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Attention, Please! PC Programs to Stave Off Distraction.

Don't get distracted! Katie tests three programs that ban the Internet to encourage distraction-free working.

Are you reading this without any interruptions?

Hold that thought for a second, while I respond to a new email notification that just popped up …

There, done. I’m back.

As I was saying, it’s near impossible to use a computer nowadays without the Web luring you back for one reason or another.

Ack! I see that I have a few new Facebook alerts, and I recently posted a photo of my six-month-old baby. I should check to see who “Liked” my photo, and what comments they wrote about it. It will just take a minute …

Where were we? Ah, yes: It’s not your fault, of course, that social networking, email and other websites are always on and continuously generating alerts designed to attract you to them.

Sorry, someone just instant-messaged me about dinner later this week. I’m free, I think. Aren’t I? Let me switch to my Web calendar and … yes. Free as a bird! Hang on while I quickly check online reservations to see which restaurants are available tonight.

To get back to my point, plenty of programs on your computer and smartphone are designed specifically to make you look at them. Visual notifications slide onto your screen from all directions, challenging your eyes and attention to stay focused on just one thing.

But there are also many programs out there designed to ward off such distractions. I tested Freedom, which costs $10 and works on Macs and Windows PCs, keeping your computer from connecting to the Internet for any reason for a designated time period. I also tested Anti-Social, a $15 Windows- and Mac-friendly program that’s designed to block specific websites. Though it blocks and by default, you can add whichever additional websites that you tend to read too often while trying to work. Both of these programs are made by 80Pct Solutions, and both can be turned off when people reboot their computers. When bought together, they cost $20.

A $5 version of Freedom runs on Android phones and tablets, and the company plans a version for Apple’s iOS mobile operating system that it hopes to launch in April. On the phone version of Freedom, people can opt to block all or some of their phone calls, Wi-Fi, data and Bluetooth connections. Like on computers, people can select an option that allows them to override Freedom by rebooting, but an alternative option prevents this override even when the phone gets a reboot.

Webtrate, which costs $8, is another program for Windows PCs and Macs that gives people a more disciplined option to stay offline. Once installed, people choose how long they’d like this program to keep them from all Internet-related distractions. But they can also select whether or not a reboot will turn Webtrate off. If they opt to disallow this, rebooting won’t help; they’ll still be barred from all Internet-related activity. This alternative describes itself as follows: “No ifs, no buts. This is for high achievers who want to get work done without distraction.”


I purchased each program, and received email instructions for downloading them. After quickly installing them on my computers, the programs walked me through set-up questions, including asking me how long I wanted them to run.

For people who are constantly afraid that someone will post an embarrassing photo of them on Facebook before they can untag themselves, Freedom’s and Anti-Social’s least amount of run time — 15 minutes of Web-free work — may be all they can manage. But for those who intend to take the distraction-free concept more seriously, Freedom and Anti-Social can run for up to a day. Webtrate can run for as little as one minute and as long as 24 hours. Freedom for Android can run for as little as a minute, too.

As I turned each of these on, I found myself accidentally trying to open Web pages before getting “Unable to connect to the Internet” messages. I chided myself for slipping, and got back to work. More often than not, I started glancing at the clock to track how long it would take until I could get online again. Though I could reboot and override Freedom and Webtrate, I didn’t want to take the time to do that, so I was motivated to keep working, Internet-free.

Without any focus-forcing software on my nearby iPhone, I occasionally used it to cheat on Freedom, Anti-Social and Webtrate by checking email and social network updates. After all, it can do nearly everything I would have done on my computer. But by putting my phone somewhere that was out of my line of sight, I found that I truly did work harder when I wasn’t interrupted by emails, Web notifications and social networking.

Both Freedom and Anti-Social offer some loopholes and add-ons. Freedom can be used in a Local Access setting for people whose workplaces require that their computers maintain a connection to the local network. Anti-Social offers an option to block email, as well as whatever websites you choose.

Freedom, Anti-Social and Webtrate give users the option to tweet their results, which is basically an ad for the companies that make these products. I can’t imagine wanting to tell the world that I stayed off the Internet for 11 hours, and I can’t imagine who would care to know.

Most people need the Web to work, whether using email, the browser, or even social networking. But you might be surprised by what you can do when it’s turned off. These programs just might provide the productivity boost you’ve needed.

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