February 10, 2014 4:25 pm

Five apps for unfocused minds

I don’t want to go cold turkey on cyberloafing. I just want to learn moderation
Social media in the office

What do the men and women who govern us do all day? They sit in front of their screens and gawp at Twitter, Facebook, Gmail, YouTube, Amazon, eBay, Flickr and TripAdvisor. A list released last year of the websites most visited by British MPs reveals that what they get up to at work makes them no different to the rest of the population: they cyberloaf.

Even the young bankers who work such long hours that their employers have started banning them from coming to the office for the entire weekend seem to do more loafing than lending. At a recent conference I heard the heads of HR at two top investment banks complaining that data from these bankers’ computers show that less than half of their time in the office was spent on work. A study from Kansas State University backs this up: the average US worker spends 60-80 per cent of their time online at work doing things that are quite unrelated to their jobs.

David Ryan Polgar, a US pundit and lawyer, has come up with a metaphor to describe our new affliction. He says we are getting mentally obese: we binge on junk information, with the result that our brains become so sluggish they are good for nothing except more bingeing.

The obvious answer is to go on a crash diet, reducing the amount of junk information we consume. Having tried – and failed – over the past couple of years to resist the temptation of Twitter through mere willpower, I’m in search of something stronger. Various readers and colleagues have pointed me towards the hundreds of apps that are supposed to help with the addiction, but until now I have resisted on the grounds that the answer to technology overload surely cannot be still more technology.

Now recognising myself as mentally obese, I have decided to give them a go. The target is simple: to maximise work done in the office and minimise time spent looking at pictures on Twitter of people carrying dogs in baby slings. I don’t want to go cold turkey on cyberloafing, as tests have shown that in small quantities it perks you up. I just want to learn moderation.

To this end I started 2014 by downloading five apps: Workrave, Rescue Time, Nanny for Google Chrome, Focus Booster and Remember The Milk. The initial result was disappointing. The computer wouldn’t sync to my BlackBerry and I kept forgetting the login details for the different sites. Worse still, a whole new way of being unproductive opened up to me: I started obsessively checking my progress on the productivity apps.

Nanny for Google Chrome

The first one I tried was Nanny for Google Chrome – which does for information what the Atkins or the Dukan diet did for food, by outlawing or restricting certain websites. My own Bermuda triangle of productivity is Twitter, email and eBay, and so I told the app to allow me respectively 15, 30 and five minutes on each. Alas such limits were broken almost at once, causing a message to flash up that said in huge, shouty type: “Shouldn’t you be working? The site you are attempting to access has been blocked by Chrome Nanny.” My wrist thus slapped, I became at once a bolshie teenager. How dare my computer tell me what to do? After some searching, I found a button to disable it, which I clicked with glee. Twitter seemed more tempting than ever.


The next kind of information diet works by getting you off the screen altogether. Workrave is a bit like the 5:2 diet – which forces you to fast two days a week. It features a cute little lightbulb with a smiley face that warns: “Time for a micro-break”, followed by increasingly shrill and distracting warnings, culminating in the whole system freezing up so you have to take a break, like it or not. This is maddening, especially when it happens at the very moment you had finally stopped skiving and were getting down to some work.

Remember The Milk

Having decided that apps which rely on stick were not my thing, I turned to those that use carrot. Remember The Milk is a glorified system of online lists, which invites you to write down everything you want to get done and set a deadline. When you have done them you tick them off, and send bragging tweets about how well you are doing.

Remember The Milk is a relatively sound concept, though not as sound as writing a list on a piece of paper – which requires no password or logging on, and the action of crossing something off a list with a pencil is much more satisfying than clicking a box on the computer. A list has the even bigger advantage that you cannot automatically shower your followers with junk tweets that say: “I completed 2,401 tasks with @rememberthemilk in 2013.”

Rescue Time

More promising is Rescue Time, which is the Weight Watchers of information diets. It is a data-gathering system with targets, which monitors everything you do on the computer and displays the results on a pretty dashboard. A “productivity pulse” records how hard you work at different times during the day, and how well you are doing compared with your targets and with previous days’ performance. Thus I discover that I am unproductive in the early afternoon – which I knew anyway – and that today I did better than yesterday, which I also knew already. The app encourages you to spend too long poring over the data, which is not terribly productive. Also, the data show if I am emailing, but do not know whether I am doing productive emailing or gossiping with a friend.

Focus Booster

Having rejected four diets, I have at last found one that works for me. Focus Booster is beautifully simple and involves neither stick nor carrot.

It is a little timer that sits at the top of the screen and runs for 25 minutes, after which you can take a five minute break. You press start, and a line slowly advances across the screen reminding you that during that time you should be focusing. Even I can concentrate for 25 minutes, and for some reason I cannot explain I have not cheated once. Strange though it seems, my cyber skiving problem appears to be miraculously solved.

. . .

However, it is early days, and miracle diets tend not to work for long; in time I may slip backwards and start gaining mental flab again. Mr Polgar warns that curing mental obesity is tougher than physical obesity because you cannot tell how you are doing by looking in the mirror.

Yet he says technology will soon make this easier. Various wearable products – including a headband called Melon – are about to come to market that measure brain waves and display the data on your screen, telling you when your brain has got so torpid from excessive YouTubing that action is needed.

Possibly that will make a difference. Yet I suspect a better answer lies not with technology but with people.

A highly efficient young acquaintance tells me that neither apps nor alarms on her phone are powerful enough to make her stop work at 6.30pm.

The only thing that succeeds is a call from the woman she uses as her occasional personal assistant. It does not matter that she has paid the woman to phone her; it is the sound of a human voice that makes the difference.

Equally, when I told a friend that Focus Booster was changing my life, she looked unmoved. With a boss who was forever looking over her shoulder, the need for an app to keep her mentally fit was zero.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.