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4 lesser-known macOS apps for improving digital focus
suggestions for single-tracking
I'm always on the lookout for tools that help me improve my focus. This has only become more important to me as I recover from burnout: a scattered, multi-track focus is a direct line back to exhaustion.
In the good ‘ol days, a computer could only do one or two specialised tasks that would command your entire focus. But the advent of general-purpose computing and the Internet laid down the foundations for one machine to take on thousands of tasks. Now you can share pictures, bid on an auction, watch pornography and apply for jobs by sitting stationary at one device and moving your fingers in slightly different directions.
This lack of friction between wildly different activities is what makes the computer so powerful. But it is a problem for our ability to focus.
The majority of our attention hangs around vision. Up to 90% of the signals transmitted to the brain are visual and we process images many, many times faster than text.1 We have never in our history beheld anything so informationally dense as a computer screen. Now we stare at them for 6-10 hours a day.
But the human brain has evolved to single-task2. A computer screen with 9 overlapping windows, 38 open tabs and real-time notifications is rapidly depleting your ability to focus on that single task.
The solution is to single-track your focus. To do this, you must find ways to temporarily resist the open savannah of a modern computer. Here are a few lesser-known apps that I've found most useful in promoting single-track focus.
HazeOver dims everything around your currently focused window. It is especially useful if you're using a large, external monitor that leaves excess real estate around your windows.
HazeOver also keeps the background faded out as you switch between applications, which is primetime for losing focus by catching sight of That Other Thing.
I have it enabled 99% of the time I use my laptop. When it’s off, I find myself immediately offended by the volume of visual noise on my screen.
Here's an example of me using Obsidian to write this blog post on a large screen. I break the note into its own window and HazeOver hides everything around it. No desktop, no other windows. The amount of fade is customisable, but I usually go for total blackout.
Using applications in full-screen mode is a similar strategy, but many applications are not well-suited to be stretched across the full width of an external monitor.
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It allows me to clear away that anxiety-inducing row of tabs in one click. How often do I return to those invaluable tabs? Not very often. But they're there if I need them and this puts my mind at ease. Restoring tabs is one more click away if you want to revisit the trauma.
Here is OneTab saving and closing my 38 tabs (hey, I was researching)
Single-track or not, your eyes need regular breaks from the thick, visual soup that is your screen. No app can help you retain focus if you’re locked into an unblinking death stare.
The answer to this is the oft-cited 20/20/20 rule: when using a screen, every 20 minutes, look at something 20 ft away for 20 seconds.
This was a rule I easily recalled and promptly ignored in the same breath. But following 20/20/20 has been key to me being able to use a laptop these last few months. Without it, I feel the ache of burnout creeping back in.
The Time Out app does the time-tracking and nudging of 20/20/20 for you. It will gently fade into view when it’s time to take a break. After a few seconds, you won't be able to interact with your screen unless you postpone the break. It does other cool things like recognising natural breaks when you’re AFK.
After a month of using this app, I noticed that I started anticipating the breaks: naturally pausing and wondering if I’d accidentally closed the app just before the 20-minute warning pops up.
It doesn't take long to accumulate a heap of windows on your desktop: browsers, consoles, email applications, document editors, Notes, WhatsApp, that random spreadsheet you opened 3 months ago etc.
Hocus Focus is a dutiful caretaker that will hide inactive windows for you after a customisable period. It’s quite therapeutic to watch it in action. You may also catch sight of your desktop for the first time in years. You can customise the settings per application (e.g. don't hide Zoom) and the app is free.
I use an application called Mindful Mynah that makes a pleasant sound every 20-30 minutes. It’s a reminder to check in on my breath.
It’s not an application, but Apple released the Stage Manager in macOS Ventura. Judging by the number of people who ask me how I make my desktop do that, it’s still not well known. In short, it will only allow you to have one window in focus at a time. For me, there is still too much noise around the windows, but it’s a solid step in the right direction.
What about my phone?
Managing the visual cacophony of a computer screen is one part of digital focus. Another key area is getting your phone to shut the fuck up. If you’re interested in answers to this alongside other changes I made after trying Cal Newport’s 30-day Digital Declutter, read this. (There is also a 2-year follow-up.)
The only major change I've made since those experiments is to tentatively return to social media. This time not to consume, but to stay connected with smart people and share new writings and projects. Yes, you can follow me on Twitter and Facebook.