Is your smartphone a distraction or a booster for your productivity? (Photo by Andrew Neel)
Few months ago, I set out to discover whether the best productivity apps could transform my phone from chief distraction to ally in my quest for a better life in 2019. In the name of science, I tested a collection of some popular productivity apps including Pomodoro timers, habit trackers, to-do list managers, and note taking apps.
All these apps have plenty of positive App Store reviews. At first, I wasn?t sure which to choose as they seemed to have overlapping features. In some cases, even their names and design appeared similar.
If you are seeking a simple yet effective app to help you maximize efficiency and get a better life in 2019, my experiment might save your time and effort on your journey!
Outline & app categories
Basically, the apps I tested try to answer the following questions:
- How to stay focused and maximize efficiency? (Part 1)
- How to develop better habits that last? (Part 2)
- How to clear your to-do list and achieve your goals? (Part 3)
- How to keep your ideas and notes organized? (Part 3)
For each question, I will offer a comparative review of the relevant, top-ranked apps I tested. Each of these top-ranked apps performed well based on quality measures such as design, ease of use, and richness of features. However, so much comes down to personal preference. I evaluated them using my own biased and subjective criteria.
I break this article into three parts. Feel free to skip to the parts that most interest you by clicking the links above. In case you don?t have time, here is my conclusion.
Let?s get started!
1. How to stay focused and maximize efficiency?
I don?t know about you, but my phone is one of my biggest distractions! The notifications never stop whether it is a call, a text, an email, or just a reminder. It doesn?t help that I am also addicted to social media and have been known to play a game or two.
The Pomodoro technique helps focus my attention span and keeps me off my phone.
What is the Pomodoro Technique?
The Pomodoro Technique is a time management strategy where you focus on a concentrated task for 25 minutes with the help of a timer. The timer guides your focus and rewards you with a five-minute break.
Francesco Cirillo developed and popularized this technique in the late 1980?s. He named his time management ?Pomodoro? after the Italian word for tomato. He actually used a tomato-shaped kitchen timer to time his focus sessions.
Now people refer to a focused 25-minute session as a ?Pomodoro? and refer to multiple sessions as ?Pomodoros.? More advanced users will group four consecutive Pomodoros then take a longer 20 or 30-minute break to refresh their brain. This whole process takes around two hour hours and 30 minutes. The Pomodoro technique works well for writing, doing calculations, researching, or studying.
The original Pomodoro Technique outlined by Cirillo is as follows:
- Decide which task you want to focus on.
- Set your Pomodoro timer for 25 minutes.
- Work on the task.
- When the timer goes off, note your Pomodoro with a check mark on paper, an app, or a whiteboard.
- Take a five-minute break if you have three or fewer checkmarks.
- After four Pomodoros, take a longer break (usually anywhere from 15?30 minutes).
If you use a Pomodoro app, you may not need to keep track of your Pomodoros manually.
Benefits of using the Pomodoro method
By working in short ?sprints? your motivation stays fresh. Most people have difficulty concentrating for extended periods of time, but most people are capable of concentrating for short durations like 25 minutes. A study by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that brief breaks enhance the effectiveness of a study session. Taking breaks is beneficial whether you are studying or working on a project.
The work and reward cycle keeps motivation fresh. Think of your favorite video game? Chances are this game hooked your attention by offering challenging yet achievable goals and by rewarding you each time you meet a goal. Game designers are masters of human motivation!
Using a Pomodoro technique makes accomplishing your real-world goals feel a little like playing a game. You can further capitalize on this dynamic when you use an app to guide your sessions. An app that includes an element of gamification makes working towards your goals as addictive as your favorite game.
The Pomodoro method can help you maintain healthy work habits. You may have heard that sitting is the ?new smoking.? As silly as this sounds, this idea is based on the negative effects that sitting for hours at a time has on the body and brain. This is why so many people wear Fitbits and strive for 10,000 steps a day.
Sadly, if you are a student or work in a field that requires concentration you may need to spend many hours sedentary. The Pomodoro method offers options to excel at your work while you also fit more movement in throughout the day. You simply use the five-minute breaks to do stretches or move around.
People who combine Pomodoro with movement breaks often find they remain refreshed throughout the day, as one Wall Street Journal reporter discovered. A few years ago, National Public Radio reported how sitting all day causes negative health consequences and headaches. One solution they offered was to take movement breaks throughout the day, the Pomodoro Method prompts you to take those breaks.
Eye doctors also recommend that patients who work with computers take a break from focussing on the computer every twenty to twenty-five minutes. During that break, they advise you focus on something at least 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds. While the Pomodoro doesn?t neatly fit the 20?20?20 method recommended by the American Optometry Association, my Optometrist agreed that taking a five-minute break every twenty-five minutes would be an eye-healthy habit.
What are the downsides of the Pomodoro method; is it for everyone?
I found the Pomodoro method a fabulous tool to motivate me to tackle tedious or boring tasks. After all, I only need to commit 25 minutes and I know a break is coming. This method also makes exciting, yet intimidating work more manageable. This is why the method is so popular with developers and creative professionals.
The only downside I found is that sometimes I get into a flow and the timer interrupts me while I am doing my best work. Some researchers claim that it usually takes at least 20 minutes to achieve ?flow.? I found a modified Pomodoro works best for me. I simply set the timer to allow a longer focus interval for work where I expect flow. The best focus timers offer flexibility to adapt to fit your work style and needs.
What are the best Pomodoro timers and other focus timers?
Since the Pomodoro method interests me, I decided to try some of the top Pomodoro timers in the App Store. After a little research, I settled on the following apps.
Left to right: Forest ($1.99), Focus Keeper, Flora, and Be Focused.
I wanted to find a Pomodoro app that motivates me as much as possible. I?ve tried the Pomodoro Technique in the past and found it requires discipline and determination. I wanted to see whether the right app can help make the process more fun and motivating.
I found that two apps, Forest and Flora, included a gameplay feel that offered an extra dose of incentive. This is important to me because I?ve tried the Pomodoro Technique on papers in the past and found it requires discipline and determination to continue. By ?gamifying? the Promodoro sprints, these gamidoro apps (?gamification? + ?pomodoro?) successfully kept me on track. In the end, the motivational element led to my ranking:
- Forest ($1.99)
- Focus Keeper
- Be Focused
However, Focus Keeper and Be Focussed are solid choices if you don?t enjoy gameplay within your productivity apps.
The winner: Flora
Flora is a focus timer app that is both easy to use and easy on the eyes. It lets you grow virtual trees when you are doing a Pomodoro. Once you start a session, a plant starts growing. If you leave Flora to visit another app like Instagram, your plant dies!
Flora is a Pomodoro and focus timer that is easy to use and aesthetically pleasing. Best of all it uses elements of gamification to keep you focused and motivated!
Strangely, even knowing a tree is fake, I still feel bad when killing it. The guilt over possibly killing a virtual tree motivated me to stay on task throughout the session. Also, Flora lets a group of people grow trees together ? if anyone leaves the app, everyone?s tree will be killed! The app is integrated with Facebook, and therefore you can easily invite you friends to join your virtual focus room.
I also found Flora motivates me not to pick up my phone in certain situations like during family time. One feature that really helps is the ability to stake a ?bet? that I won?t use any other apps on my phone during the focus session. If I fail, Flora uses my financial stake to plant a real tree in Africa or East Asia.
The Price feature of Flora allows you to ?bet? that you won?t use any other apps during a focus session. If you fail, Flora uses your money to plant a tree in Africa or East Asia.
While money can be used to pressure me to honor my focus session, Flora also offer an option to use it in more positive ways through their paid subscription. They plant a real tree every time I complete 24, 60, or 120 hours of focus depending on my chosen subscription plan.
- Flora is easy to use from the moment you download the app and connect your Facebook account.
- The timer offers a range of options including 25 minutes for a Pomodoro and a range of other timeframes. Many people find Pomodoro productive, however, some people like to spend longer concentrating on a task and find they just get into the ?flow? when the timer calls for a break. Such people may prefer to schedule a longer focus session and can easily do this within Flora.
- Since users have the option to stake actual financial donations, you can leverage carrot and stick style motivation into your work or study sessions.
- The interface is attractive with a teal color scheme and simple garden-themed illustrations.
- What if you get an important call that you need to take? Flora allows you to take a ?break? while a session is in progress for those situations. Simply resume your session after that call.
Any downsides to Flora?
- Since the main purpose of Flora is to keep users off their phones, the timer is not helpful if your work requires the use of your phone. For example, if your task involves making phone calls or posting Instagram updates you may need a different app.
- At this time, you can only sign up and log on through your personal Facebook account. This almost scared me off when I first opened the app. But later I understood that the Facebook integration makes it easy to make use of the social aspects of app so this was no longer an issue to me. Flora announced that they are working on allowing other sign-in options in an upcoming update.
I highly recommend Flora for users who want a focus timer that keeps them away from their phones. I find this app helpful when studying, writing, or performing tedious offline chores (like house cleaning). The 25-minute Pomodoro timer is a great procrastination buster. You will be amazed at how much you can accomplish in a focused 25 minute period.
First runner-up: Forest
The Forest app is another ?gamidoro? app that allows users to grow trees when they are doing Pomodoros.
The Forest focus timer app shares a similar concept and theme to Flora. Forest uses virtual coins as rewards of your focus time. I prefer Flora partially because the rewards (virtual or real trees) are more straightforward and easier to get.
Forest vs. Flora
If you download both Flora and Forest, you may be surprised at how similar they are. Both share a similar concept, color scheme, and interface. Both focus timers work in similar ways. Flora and Forest originated in the same lab and used to be partners. Each app had a different intended audience. However, Forest adopted more of Flora?s features as the latter grew in popularity. This led to the termination of the partnership. Now the two apps are independent with each other.
Despite their similarities, there are also key differences between Forest and Flora:
- Forest does not require the user to sign up through Facebook which may be a plus if you don?t use Facebook or recently deleted your account.
- There are less types of trees or plants you can grow in Forest. The gamification element and social aspects are not as strong as in Flora.
- Forest doesn?t offer the extra motivational element of setting your own ?fine? if you kill a tree.
- Forest costs $1.99 to download while Flora is free to get started. Forest?s incentive allows users to plant up to 5 real trees as they meet their goals. Flora offers a premium subscription model that allows users to contribute to planting unlimited numbers of real trees by completing goals.
- Forest includes forest rain ambient sounds to aid focus. This may be a matter of preference since I often listen to music while I work I found the rainforest sound a little distracting.
Both Flora and Forest apps ?gamify? the Pomodoro technique. This combined with the attractive design make these apps stand out among top Pomodoro and focus timer apps. Both require you to focus to keep your tree growing. The guilt over possibly killing a virtual tree motivated me to stay on task throughout the session. While I enjoyed using both apps, I recommend Flora unless you are not a Facebook user.
Alternate option: Focus Keeper
Focus Keeper gets extra points for closely replicating the classic Pomodoro experience. The tomato-themed design hints to the original tomato timer used by Francesco Cirillo. The ticking sound also reminds you that it is focus time.
Focus Keeper offers a pure Pomodoro experience ? the tomato shaped kitchen timer that Francesco Cirillo inspired the design.
For Pomodoro purists, Focus Keeper even tracks how many Pomodoros you complete. Focus Timer is easy to use immediately after downloading. I someone managed to accidentally pause my first session, so I guess it is a little too easy to use!
- The focus session countdown timer features a red background image, while the five-minute break features a contrasting lavender background.
- The ticking sound reminds you that you are running a ?timer.?
- The app is easy to use and continues to work even if you open and use other apps. Whether that is a pro or a con depends on how you use this power.
- The paid ?Pro? option allows you to adjust the focus and rest intervals to suit your preferences and needs.
- The Pro option also offers a range of ambient sound options including rain, beach sounds, cafe noise, steam, and dripping.
I recommend Focus Keeper for Pomodoro purists who want to follow Francesco Cirillo?s method as closely as possible (without using a notebook and tomato-shaped kitchen timer!). If your phone is your biggest distraction, you may be better off with Flora or Forest since they consider your session abandoned if you use another app without choosing the break option.
Alternate option: Be Focused
Like Focus Keeper, Be Focused uses a tomato theme but it is more subtle. The timer is simple with a plain cream background and subtle salmon pink graphic.
The Be Focused timer app is a simple timer with a Pomodoro tomato inspired aesthetic.
The free version of the app is pretty basic and easy to use. The app offers an option to title your session which is helpful if you want to track how long you spent working on a specific project.
If you like ambient sound, you may opt to use the ?chronometer sound? or work in silence. The alarm options include chimes, bongos, alarm clock, and a range of synthesized sounds. Users may choose different sounds for the focus timer and the break timer.
I must admit that I found the advertising a little distracting within the free version. I think that is the biggest downside to the free version of the app. Also, of the four apps I tested, I liked the design the least however that is simply a matter of personal taste.
I hope you liked this first part. On the next article I?ll share with you my experience in using the top habit tracking apps.
Make sure you give this post 50 claps and my blog a follow if you enjoy this article and want to see more.