Winter 2015
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CTDO Magazine

Maintaining Focus in a 24/7 World

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

These apps can help senior leaders maintain focus in an "always-on" world.

As a senior talent development executive, you have a lot on your plate. Strategic planning, budget reviews, meetings with employees and clients (the list goes on)—all of which are paired with a constant stream of emails, text alerts, and phone calls that demand your attention. Amid all this noise, staying focused can be tough. But you can use the very technology that seems to zap your focus and interrupt your workflow to improve your focus and increase your productivity.

Know where your time goes

The first step to being more productive is to understand what you really spend your day doing. By charting the way you allocate your time, these apps can help you see patterns that pinpoint when you are most distracted. Armed with this knowledge, you can set goals, such as "spend only one hour checking email," or create alarms to go off when you spend too much time on a particular task.

RescueTime tracks the time you spend on applications and websites, and then presents you with a detailed, daily report and data based on your activity. Download a free version on your computer or Android device; a pro version is available for $9 per month.

Toggl is a great alternative to timesheets if you need to track how much time you spend on different projects. This online time-tracking tool features one-click time tracking to help you see where your time goes. The free version and the pro version, available for $5 per month, can be used on your smartphone or computer.

Move from to-do to to-done

We've all heard the mantra "Visualize what you want to achieve to make it happen." This is easier said than done for executives charged with big-picture pursuits, though. Taking a cue from project management experts, one tactic is to break down initiatives into tasks and order them appropriately. This is a simple way to stay on task—and not become overwhelmed by all the assignments you need to complete on a given day. To-do list apps number in the thousands, but here are a few innovative ideas.

Todoist has you create projects and add tasks to them. Projects can be color-coded to help you visually differentiate between them, and tasks can have subtasks, due dates, reminders, flags noting urgency, and more. A free version is available for smartphones, tablets, and computers, or access the premium version for $29 per year.

Google Keep is like a virtual sticky note system that lets you create short to-do lists to get you through your day. If you're on the go, you can even speak a voice memo that is automatically transcribed and added to your file. This is a free app, and available for iOS and Android devices, as well as computers.

IDoneThis is a simple app that helps you track what your team is doing. It's built on the premise that seeing a light at the end of the tunnel goes a long way toward motivating a team to move forward. At the end of a day, the app asks everyone on your team, "What'd you get done today?" The next morning, you receive a digest that shows the team's accomplishments from yesterday. A personal version is free; upgrading to the business version with unlimited team members is $5 per month.

Turn off your devices, tune in to work

All those dings and pings from "urgent" phone calls, text messages, and emails definitely take a toll on our daily productivity. In fact, research from Gloria Mark of the University of California, Irvine found that we are interrupted approximately every four to 11 minutes. What's more, it takes us about 23 minutes to get back on track with what we were doing before the disruption. If you don't have the willpower to ignore interruptions from your devices, these apps will do it for you.

Focus Lock will block notifications for 25 minutes from any apps that distract you the most (think Instagram and Facebook). This time is followed by a five-minute unlock window, using the Pomodoro productivity ratio. You can customize those times and breaks manually, if you prefer. This app is free and only available for Android devices.

SelfControl lets you block access to distracting websites, mail servers, or anything else on the Internet. Just set a period of time, add sites to your blacklist, and click on "start." Until the timer expires, you will be unable to access those sites—even if you restart your computer or delete the application. This app is free and only available for Mac laptops and computers.

Digital Detox lets you turn off your phone for a set period of time, ranging from 30 minutes to one month. All functionality is locked out, and the shutdown is irreversible—so only those who are truly serious about unplugging need download. During a detox, the emergency dialer can still be used by pressing the call button. This app is free and only available for Android smartphones.

Take a deep breath

Neuroscience research shows that you can get more done if you take periodic short breaks to refresh your mind. For instance, the effect of a brisk walk, daily meditation, or just deep breathing when you feel overwhelmed with work can do wonders to boost your performance. But if you're the type of executive who struggles to step away from your work, following that advice can be a challenge. Fortunately, there are a few apps that can help you find peace—and productivity.


MyBreath has you use your headphone mic to record your breathing, and then tells you whether you are taking deep breaths. You will get real-time audio and visual feedback, a breathing index score, and several helpful coaching tools. This app is free and only available for iOS devices.

Mindfulness App offers guided meditation led by the voice of expert Catherine Polan Orzech. You can take long breaks or mini breaks, and set reminders to meditate throughout the day or just to take a moment to be more mindful. This app is $2.99 for iOS devices, and $1.99 for Android devices.

Calm can help you to virtually chill out. Beginners learn the basics of mindfulness meditation with the app's 7 Days of Calm program. Fifty guided meditations help you with other mind-tuning practices such as self-confidence and creativity. This free app is available in the Apple App Store and Google Play.

Phylter: Brain-Monitoring Device Keeps Focus for You

Consider this scenario: A deadline on a major project looms. As you work diligently to complete the necessary tasks, you are bombarded by emails and text alerts. Sound familiar? What if your brain could screen out the interruptions for you?

That is the promise of Phylter, a new software project initiated by a group of computer scientists from Tufts University. This innovative technology monitors brain activity in an effort to filter out low-priority messages, such as texts or emails, when the user is focused on a challenging bit of work.

The concept is based on a brain-sensing technology called functional near-infrared spectroscopy, and it's a hot topic among researchers working on wearable technology. Here's how it works: Users wear an infrared sensor-embedded headband that measures any reflected light, and then calculates blood flow through the prefrontal cortex to determine whether you're concentrating on something. The system screens out messages and other interruptions whenever you are determined to be busy.

In an interview with New Scientist, lead researcher on the project Robert Jacob explains Phylter this way: "Imagine a system where you have a little dial and you can tell it, 'Now I'm kind of busy, so leave me alone.'"

The Tufts researchers detail the system and their experiments in the paper "Phylter: A System for Modulating Notifications in Wearables Using Physiological Sensing."

Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

About the Author

Ryann K. Ellis is an editor for the Association of Talent Development (ATD). She has been covering workplace learning and performance for ATD (formerly the American Society for Training & Development) since 1995. She currently sources and authors content for TD Magazine and CTDO, as well as manages ATD's Community of Practice blogs. Contact her at [email protected]

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