1 March 2016

If you live in this century and own a smartphone, you have definitely found yourself lost on Facebook and Instagram, scrolling further into the abyss as minutes slip by unchecked. But apps can also be a force for good, helping you slay goals and make the most of your time and energy, if you know where to look.

Step one: Get off Facebook

Step one to improving your productivity? Actually setting aside time to do work and focus – without Facebook notifications getting in the way.

Start with Pomodoro Time. Pomodoro Time is an app that divides your work time up into 25-minute blocks, or ‘pomodoros’. Pomodoros are separated by five-minute breaks, with a longer break for every four you complete. For each pomodoro, you concentrate on a single task. You can alter the times in the settings if you want, but the creator recommends that you stick with the 25/5 split to maximise your concentration. Although science loves telling us that our attention span is shorter than that of a goldfish, the exact time for which you can concentrate on a single task effectively is pretty variable. In the pre-smartphone era, the estimation was about 15 minutes. With social media, that time goes down to about two minutes before the need for distraction kicks in. But maybe with a countdown reminding you that you only need to keep on track for five more minutes, you’ll be able to focus a little longer. It’s certainly worth a try.


Of course, that doesn’t work so well if Facebook is popping up on the corner of your screen every few minutes, pulling your attention away. Technology interruptions make us at least 20% dumber. Which is where something like StayFocusd comes in. StayFocusd is a browser extension that removes potential distractions from the equation. It’s super customisable, allowing you to block off sites entirely, set maximum times you can spend on each site a day, or – in what they call the Nuclear Option – block the entire internet for a specified time (with no option to regain access until your time expires). Use its power wisely.

Making the ultimate digital to-do list

When it comes to memory, technology is once again working against us. We are better at recalling things we write on paper than what we type. But unless you are particularly attached to your journal, a task management app is going to be more present in your day than anything you write on paper.

Todoist is exactly what it says on the can: an app that keeps track of tasks and deadlines, and acts as your portable to-do list.

But if you were the sort of kid who loved playing a Game Boy, then you should check out Habitica instead. Habitica is a gamification of task management, complete with a tiny pixel-art avatar, and a health bar that goes down if you don’t complete your daily tasks. Gamification is being used everywhere – from work to school to democracy itself – and it’s a great way of motivating yourself to get things done. Complete that gruelling study session, and get some loot! Or a little pet for your avatar! Or just make sure your fellow party members survive. Yeah, it’s nerdy, but it works because it offers an immediate reward for tasks completed, rather than the far-off one of eventually getting the grades you need to graduate. And our brains love immediate rewards.


Perfecting your study soundscape 

There’s something about a good study playlist that can make slogging through class work so much better. But when you listen to Beyoncé while slamming out an essay or revising chemical reactions, you can actually damage your productivity. Listening to music forces your brain to multitask. When you multitask, you’re not so much doing two things simultaneously as you are rapidly alternating between two tasks: completing your work and processing the lyrics.

If you can’t live without adding music to your study sessions, there are ways to decrease its negatives. Listening to instrumental music is a big one. It’s been shown that the level of distraction caused by music varies by genre, with instrumental music being the best. Spotify obviously has a lot of instrumental study playlists, but stay away from covers (the lyrics will still be in your head). If you’re still on a Star Wars kick, there’s also this, because who doesn’t want the progress bar of their music to be a lightsaber?

Alternatively, features music designed to aid concentration. It manipulates the timing and frequency of the music, and adjusts based on your brain patterns. The project team has a research library detailed enough to make your tutor cry and they have completed their own trial studies, which showed better reaction time and pattern recognition with’s music than with unaltered or no music. only gives seven sessions for free before you have to subscribe though, so if you’re living the poor student life, maybe save it for when swotvac comes around.

But say study music isn’t your thing. Instead, you prefer the sound of other people at work. Coffitivity offers the work-inspiring soundtrack of a café, with none of the social awkwardness that comes with monopolising a table. Research shows that a low level of ambient noise can improve your creativity and performance. It will probably take you a little while to get the settings right. There are three tracks, with various levels of chatter, espresso machine noises and clanging plates. If you want to add music as well, expect to spend some time balancing it with that, too. But one thing’s for sure: it will save you the money, and the caffeine jitters, of being at an actual café.

If you crave a different study environment entirely, Ambient Mixer has archives full of different ambient settings. Getting your work done at Hogwarts, or on the bridge of the Enterprise, is sure to make things more interesting.

Ambient Mixer

So by blocking Facebook, turning your assignments into epic quests and making your playlist work for you, not against you, you can use these eight apps and sites to help boost your productivity this exam block.

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