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Multiple past editions of the Work Tech newsletter have covered tools that can help you gain more control over your time and conquer digital distraction, including tab managers and time-blocking apps (you can view a list of time-saving tools we’ve covered here). Sometimes, though, building your workflow around an infrastructure that supports focus isn’t enough to help you fully resist the lure of all the distractions the internet has to offer.

Enter distraction blockers: apps that restrict access to certain sites, either entirely or in part, to help users stay on task. These tools broadly fall into two categories: The first is distraction blockers that, well, block, leaving users unable to visit their blacklisted sites for a specified length of time. 

The second is apps that allow users to retain their autonomy but encourage more mindful browsing, a combination that lays the foundation for intentional habit-building in a way that the brute force of a blocker doesn’t necessarily foster. These sites employ tactics that steer users away from distracting sites, rather than blocking them outright. In a later Work Tech, we’ll focus on the former category of more heavy-duty blockers, such as Self Control and Freedom. For today, we’re focusing on tools in the latter category. 

We tested seven browser extensions that add a layer of friction to distracting sites in slightly different ways:

  • Mindful Browsing, which has users set priorities for what they want to accomplish and reminds them of those priorities each time they visit a blacklisted site. 
  • Forest, which gamifies focus by having users plant virtual trees that thrive or wither based on time spent on allowed or blacklisted sites. 
  • Delayed Gratification, which allows users to set both a waiting period and a maximum number of minutes spent on a “bad site.”
  • Pause, a subset of the distraction-blocking product Freedom, which implements a waiting period of a user’s chosen length before they can continue on to a distracting site. 
  • Own Your Time, which requires users to type out a sentence of explanation for why they want to visit a blacklisted site before letting them through.
  • Momentum, which allows users to set a daily focus and reminds them of that focus each time they open a new tab.
  • The 20 Second Rule, based on a principle of the same name in the book The Happiness Advantage by positive-psychology researcher Shawn Achor, which simply makes users wait 20 seconds before giving them entry to a blacklisted site.

Based on our evaluation, we recommend Pause and Mindful Browsing.

Our picks

1

Pause

PROS

  • Comes preloaded with an extensive list of common distraction sources, including several social-media platforms and news outlets.
  • Ability to customize length of pause, from a single second up to five minutes.
  • Provides a dashboard showing the number of times you hit the firewall, broken down by hour, for more insight into times of day when you’re more prone to distraction.

CONS

  • Unlike our other pick, doesn’t give you the option to spend a small amount of time on a blacklisted site for a quick break before pausing again.
  • A button on the pause screen allows users to “un-pause” a site for 24 hours, making it perhaps a bit too easy to clear an unobstructed path to a distraction source (versus manually removing it from and later re-adding it to the blacklist for cases of genuine need).
2

Mindful Browsing

PROS

  • Beautiful, soothing design that helps you mentally re-center in the moment before deciding whether to follow through with visiting a distracting site.
  • Ability to customize reminders of what you could be spending your time on instead, adding to the guilt of indulging in distraction. 
  • Has a 10-minute workaround for short breaks.

CONS

  • Unlike some of the other tools we tested, its workaround doesn’t allow you to customize the length of time spent on a blacklisted site.
  • When you opt out, the forbidden site flashes on the screen for a moment, increasing the temptation to visit.

Our process

We installed each of the tools in our testing pool one at a time to use over the course of a normal day. For the apps that allow users to specify which sites they’re trying to minimize or avoid, we entered the same frequently visited sites to ensure that the tool would be put to use somewhat often: The New York Times, The Washington Post, and X (formerly Twitter), as well as bona fide distraction sources Amazon and Reddit. We then evaluated each app on user experience, visual appeal, customization, and effectiveness. 

Our recommendations

Some of the tools we evaluated had too light a touch to be effective distraction deterrents (Momentum), felt overly complicated for their stated purpose (Forest), or were unpleasantly utilitarian in design (Delayed Gratification). Both our picks, by contrast, combine calming visuals with a gentle but effective and straightforward user experience. 

Mindful Browsing does exactly what the name promises: forces users to be more thoughtful about how the page they’re on contributes to or detracts from their goals for the day. Along with a list of websites to avoid (or, in the app’s language, “be mindful of spending my time on”), users enter a list of activities they want to focus on. When you try to access a site on the first list, the window instead displays a soothing nature image and a reminder: “You said you’d usually rather [focus activity].” From there, you can click a button to close out the tab or choose to enter the site for a 10-minute period—good for keeping a cap on short breaks, though not customizable as with some of the other apps we tested—before returning to the original image window.

Pause, while not as pretty as Mindful Browsing, still has an appealing and low-stress design: When you try to access a site you’ve blacklisted, a reminder to “pause for a few seconds” appears atop a solid green background. It has the edge in terms of customization, with the ability to set the duration of the pause from one second to five minutes, depending on your preference. Pause also offers a greater level of insight for those who want to better understand their own habits, providing a dashboard that shows users how often they’ve attempted to access forbidden sites, and it comes preloaded with a list of common distracting sites for low-lift setup. One downside, however, is a feature that allows users to un-blacklist sites for 24 hours, which makes it  a bit too easy to remove the friction of continually revisiting a distraction source.  

Pricing deep dive

All of the browser extensions we tested are free. 

For Pause users who want to upgrade to the full suite of Freedom tools, the cost is $8.99/month billed monthly, $3.33/month billed annually, or $199 for a lifetime subscription, on sale through November for $99.50.

  • Team-level subscriptions are $99/month for up to 100 seats, $299/month for 101-1,000 seats, or $999/month for 1,001-5,000 seats. For teams larger than 5,000, enquire for pricing.

How we chose what to review

Focusing on Chrome browser extensions, we sourced our pool of tools by researching user recommendations on productivity and self-improvement blogs and forums such as Reddit (ironic, given that it also made our distraction blacklist for the purposes of this review). 


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