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Blocking apps help you focus on work

Donationware Cold Turkey restricts access to Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, Outlook, Solitaire, and any other sites and programs you choose, and at times you set. Free app Focus Booster takes a kinder, gentler approach.

Cold Turkey "Block what?" screen
Cold Turkey lets you select which sites and programs to restrict access to. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

It's after 9 p.m. and you're tempted to check your work email on your phone one last time before you call it a night.

Bad idea.

According to researchers at Michigan State University, people who used their phone after 9 p.m. were sleepier and less engaged at work the next day. Chad Brooks of BusinessNewsDaily reported on the study last January.

In last month's "Brevity is the soul of email," I pointed out that on average employees spend more than a quarter of their time at work using email. In a recent survey of 1300 business professionals by OfficeNet.com, email is cited as the greatest time-waster (44 percent), followed closely by meetings (42 percent).

In an always-connected world, many workers feel the need to check their email inbox once or twice an hour, and often as late as midnight. Productivity expert Peter Bregman recommends reducing your email checks to no more than one an hour, and People Skills Decoded's Edouard suggests checking email only twice a day.

Workplace distractions take many forms. The Wall Street Journal's Rachel Emma Silverman reported in December 2012 on a study conducted by University of California, Irvine, researchers that found office workers are interrupted or self-interrupted about once every three minutes, and it can take as long as 23 minutes for an interrupted worker to return to the original task.

The WSJ article cites a program at Intel's Software and Services Group that allowed employees to set a four-hour block of "heads-down" time each week that was free of non-urgent meetings. During this period the workers weren't expected to answer internal email.

One way to prevent self-interruptions is to temporarily disable the sites and programs most likely to tempt you to break away from the task at hand. Felix Belzile's Cold Turkey lets you block access to the services and apps you select at the times you set. The program is donationware, meaning the developer suggests a donation of $10 but lets you decide the amount you wish to spend, as well as the percentage of your payment you would like to direct to a charity.

With Cold Turkey, what you block stays blocked until the period you've preset elapses. If you prefer to retain the option of interrupting your distraction-free period, free Focus Booster places a work-only timer on your screen for the duration of your choosing.

The distraction-blocker that doesn't mess around

After you install Cold Turkey, a getting-started guide opens in your default browser. Click the Next button to open the Block What screen, shown at the top of this post. By default, Cold Turkey offers to block Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, StumbleUpon, Addicting Games, College Humor, and four other sites. To remove one of the preselected sites, simply click the X next to its name. To add a site to the program's block list, click "Add something" and enter the URL.

No programs are blocked by default; to add an app to your blocked list, click "Add something" under Applications, navigate in Explorer to the program's executable file, and select Open. When your block list is complete, click Next.

The Block When screen presents a seven-day calendar that lets you set your block time in 30-minute increments from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. You can also block or unblock everything. Once you've chosen the times during which you want to restrict your access, click Next.

Cold Turkey's Block When grid for choosing your block times
Cold Turkey's Block When screen lets you choose your distraction-free period in half-hour increments for the next seven days. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

You're given an opportunity to back out of your selection, and you're warned that once you click the "Go Cold Turkey" button, you won't be able to change the settings until the last 30-minute period you've selected has elapsed. But you can expand your block time and add more sites and programs to your block list at any time.

Cold Turkey "are you sure?" screen
Once you've set your block times, sites, and programs, you're given one more chance to change your mind before the blocks take effect. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

The message confirming your block indicates that you may have to refresh your browser for the restrictions to take effect. When I tested Cold Turkey, a warning popped up from the Windows 8 Action Center that it had detected "potentially harmful software." When I opened the dialog, a Clean System option appeared. After I ran the cleaner, the warning disappeared without affecting Cold Turkey's settings.

Each time I tried to open a site on my restricted list during a block period, a "page not available" message appeared. Likewise, when I attempted to open a blocked app, a file-error warning popped up.

I didn't go to any great lengths to override Cold Turkey's block settings, as in my case a little deterrence was all that was needed to keep me focused on the task at hand.

The Pomodoro approach to distraction avoidance

I wrote about the Pomodoro technique for time management in an April 2011 post. The concept is to create blocks of time during which you focus entirely on the task at hand. The default duration is 25 minutes of work followed by a 5-minute break. Focus Booster places a small window on your screen that counts down your current work period.

Focus Booster timer window
The Focus Booster timer shows in a small window that stays on top of the screen. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Click the settings icon at the far right of the countdown clock to open the program's settings. Focus Booster lets you choose the length of your distraction-free work time and following break. You can also disable the ticking sound as the work and break times count down, disable the alarms at the end of work periods and breaks, prevent the countdown window from persisting atop the screen, and enable autostart sessions.

Focus Booster settings
Focus Booster's settings let you disable the ticking sound, disable alarms, move the timer off the screen, and set it to autostart. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Not everyone needs the forced disabling of all or selected sites and apps to prevent being distracted from their immediate work task. There's some danger in applying any program that locks some of your system's features, as evidenced by the warning Windows generated when Cold Turkey's blocking feature took effect. No such worries with Focus Booster.

Note that I tested another Internet-blocking app whose installation required clicking through an ominous Windows warning that a potentially malicious app was attempting to alter my PC's settings. That program ultimately failed to block Internet access, which is why I'm not writing about it in this post. I'll update this article if I'm able to get the program to work.

I'm fortunate in that I'm able to work for hours on end on a single project without being tempted to check email or see what my Facebook friends and Twitter tweeters are up to. If you're not so lucky, distraction-preventing apps such as Cold Turkey and Focus Booster can help ensure your work time is as productive as possible.

A note on after-hours access by nonexempt employees: Earlier this month, Scott Sayare of the New York Times reported on a proposal by French labor unions and corporations to restrict after-hours network access by employees. Organizations in the US are concerned about nonexempt employees checking their email and otherwise signing into their employer's network outside of their normal work hours.

The Fair Labor Standards Act requires that employers pay nonexempt employees time and a half for work done beyond the standard 40-hour work week. As Jason E. Reisman and Terry Gillespie report on the website of law firm Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel LLP, organizations that allow their nonexempt workers to access email and other network services on weekends or other times outside of their standard workday must track the time to ensure employees are appropriately compensated.

Last August, Germany's employment ministry issued guidelines preventing managers from contacting employees after hours except for emergencies, as reported by Jeevan Vasagar on The Telegraph. The policy's goal is to minimize interruptions of employees' free time, but it's clear that encouraging or even allowing nonexempt employees to access their work email account or other network resources from their phones or devices after hours makes organizations susceptible to claims of overtime.