Trick yourself into productivity: the best technologies to keep you focused

‘Tis the season—to become a crazy hermit living under a pile of blankets and books as a tangle of charging cords threatens to spill your very full coffee mug or wine glass (or both, no judgment) onto your laptop. The worst time of the school semester is upon us as the holidays collide with final deadlines. Student grades need to be finalized and seminar papers written, all while family and friends  inundate you with invitations to various shenanigans. Personally, this is the time of year where I struggle to get everything done while still enjoying the holiday cheer and remaining sane. So I have compiled a list of the best technologies tested by yours truly to help you reach your deadlines, whatever they may be. Good luck!
Pomodoro Timer
Using the time management technique developed by Francesco Cirillo, this iTunes app is based on the premise that the brain becomes more productive when given frequent breaks. Carrying a $1.99 price tag, this is only one of the many options of this method available (some are free online), but it is my favorite due to the cheerful graphics and option to set visual and audio reminders. Each 25-minute block of work is rewarded with a short break, and then a longer break after you reach your set goal of 25-minute blocks (pomodoros). You control the time of the breaks and pomodoros, and can even set daily goals. bedtime calculator
Let’s be honest. Sleep is a huge factor of productivity. Your brain and body need blocks of both sound sleep (REM sleep) and light sleep every night to function at their prime. As graduate students, it can be difficult if not impossible to get the recommended eight hours, but that’s where this website comes in. Minimal in its construction, you simply choose the time you want to go to sleep or the time you want to wake up from drop-down menus and press the calculate button. The algorithm gives you a list of times at which you should try to fall asleep in order to wake up in-between sleep cycles. Doing this leaves you more refreshed and alert for the day ahead. Personally, I swear by this technique. I don’t hit the snooze button on my alarm anymore, and require far fewer naps each week.
UP Coffee (and Caffeine Tracker)
The other component to sleep and productivity is caffeine, the lifeblood of every academic department. You don’t want to cancel out that carefully planned sleep schedule, and this app helps you avoid that. Although designed for use with the Jawbone fitness/sleep tracker, UP Coffee works as a stand-alone app as well, and it’s free, so why not give it a shot. After programming in stats such as your weight, height and sensitivity to caffeine, you log each caffeinated drink you consume, and cute graphics tell you how much caffeine will be in your body at any given time. Ideally, this will allow you to rid your body of caffeine by the time you go to bed, ensuring more restful sleep. The ugly stepsister of the app world, Caffeine Tracker, is the Android phone option with a $.99 price tag. While not as pretty, it functions the same way and is a good alternative until Jawbone comes out with a Windows phone version.
I’m sure this is familiar to most of you, but if it’s not, check it out immediately. Just think of it as a giant bulletin board on your wall, where you can post and organize all your important materials in one place. The most basic model is free, all you need to obtain an account is a working email address, and I personally have not found it necessary to upgrade to one of the paid storage options. Particularly helpful for paper or dissertation ideas and planning, you can put documents, photos, notes and video in “Notebooks” (an electronic file). This is basically the same thing as iCloud or a private Dropbox (both good options as well) in that you can store everything in one place, but the organizational system and clear interface it offers allows for more file cabinet-like storage. You can download an app for your computer as well, and the Evernote Webclipper add-on to your Internet toolbar is a must for capturing and storing information directly from other websites.
Rainy Mood
All right, this one is a wildcard, but as someone who needs background noise but gets too distracted by music, it is an absolute godsend. Pull up this website and turn on your sound for peaceful, comforting rainfall complete with gentle thunder—for the Gothic in us all.

3 Replies to “Trick yourself into productivity: the best technologies to keep you focused”

  1. Thanks so much for this great advice — I’m especially excited to try out Rainy Mood! One of my favorite tech enablers for sleep is f.lux, which dims your computer or phone screen after sunset so your circadian rhythms aren’t thrown off by the blue light. I’ll have to use it with for optimal repose! Thanks again!

  2. I would like to add SelfControl to this list. It’s an app that enables you to block Facebook, Twitter, and any other distracting websites from your computer for a set number of hours (eg, if I set it for 8 hours at 9am, my browser won’t let me visit any distracting websites on my computer till 5). There is no way to reverse it once it’s set, so it’s a very effective distraction deterrent!

  3. I second the Pomodoro suggestion, and my website tracker of choice is free! It’s, and after each 25-min. session you can log what you’ve accomplished before you start your 5-minute break. Your personal login enables you to keep the list of your accomplishments to remind you how much you have accomplished that day or over the past several months/years. This got me through my dissertation’s bleakest days. I also added to my phone’s auto-reply “I will reply after I finish my tomato.”

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