Make the gadgets work for you.

GadgetsI wrote last week about the electronic fixes that, given half a chance, will suck away your precious time. My own experiment in not mindlessly surrendering to them is still ongoing, but I’ve already noticed it can be surprisingly hard to resist the compulsion to check in, even when I’m short of time and there are plenty of more constructive things I should be doing.

Anyway, in last week’s post I linked to this radio programme, in which someone mentions a software program called Freedom. Presumably that’s this, a program that blocks your Internet access – temporarily, of course. Now, by nature I’m an unashamed Luddite, but I have to admit that there are a couple of programs I use day in, day out to make my computer work more user-friendly, and the description of Freedom intrigued me, so I thought I’d take a look at what software can do these days to help us out. This is not a comparison of different programs of a particular type, because there are plenty of people out there who’ve already done that better than I could. Instead, it’s a list of some of the types of program I find interesting. I don’t get payments or discounts from the makers of any of these programs, and I’m not in cahoots with them in any way.

  • Blocking access to distractions: these block all Internet access or access to particular sites or apps. Freedom does the former. Cold Turkey does the latter and seems to be primarily aimed at students. Also, I really like its name.
  • Telling you to take regular breaks: the idea is that you get right away from your computer every so often, even if it’s only very briefly. This could be to avoid the health risks associated with prolonged physical inactivity, to avoid eye strain or to reduce the risk of RSI and carpal tunnel syndrome. I have Big Stretch Reminder installed on my computer and it prompts me to take a quick break every 20 minutes (you can customise it). When I take a break I either do something quick but useful or just walk about a bit – it depends on whether there’s anything useful I can do that only takes a couple of minutes and on how urgent the work I’m doing is. At first I found the breaks threw my concentration off, but once I got used to taking them that stopped being a problem.
  • Stopping your screen from being an instrument of pain and torture for your eyes: if you ever use your computer or smartphone after dark – and who doesn’t? – you’ll know it makes your eyes hurt after about 3 milliseconds. The screen is the brightest thing in your field of vision, and it dazzles you. I am a huge fan of F.lux, which adjusts the spectrum of your screen when you use it after dark so that it’s more like artificial lighting than daylight. This is much more effective than just adjusting the brightness and contrast settings of your screen. Quite apart from F.lux making your eyes more comfortable, it turns out that light at the blue end of the spectrum inhibits sleep. Both the sun and computer screens emit a lot of this type of light, but artificial lighting and F.lux-adjusted screens don’t. Result? You just might find that F.lux helps if you have insomnia, too.
  • Tracking your time: I quite like the look of RescueTime, which tracks what you’re doing but doesn’t actually interfere. I might try this. It reminds me of my new activity tracker: I have my doubts about some of the claims made by the tracker’s manufacturer, but I like having a record – however imperfect – of my activity levels. Sometimes I take a bit of extra exercise because I know the tracker will “notice”. Maybe RescueTime will have the same effect on my computer use. Hmm.

In other news, I’ve just inherited a second-hand smartphone, the first one I’ve ever owned! I wonder what that’s going to do to my productivity…

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