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Focused Work Review: Staying on Task Amidst Growing Distractions

Working from home isn’t for everyone. Many of us have been challenged by the loss of structure that an office or other public workspace provides. Not only that, but homes often provide far more distractions than a dedicated workspace. As a result, I expect that more people than ever need aids to help them do focused, productive work.

A new app from developer Michael Tigas aims to help. Focused Work is a simple, but valuable utility for creating timed focus sessions of productivity. While this may sound like merely a Pomodoro timer app, what I appreciate about Focused Work is that while it can be used with the Pomodoro Technique, it’s much more flexible than that because it enables creating any timers or sequence of timers that will best meet your own needs and fit with the way you work.

I’ve never personally used the Pomodoro Technique, but I do find myself regularly setting self-imposed estimates throughout my day of how long a certain task should take me. For example, if I start writing a column for our Club MacStories newsletter at 9:30 AM, I may have in mind that I should be finished with it by 11:30 AM. Keeping this internalized deadline in mind will help me work more productively than I would have if my task was divorced from a real-world schedule. Without healthy boundaries for a project, the work will undoubtedly take longer than it needs to. I’m also more likely to get regularly distracted if I don’t have a set end time in mind to keep me focused.

Focused Work enables setting timers for different tasks that you can easily run to keep you on track with getting things done. Timers can be strung together in larger Focus Sessions wherein every timer represents a different stage of that work session. One of the pre-installed Focus Sessions, for example, features a 45-minute timer for focused work, followed by a 5-minute break timer, then another 45 minutes of focused work. Another included session kicks off with a 5-minute planning period before the focused work begins. You can create your own multi-stage Focus Sessions or more simple one-stage sessions consisting of a single timer. This flexibility is well suited for a range of different users’ work needs.

Viewing and creating Focus Sessions.

Viewing and creating Focus Sessions.

Personally, I find that planning multiple stages of focused work is more complicated than what I usually need. More often, my preference is to have a single-stage session that simply defines the task I need to perform. Despite the lack of multiple stages in such an example, the value for me is that I’m making an intentional decision to only do this one thing for X amount of time. Kicking off a Focus Session offers reinforcement of my good intention and serves to flip a switch in my brain that helps me be more singularly focused.

After you select one of your Focus Sessions, you’ll see exactly what time the session is scheduled to be finished (a great addition for the way I approach tasks) and a play button to kick things off. Hitting that button will ask you the exact thing you’ll be focusing on during the session – for example, I might have a Focus Session labeled Writing, and say that I’m going to focus on my Club MacStories column. After naming your focus for the session, hitting a Start button will actually begin the timer.

During a Focus Session, a timer will remain on-screen and you’ll also see what stage of the session you’re in, and a reminder about your focus for the session. Notifications let you know when each stage is complete, and when a session’s entirely finished, you’ll be asked to rate how productive you were using a clever emoji scale. You’ll also be given the opportunity to write notes you can review later to see which practices generally help or hurt your productivity; for example, if your session wasn’t very productive, you can write down the specific reasons why so as to identify trends over time. Finally, after a session you’ll see the latest progress status on your daily goals, which are customizable from the app’s Productivity tab.

Rating a Focus Session after it ends.

Rating a Focus Session after it ends.

At its heart Focused Timer’s utility is quite simple: it provides custom sets of timers labeled for different things you want to focus on. What makes the app stand out, however, is its ace execution. The design feels modern and playful, with nice use of colors, rounded rectangles, and emoji. There’s support for features like dark mode, iCloud sync, iPad multitasking, and alternate app icons, statistics for tracking your productivity, and even Toggl integration so your timers in Focused Work can automatically update your Toggl account.

I use Toggl to track my work time, so without Toggl integration I might find myself setting two separate timers for projects: one in Focused Work and the other in Toggl. Such an obstacle would have made it hard to adopt Focused Work since it would feel like simply an extra step in my workflow. But with the Toggl integration that’s not at all the case. After authenticating your Toggl account in settings, all you have to do is choose, as part of the process of starting a Focus Session, whether to log the stages of that session via Toggl. If you choose to do so, the app will provide your saved projects and tags from Toggl to select from for the timer that will be created.

Focused Work is off to a strong start with its 1.0, but I’m also excited about the potential for the app moving forward. Michael Tigas has stated that a Mac version and Shortcuts support are in the cards for the near future, which will make fantastic additions. I could foresee creating a shortcut that starts a Focus Session, activates Do Not Disturb, kicks off a soundscape from an ambient noise app like Portal, and opens my writing app of choice, Ulysses. Beyond those two upcoming features, I also expect widgets in iOS 14 to be a perfect fit for the app, as a widget could potentially show the status of your current Focus Session timer and remove the need to open the full app as often.

All the changes of this year have made adopting new work practices a necessity for many. While the prospect of using Focused Work may feel at first like yet another adjustment to make in your working life, it may well prove a valuable change not only for 2020, but even when work gets more normal again.

Focused Work is a free download on the App Store, with options for either an annual subscription or lifetime In-App Purchase to unlock Pro features.

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