects — blur, bloom, crystals and desaturate. Unlike Think, you can also easily switch between apps by clicking through the overlay. Isolator will automatically re-render the overlay so that the topmost application is unaffected.

6 Apps to Help You Focus & Be Productive [Mac] isolator1

6 Apps to Help You Focus & Be Productive [Mac] isolator2


6 Apps to Help You Focus & Be Productive [Mac] isolator3

6 Apps to Help You Focus & Be Productive [Mac] isolator4

While using Isolator and Think, I found that the Dock was still in view and a little distracting. To hide the Dock, press Command + Option + D.

Finally, the last weapon in my arsenal to deal with distraction is Spirited Away. This app has been around for a while and most Mac users will have already heard of it. Nevertheless, that doesn’t make it any less useful. On the contrary, Spirited Away complements Isolator and Think!


What Spirited Away does is very simple — it hides inactive applications after a certain period of time. This minimizes clutter and removes distracting windows from view. It also provides you with an Exclude list; in case you want to always keep certain applications in view.

Distraction — busted!

Pomodoro Timers

What the heck is a pomodoro timer, you ask. Literally translated, pomodoro means tomato but no, they’re not what you think.

The “pomodoro technique” is a time management strategy. In a nutshell, it involves working for 25 minutes and taking a 5 minute break — that’s one “pomodoro”. There’s a whole website dedicated to teaching the technique as well as an ebook which you can download for free. Once you master the pomodoro technique, you’ll notice that your tasks get done pretty quickly. The golden rule when working with pomodoros — don’t break it. Once you start a session, make damn sure that you complete it.

In order to provide some assistance while you’re adapting the pomodoro technique, I have the pleasure of introducing two fantastic apps.

The first is Focus Booster. It’s an Adobe AIR app that looks sleek and awesome. Focus Booster places itself above all windows so you will be able to view it even though Isolator or Think is running. You might want to add it to Spirited Away’s exclude list to keep it in view all the time.

6 Apps to Help You Focus & Be Productive [Mac] isolatorFB

6 Apps to Help You Focus & Be Productive [Mac] focusbooster

Each time Focus Booster starts, it will run as long as one pomodoro i.e. a 25-minute work session followed by a 5-minute break. You’ll have to manually initiate a new session if required.

The second app to help you work with the pomodoro technique is well, Pomodoro. This menu bar app is simple yet at the same time, powerful. Start a session and it will ask you what you’re aiming to achieve. I entered “Finish Article” and the timer started with a Growl notification.

6 Apps to Help You Focus & Be Productive [Mac] pomodoro1

6 Apps to Help You Focus & Be Productive [Mac] pomodoro2

When I said that Pomodoro was powerful, I wasn’t joking. It can automatically restart the timer, display a Growl notification when a preset interval has passed, integrate your Twitter account and automatically tweet your pomodoro sessions, and run a script whenever a session starts, ends or anytime in between.

6 Apps to Help You Focus & Be Productive [Mac] pomodoro3

I find that having a work timer displayed on my screen provides me with a rather good representation of the amount of time I’ve spent on a particular task. Knowing that, I can speed up or slow down my work accordingly.

Self Control

If you’re addicted to the internet, Facebook, Twitter and other social networks; there’s nothing to stop you from constantly launching the browser and surfing. “Just 5 minutes,” that’s what you keep telling yourself. Before you know it, over an hour has passed and you still haven’t gotten any work done. In these situations, only Self Control can prevent you from straying.

6 Apps to Help You Focus & Be Productive [Mac] selfcontrol3

Self Control is a Mac application (doesn’t that clear up a lot of confusion?) that will block the internet access to any sites in its blacklist for a preset period of time.

6 Apps to Help You Focus & Be Productive [Mac] selfcontrol2

Once it has been started, nothing can circumvent the blocked access. Restarting your Mac will not help, neither will deleting the application. You will just have to wait for the timer to run out. I’ve painted a rather bleak picture with the last two sentences, Self Control is actually all for your benefit. It forces you to concentrate on work. Even if you wanted to stray, you can’t!

So there we go. Six apps that can work in tandem to complement each other, helping you to focus on work and eliminate distraction. Here they are once again:


Do you use any of these “focus” apps? Has it made a difference in your workflow? Did you know what the Pomodoro Technique was? If you use other apps that has helped you focus on the task at hand, please do share them with us in the comments.

Related topics: Time Management, Timer Software.

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  1. Cali
    December 1, 2016 at 8:37 pm

    I used Self Control all the time in college and currently use the Pomodoro Time app. Self Control is great—except when you create social media content for a living! Focus Booster looks great, though! I like the idea of a strong visual reminder to stay focused on one task.

  2. Celia
    April 30, 2015 at 2:07 am

    Cold Turkey is a similar programme to Self Control but for non macs... I used it a few yrs ago so not sure if it's still around but I would expect so. Good luck.

  3. B Simpson
    December 2, 2009 at 4:16 pm

    cool, thanks for all the great resources

  4. B Simpson
    December 2, 2009 at 4:06 pm

    Hey, do you find it superfluous to run both Think and Isolator? Sounds like you could get by just with Isolator.

    • Jackson Chung
      December 2, 2009 at 4:15 pm

      Yes. So choose your weapon of choice!

  5. Melissa
    November 12, 2009 at 3:31 am

    Hi I have the same problem as above (have even tried deleting the application)... need help asap as I use twitter for work!

  6. Eman
    October 26, 2009 at 6:11 pm

    This is all incredibly helpful. Thank you! Still, I have a question for the commenters as well as Mr. Chung - any help will be greatly appreciated. I have been using Self Control for some time, and I find it to be quite handy. Recently, however, I set the timer to 12 hours, as I commonly do, and the time finally reached "00:00:00". Oddly enough, it stayed like that! The timer continues to read "00:00:00", and I cannot access any of the websites on the blacklist. I don't want to say goodbye to my fun distractions FOREVER! Please help!

    Once again, thank you!

    • Jackson Chung
      October 27, 2009 at 10:00 am

      It's a known bug:
      Q: SelfControl’s timer is at 00:00 but it hasn’t stopped blocking and I can’t start a new block
      -This is a bug that happens occasionaly. Get in touch and we’ll send you a fix.

      So, get in touch with the developer on this page:

  7. Andy
    October 16, 2009 at 2:20 pm

    There is also an app ( that disables all networking for up to 8 hours at a time.

  8. JonT
    October 12, 2009 at 11:49 am

    Very appreciative for this. Thank you!! I'm almost certain Think/Isolator will find a permanent home on my desktop. Eager to try Focus Booster, too, as I'm the type who needs a fire lit under him to be most productive. Perhaps seeing that time bar run down will help. Not sure. It may simply induce panic.

    Coffee + iPod + isolation headphones + uninterrupted time = productivity. All but uninterrupted time is negotiable.

    To wit, the best tip I can offer for increasing productivity is to lock out email and instant message clients except for a 10-minute window at the start of the day, once again at 10am, noon, 2, and at 5. IMs absolutely destroy my productivity and the temptation to ping somebody (and thus ruin THEIR productivity) is too great and often not any faster than simply looking up what I need on my own. Email can wait an hour or two. If something's really important, I tell people to come by my office and knock. Otherwise email.

  9. Sardar Mohkim Khan
    October 12, 2009 at 1:08 am

    loved the article.. but I am not sure if this would really help anyone, given the level of multitasking many employees are involved in.

  10. John Dyer
    October 12, 2009 at 12:25 am

    Great article. Going to definitely be using the pomodoro technique for everything now.

    A little ashamed to say I hadn't heard of any of these apps before with the exception of Think.

    • Jackson Chung
      October 12, 2009 at 8:14 am

      Thanks John. Well that's the point of the article: to introduce you to these great apps!

  11. Ev Kontsevoy
    October 11, 2009 at 10:59 pm

    You forgot to mention Ubuntu live CD, which allows you to remove OSX and install Linux - the most effective productivity enhancer there is. Hey, it even works on Windows machines!


  12. alec Cutler
    October 11, 2009 at 2:51 am

    hahah i was listening to someone on the radio and apparently early every person who multitasks with anything in their day-to-day life are bad at every thing they do and they diagnose it as "broad range incompetence"

  13. Kris
    October 10, 2009 at 10:41 pm

    Quick (Dirty) AppleScript for Pomodoro to automatically launch SelfControl at the start of a Pomodoro:

    do shell script "open -a \"SelfControl\""
    tell application "SelfControl"
    end tell
    tell application "System Events"
    tell process "SelfControl"
    click button "Start" of window "SelfControl"
    end tell
    end tell

    • Jackson Chung
      October 11, 2009 at 4:24 pm


      But you'd have to make sure that the settings in Self Control are already set properly to the length of the pomodoro before running the script.

  14. Captain Fisheye
    October 10, 2009 at 5:39 pm

    The irony of course is you now have the OS emulating the days before many modern features and you've spent time doing it rather than working on something.

  15. Nate
    October 10, 2009 at 3:31 pm

    You forgot Concentrate - which is an timer, website blacklister, and application launcher all in one.

    • Jackson Chung
      October 11, 2009 at 4:21 pm

      Guys, Concentrate isn't free.

  16. patty
    October 10, 2009 at 3:09 pm

    don't forget Concentrate though.

  17. Yonathan
    October 10, 2009 at 1:43 pm

    Can you create a Windows-focused version of this article?

    By the way, I couldn't get Focus Booster to install. AIR says the file is corrupt. Tried multiple times.
    The webapp is not working, too.

  18. Me Like Software
    October 10, 2009 at 11:33 am

    The irony is that this article is distracting me from the work was suppose to be doing. Now I am going to look at those applications and waist even more time, trying to find something that will help me get back to work.


    • Jackson Chung
      October 11, 2009 at 4:22 pm

      Yup but after trying out these apps, you'd eventually get back to work. And hopefully, with their help, you'll do it much better!

  19. amonle
    October 10, 2009 at 1:48 pm

    I swear by Concentrate ... and no, I don't work for them

  20. ILoveFreeSoftware
    October 9, 2009 at 9:33 pm

    Absolutely love the concept of think. What an idea!

  21. The Chilibuddy
    October 9, 2009 at 7:37 pm

    Those apps are definitely a way to get work done within focused time-frames. The web-page I've linked shares a few different ways to get things done too, using Greasemonkey and profiling techniques...

    Especially at work, when one should be giving one's paymaster the full due of one's worth, I have a 'perpetual' blacklist of sites through Greasemonkey's Invisibility Cloak.