We’ve been on a collective quest to upgrade our time-management capabilities by forming better habits and exercising greater self-discipline, all while minimizing time lost to LinkedIn, Instagram, YouTube and the enormously powerful meme industry. To aid us in this effort, we have turned—surprise!—to yet more digital tools. Determining which of the following productivity-assisting apps, widgets and programs will be best depends both on your work style and the sort of motivation you find most compelling. Here are the contenders.
For the person who needs self-awareness: RescueTime
This tool tracks and aggregates the time you spend on your computer and smartphone, assigning a productivity score to each activity. The result is a gold mine of insight: You’ll see how much overall screen time you logged, as well as how it was allocated between devices and how you fared during work hours. The productivity-scoring feature is fairly accurate and improves as you fine-tune it. The core functionality is free, and a premium version includes a feature that temporarily blocks sites you specify.
For pleasant motivation that helps the planet: Forest
This app, available for iOS and Android mobile devices as well as desktops and laptops via a Google Chrome extension, is for when you want to lock in for an intensive period of distraction-free productivity. After you set a timer within Forest, a small sapling appears on screen, growing larger as you persist in your focused work. If you get distracted, the tree dies; if you succeed, you earn credit toward the planting of a real-world forest. When you earn 2,500 points within the app, Forest’s developer makes a donation to a tree-planting organization. It’ll take some work for you to make progress—I’ve completed several Forest sessions now and have earned only 30 credits—but the payoff is an increased sense of focus.
For football coach-style motivation: StickK
The platform doesn’t yell or scream, but it does introduce negative motivation and accountability. StickK encourages you to set a goal—whether it’s exercising every day for a month or cranking out an epic series of reports—and then to put skin in the game by signing a “commitment contract” and agreeing to pay a person or nonprofit of your choice if you fail to reach your goal. The nonprofits are diverse, and you’re even encouraged to select an “anti-charity” you wouldn’t want to support to supply negative motivation—the proverbial stick, rather than the carrot. The idea, hatched by a behavioral economist at Yale University, is that signing a contract to reach a goal or face defined consequences is what’s needed to help you build your commitment muscle in an age where it’s easier than ever to check out.
For the minimalist: Momentum Habit Tracker
Day-after-day dedication is how you form strong habits, and this free, simple app for the Apple universe is designed to make lasting changes. It’s based on the Don’t Break the Chain motivation technique, which holds that the longer you keep up a streak, the less likely you’ll be to break it. The Momentum app sends out reminders each day to see whether you’ve kept up with your new practice routine, reminding you of your streaks and urging you to keep them up. Momentum’s pleasant pestering is hard to ignore, and its reminders follow you from device to device—your laptop, tablet and phone.
For the tactile timekeeper: Timeular
The trouble with wasting time is that you hardly notice when you’ve slipped down a rabbit hole. Timeular changes that because it requires you to interact with a tangible object—an eight-sided die—every time you change tasks. First, you customize the faces of the die to reflect your priorities and your day’s activities, and then you switch among them as needed while Timeular tracks the results via Bluetooth connection. Its software then provides a breakdown of your activities, syncs among your devices and integrates with various time-tracking programs.
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