No matter which industry you work in, whether it’s in an office or at home, or what your job title is, you can benefit from spending more time in a state of concentration instead of constant distraction. Let’s face it: our computers are powerful tools that allow us to do incredible things, but they can also hijack our attention and prevent us from getting work done. Focus Assist is an integrated Windows option that can help, but there are plenty of other apps that work with the native app to ensure that you’re not distracted by third-party apps or the Internet.
What Is Focus Assist?
In short, Focus Assist lives in the clock function of your Windows 10 or 11 computer. You can activate it when you need to get some work done.
Focus Assist is designed to work with the human brain instead of against it. Studies on the psychology of distraction show that it is very hard to resist distraction in real time. When we’re bored, challenged by a task, or see a message notification pop up, our brains are wired to go after that shiny new thing. That’s why setting up your computer, tablet, or phone before you have a chance to become distracted is the key to ensuring success.
When you work within the Windows ecosystem, Focus Assist can turn off notifications, alarms, and reminders, and produces a summary of everything that came in while you were focused. It’s great if you work exclusively in Microsoft-based products, but its biggest drawback is that it doesn’t work with all third-party apps.
To really create a focused environment, we’ve compiled a list of apps and browser extensions that can work with Focus Assist to create the optimal digital environment. With Focus Assist taking care of Microsoft-based notifications and distractions, these apps step up to fill in the gaps and offer a variety of feature sets.
Robust Focus Assist Companion Apps
These two apps are powerful programs that provide extra functionality in addition to Focus Assist. They offer solutions to tackle your to-dos and customize your experience.
Price: Free trial of 6 sessions / $8.99 per month
Freedom is a paid app that works simultaneously on multiple devices after you download the program to your computer and set up the sessions on your Freedom dashboard via your browser.
This beautiful, calming design comes with a variety of ambient noise options, such as cafés in multiple locations across the world, office environments, nature sounds, and calming music.
Freedom is designed to prevent cheating, with features such as lock mode, which restricts you from changing your settings during a Freedom session, and the ability to download and use Freedom on as many devices as you would like at once. Do keep in mind that running one session on multiple devices simultaneously will count as two separate sessions for your trial period.
It allows you to customize blocklists by choosing from Freedom’s preset sites, manually adding sites, or selecting groups of sites like politics or blogs. You can also block all websites, which will restrict you from the entirety of the Internet for your session. Block desktop apps during the session as well, but keep in mind you have to set these up from the desktop menu, not the dashboard.
Once you upgrade to the full version, you can track your sessions and schedule session times in advance. You can synchronize your Focus Assist and Freedom schedules, which will automate the process of creating the focus session and help you get started on your tasks.
It’s helpful to know that the setup is somewhat decentralized. Freedom requires you to download the app on all devices you’ll use with it, then set up different elements from the drop-down menu that resides in the action center of your taskbar.
There are no long-term free options available, but the paid options can be quite affordable when you break down the cost, and Freedom frequently offers discounts.
Freedom is an app that offers much functionality and customization, with options to keep assessing as you use the app. Freedom is worth the money for those who get easily distracted, especially if you take advantage of one of the many sales that Freedom frequently runs on their various subscription tiers.
Price: free (Lite) or $9 per month (Premium)
The powerful app RescueTime utilizes historical data trends and your own data about your work habits, causing it to act as more of an assistant than just a simple Web blocker.
One of the coolest features is the calendar integrations, which allow RescueTime to suggest times when you can do focused work. Additionally, when you integrate your calendar, you get daily summaries logged inside your calendar app.
At this time, RescueTime can integrate with both Google Calendar and Microsoft Outlook. Also, if you’d like to create focus sessions in your calendar, you can simply type #focustime (either within the title or the description of the event), and RescueTime will automatically trigger the session.
RescueTime categories offer more nuanced reporting. For instance, RescueTime distinguishes between focus sessions and tasks that are listed as “other work,” like e-mail, messaging, and meetings.
If you’re away from your computer, you can go back and manually log activities in the Premium version, like in-person meetings, working lunches, or impromptu chats with your boss.
The app takes some time to be helpful. The site recommends that you spend a regular day going about your business so that it can get the lay of the land. However, if you really need to find an immediate blocker that will help you stay off of Twitter for more than five minutes, you may want something a little leaner.
Simplistic Focus Assist Companion Apps
These solutions don’t beat around the bush, and they help you get into a focused zone with very low barriers to entry. Whether you’re looking for an app with a low-cost, one-time payment or completely free browser extensions, the next three on our list will quickly get you in the zone.
3. Cold Turkey
Price: Free or $39 for lifetime access
This software helps you quit your distractions Cold Turkey! It works on your desktop and in conjunction with browser extensions to block domains, specific URLs, and even keyword searches on Google. You can also turn your laptop into a typewriter when you just need to get words on the proverbial page. For the times you need just one or two applications, you can set up the micromanager to only allow the whitelisted apps to run.
Cold Turkey also takes it one step further by setting up an option that completely blocks you from your entire computer. These days, we all spend too much time hunched over a screen, and no matter how nice your setup is, you still need to move away from the computer and take a walk.
Cold Turkey doesn’t just offer one product: Blocker, Micromanager, and Writer all offer different functionalities, but they’re sold separately. You can buy them in a bundle to save money if you’ll use all three or pick and choose what you need.
Blocker and Micromanager are the yin and yang of productivity. Blocker is $39 for the premium version and allows you to choose what you don’t want to see while you work. In contrast, Micromanager ($19) only lets you access a whitelisted set of sites and programs.
Writer ($9) turns your computer into a typewriter when you need to get those creative sprints in.
These products are affordable (each has a free version), don’t rely on monthly or yearly subscriptions, and are easy to use. They’re intuitive and effective, which means they are great for those looking to keep their productivity management simple but effective.
The LeechBlock extension comes with easy setup and streamlined examples on the website to get you up and running in no time. It doesn’t require much in the way of tech know-how, and the website is designed to help you make sure you can get going in a matter of minutes.
When you’re looking to start setting up your blocklists, the formatting does look more code-oriented, but it really isn’t. If you’re confused about using asterisks for wildcards or how to allow specific sites, LeechBlock offers much help.
Clicking “Options” opens a box where you can set up six different blocks that represent various use cases. For instance, you could set up your first block to make sure you can’t get to any social media during working hours. Your second block could help you achieve more work-life balance by turning off your job-related sites during home hours.
You can also choose what the extension will display when you try to navigate to blocked sites. LeechBlock offers various levels of blur, color changes, or even options to just close the tab out instead of not displaying anything.
In addition, a fun feature is the option highlighted in the image above. You can add a URL to redirect to when you try and access the blocked sites. The one in the screencap is a link to an Unsplash photo of a neon sign reading, “Wake up, kick ass, repeat.” However, you could link to a photo of someone you admire, your work Spotify playlist, or a motivational YouTube video.
It’s a free extension that offers both functionality and customizability in a package that takes seconds to install and doesn’t waste its developers’ time with extraneous code.
5. Freedom Extensions
If paying for the full experience of the above-listed Freedom app isn’t what you need, the same company does make three free browser extensions that are designed with lean functionality in mind: Pause, Limit, and Insight.
Pause – This site makes you wait just a moment (between 1 to 300 seconds) before letting you access the site you’re trying to get to. There is huge value in building intentionality around your web habits. Do you really want to wait two minutes to see your Facebook? If you do, that’s totally fine, but Pause will help you make that decision with purpose.
The timer is also a great way to remind yourself to do a little self care. The butterfly logo fades in and out while you wait, making a great visual to go along with some deep breathing. You could also stretch, fill up your water bottle, or get some steps in.
Limit – This site limiter is simple to set up. Just choose the sites you want to limit and how much time you want to spend on each site. Note that the time isn’t cumulative and is for each individual site.
If you go with the defaults that the extension chooses, you could visit each site for 25 minutes and still spend over 4 hours a day on those distracting sites. You can also choose to see the timer while you’re on the site. It keeps track of the daily total and not the total of each visit.
As a note, if you use the two extensions together, any time spent on the “Pause” screen doesn’t count toward your daily total since you’re not actually on the blocked page until after the Pause is over.
Insight – As humans, we can easily trick ourselves into underestimating what we do online. Whether it’s that we just spend a few minutes away from our kids to check email (that turns out to actually be an hour) or a quick Twitter check that sends us down the rabbit hole, using an extension like Insight will keep you honest, if nothing else.
It provides simple breakdowns of your site usage without harvesting your data. This is a great tool to use in conjunction with the other extensions to help you make decisions about which sites to block or limit.
Used together or separately, these extensions will provide some basic functionality that can really increase your productivity and focus while you’re on your computer.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I uninstall Focus Assist?
No. Focus Assist isn’t an app that you can uninstall. It’s built into Microsoft’s operating system, so users can’t delete or uninstall it.
How can I disable Focus Assist?
Type “Focus” into the search bar to pull up the settings for Focus Assist. Select the “Off” radio button to disable it. If you would like to have automatic routines set up, toggle on the “During these times” option, then click on the “During these times” box to set the active and inactive times.
Is Focus Assist the same as Quiet Hours?
In early versions of Windows 10, Focus Assist was named Quiet Hours. However, it has been updated to go exclusively by the title Focus Assist.
Image credit: Unsplash All screenshots by Amy Yoder.
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