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Despite the fresh-start energy that abounds during the first few weeks of January, some of us might find our old bad habits creeping back into our work—including, for many (most) of us, the tendency to fall victim to digital distraction.

In a previous edition of Work Tech, we reviewed a collection of what some might call the gentler side of distraction blockers: digital tools that make it slightly more difficult to access time-sucking websites, encouraging more mindful browsing while allowing users to retain their autonomy. Today, we’re covering more heavy-duty distraction blockers, tools that promote focus more aggressively by restricting access to certain sites outright.

We tested 10 different Chrome browser extensions that allow users to place strict limits around their browsing: Freedom, Block Site, StayFree, StayFocusd, Leechblock, Intention, Screentime, Focus Guard, Self Control, and Task Shield. (Note: Some of these tools also allow users to track the time spent on a given site without restricting access to it; we’ll cover time-tracking tools in an upcoming Work Tech newsletter.) 

Freedom is our top pick for its impressively comprehensive but user-friendly approach that’s well worth the price. We also recommend StayFree as a solid second choice for most of Freedom’s features without the cost. 

Our picks

1

Freedom

PROS

  • Highly detailed scheduling options, including the ability to pre-schedule a single focus session or program an entire week.
  • Strong visual appeal, with a calming green screen to redirect you from blocked sites.
  • Option to create multiple “blocklists” to restrict different groups of sites at different times.

CONS

  • The most expensive of the tools we tested. 
  • Requires both a desktop app and browser extension, so installation is a bit more onerous.
2

StayFree

PROS

  • Ability to set usage limits rather than blocking sites outright.
  • Clean, easy-to-navigate interface.
  • “Limits on the go” mode makes it easy to limit distractions that haven’t been previously added to a list of forbidden sites.

CONS

  • Can’t create separate blocklists for different schedules. 
  • No ability to pre-schedule a single focus session.

Our process

We used the same process as we did for the first group of distraction blockers: We installed each of the tools in our testing pool one at a time to use over the course of a normal day. To create our list of distracting sites to block, 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. For tools that had different modes—for example, the ability to block a site full-time or to set a time limit for it—we attempted to visit the forbidden site in multiple ways. We then evaluated each app on user experience, customization, and effectiveness.

Our recommendations

To be sure, Freedom isn’t without its sticking points. The required desktop app makes it a bit more onerous to install than the other tools we tested, and it’s the only one that requires a paid subscription. The payoff is well worth the trouble, however: It easily earned its spot as our top pick, offering the most detailed level of customization without sacrificing ease of user experience. 

Users can group distraction sources together into “blocklists,” allowing for more targeted blocking depending on the context. Depending on the day and the task at hand, for example, you may want to retain access to social-media sites while restricting access to, say, news sites, or vice versa. It also has the highest level of flexibility of all the tools in our testing pool. In addition to customizing individual focus sessions by turning blocklists on and off and specifying the length, users can set up recurring schedules for blocklists to consistently activate between certain hours or on certain days, or schedule a single focus session at a future time.

When the moment calls for intense focus, Freedom offers the ability to block the entire internet, or all desktop apps, by checking off a single box. And when the moment calls for extra intense focus, “locked mode” prevents users from making any changes to a blocklist once a session has begun. Freedom also performs highly on visual appeal: Visiting a blocked site during a focus session yields a calming green screen, while the dashboard itself is uncluttered and easy to navigate, without the unpleasant utilitarian appearance of some of the other tools in our pool.

Our second-place pick, StayFree, is primarily a time-tracking app, with a detailed dashboard to monitor usage across sites; however, its distraction-blocking features make it a solid choice for those who want most of Freedom’s benefits without the cost. It has the edge over Freedom in the flexibility it offers to set usage limits: Rather than blocking a site outright, users can choose to give themselves a certain number of minutes per day before the restriction kicks in. While it doesn’t have the same level of detail in its scheduling capabilities, its “focus mode” feature does enable users to set up multiple focus schedules, though the list of blocked sites can’t be tailored to each schedule. And its “limits on the go” mode makes it easy to set restrictions in the moment. When it’s activated, visiting a distraction source prompts a pop-up window where users can specify the length of time they’re allowed to stay. In terms of visual appeal, its simple and clean interface makes for an intuitive, low-stress experience. 

Both of our picks allow users to sync multiple devices to one account, which helpfully eliminates the phone-browser workaround for those who want an especially heavy hand to help them stay on task. StayFree is also available as a desktop app, though unlike Freedom the desktop version isn’t required for the browser extension. Freedom also offers Limit, a free browser extension without bells and whistles that allows users to set daily usage restrictions for distracting sites. 

A note on privacy and security: Freedom does not record browsing activity. StayFree users can check a box in the settings tab to opt out of data collection.

Pricing deep dive

All of the tools we tested are free for users, with the exception of Freedom. After a seven-day free trial, a subscription costs:

  • $8.99/month if billed monthly
  • $3.99/month if billed annually
  • $199 for the one-time purchase of a lifetime subscription (as of this writing, the lifetime option was on sale for 50% off at $99.50)

Freedom’s 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

Our methodology was largely the same as for the first round of distraction blockers we reviewed: We sourced tools to test by researching user recommendations on productivity and self-improvement sites, prioritizing those with Chrome browser extensions for a seamless browsing experience. We further narrowed down the pool by focusing on tools that took a more heavy-handed approach to distraction by blocking or severely limiting access to specified sites rather than gently nudging users away from distractions.