Ditch the app blockers, it’s discipline that helps

Take less restrictive actions that focus on intention, rather than a restrictive diet with punitive measures, to stay efficient.  (iStockphoto)
Take less restrictive actions that focus on intention, rather than a restrictive diet with punitive measures, to stay efficient. (iStockphoto)


As distraction-blocking apps fail, people are returning to good, old methods to stay productive and communicate better

A few months ago, Prabhuti Desai, an performing artist based in Bardoli, Gujarat, was driven to her wits’ end by Lock Me Out, an app that promised to help her focus. She was deep in the middle of drafting an idea for a project, when she had to check something on Instagram. She tapped the Instagram icon on her phone, but a pop-up—from Lock Me Out—asked her to pay Rs180.

This was a monster of her own making. A few months earlier, in a bid to cut out distractions while she worked, Desai, 31, downloaded Lock Me Out which would limit her access to certain apps and sites for certain hours of the day. A creative entrepreneur and facilitator, she was finding it hard to stay focussed without falling into the vortex of Instagram Reels or Youtube Shorts when between projects and ideating and researching for new ones.

Initially, it seemed quite “cool" as the app gave her various options: did she want to be alerted that her focus phase was starting; what were the apps she want locked; did she want to be able to bypass the lock for a few minutes; if yes, how many minutes; would she be okay with paying to unlock it? In a fit of idealism and desperation, she chose the toughest of safeguards. “But it got so irritating after a point," she says. “There was no wiggle room."

Whatever one’s field of work, the distracting triumvirate of social media, messaging, and entertainment apps, has become ubiquitous. For many, social media doubles up as a brand-building and networking platform as well as one that is populated with content that can inspire. Messaging apps have acquired more significance for communication and collaboration in a post-pandemic world of hybrid work. Entertainment apps don’t just consist of films, shows or music albums, they also have playlists and guided meditation practices to help with focus or stress.

Most app-restricting, screen-time control software such as Opal, ScreenZen and Freedom, work to disable notifications from certain apps as well as lock them away by prohibiting or complicating access. At a time when the lines between work and play blur, users have realised that this can be frustrating. Further, with needs and requirements being ever changing, not all days necessitate the same level of “blocking", meaning the controls end up too tight, too light, and really never right. Given this, a number of users have begun looking to other means of focus.

“Most writers struggle to create more while reaching more people…The less I am on social media, the better it is for my creativity, but I also need it to create community," says Delhi-based writer Bhavika Govil, 30, putting her finger on heart of the dilemma between social media use and over-use.

Also read: Mothers should be allowed to show their teeth

While she uses innocuous productivity apps, like Scrivener for writing or Microsoft Excel to keep track of her submissions, WhatsApp and Instagram are also important for her work—the former to stay connected with her writers’ group and the latter to share information about workshops and new work. Govil says she has, therefore, opted for more “pre-emptive measures" instead of distraction-blocking.

When she needs to start deep work, she turns on a Youtube playlist. Usually, these are generic bossa nova or jazz tracks, but when it is time to work on her novel, she turns on self-curated playlists specific to the atmospherics of the world she is building. “This helps immediately disconnect and tune into the creative world at hand," she says, likening turning on these playlists to an “almost Pavlovian sign of ‘it’s time to focus’".

This echoes what Arvind Eashwar, a 33-year-old Bengaluru-based serial entrepreneur responsible for start-ups like Sleek and AltSoul, says. Through his years working as an analyst at McKinsey and later as a strategist at Swiggy, Eashwar used site-blocking browser extensions like Breathe to stay undistracted. “Blocking doesn’t work because I’d always find a reason to open a site or app," Eashwar says. For him, playlists that simulate classroom sounds help him focus on deep work.

Also read: Time to smarten up the locks on your door

The way forward seems to be to take simpler, less restrictive actions that focus on intention and discipline, rather than a restrictive diet with punitive measures. “I’ve tried some of the inbuilt (screentime) settings on the iPhone, which helped, but to be honest, what actually works is just putting the phone in a different room when you don’t want to focus on it," says Mumbai-based 41-year-old Varun Duggirala, podcaster and co-founder of Emomee that build programmes for children’s’ emotional education.

It’s a hack that 19-year-old Shrinidhi Jaiswal, an undergraduate student of computer science at Ashoka University, uses. “The most effective thing is to leave the phone in my room and go to the library," she says.

A few months ago, Jaiswal tried the app Minimalist Phone, which promises to eliminate distractions by blocking the apps and by turning a smartphone’s interface into a black-and-white list without icons.

Jaiswal found that she would just bypass the app’s pop-up reminders, rendering it useless.

Desai, who also used the same app, says it made using the phone cumbersome with the list format making it hard to find useful apps like maps or ride-booking.

Duggirala advocates for keeping notifications on certain apps off to cut out distractions without eliminating all accessibility. For others, positive reinforcement has worked. Interior designer Shivani Dogra, 44, uses a physical timetable for time-blocking, or committing to a single task within a specific block of time. Dogra, who splits her time between Goa and Delhi, uses 25-minute timers to get through a task before taking a break.

Called the Pomodoro method, the 25-minute work block followed by a 5- or 15-minute break is popular with many people. Eashwar, Govil and Desai too follow this productivity principle, with the help of digital tools like Focus To-Do and Pomofocus.io.

“When I got down to the bottom of why I check apps compulsively, I realised it happens when I’m emotionally anxious or bored," says Dogra. She tried blocking sites on her phone’s browser, once deleting the Instagram app, too. “But ultimately I had to reinstall it," she concedes with a laugh, because she frequently needs it for work. “Ultimately," Dogra says, “only good, old-fashioned self- discipline helps."

Pomodoro apps to try 

FLOW: The free version of this simple timer app allows you to customise durations for your breaks and has a meditative metronome play during the 25 minute work-blocks

MINIMALIST: A clean, black-and-white to-do list, the app starts a Pomodoro timer when you tap on an item that you’ve listed to get done

MARSHMALLOWS: This app gives a different length of break time as reward each time you finish a work-block. You can also add friends and “compete" on who has been most productive

POMOTODO: The paid version syncs with your calendar app and comes with a library of ambient sounds, like the crashing of waves or white noise, to help with focus.

Catch all the Business News, Market News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates.