One of the biggest problems facing those who work on computers is how easily it is to get distracted. Whether you are at work or at home, having so much information readily at your fingertips is both a blessing and a curse. Moments of weakness, such as checking your email when you’re doing a task that doesn’t require it, or quickly checking what people are saying on Facebook, are all task switches that disrupt focus and take meaningful time away from what you initially set out to do.

There are a few Mac apps that aim to help keep you focused. One such app is Concentrate. This application is designed to set up your work environment and minimize distractions by getting things out of the way and setting blocks of time to get you focused on what you need to be doing. It also tries to eliminate distractions that prevent you from getting things done.

With Concentrate, you define activity sets that have various actions (See Figure A). For instance, if you define an activity of “Coding,” you might set it up to switch you to a particular Space, block distracting websites (such as social networks like Facebook and MySpace, or video sites such as YouTube),  and launch other applications, such as those required to accomplish the task (in this case, perhaps, tools such as Komodo IDE and Cornerstone). You can set it to hide all other applications, launch a particular website (such as the website you are developing), and set an activity timer for a particular allotment of time (for instance, you may want to devote an entire hour at a time to the activity). You can also have Concentrate close certain applications (such as Twitter and Mail), set your iChat status to away, or launch a shell script or AppleScript. After you have defined your activity and all of it’s actions, clicking the “Concentrate!” button next to it will launch all of the defined actions and start a timer.

While Concentrate is running, it will not stop you from loading websites that you did not define, or from launching additional applications, but it will minimize distractions and in the case of blocking websites, will prevent your browser from loading the blocked sites. The only way around the website blocking is to finish the defined activity or stop Concentrate; it does require administrator privileges to set, but it works across all browsers (so not just Safari).

Figure A

While Concentrate is a great app for helping to keep you focused, it does not provide any feedback on how well you did. You could easily spend the time focusing on doing completely unrelated tasks, so it is an application that helps, but it cannot force you into anything and doesn’t give you any feedback on how well you did.

In conjunction with Concentrate, I like the SaaS site Rescue Time. Rescue Time doesn’t force you to do anything, but it does provide that critical feedback you need to evaluate how you spent your time. Use it with Concentrate, as a helper, or without; Rescue Time gives you unbiased feedback on how you spend your time. Like Concentrate, it can also block distracting sites, similar to Concentrate’s blocked websites list.

But the real beauty of Rescue Time is in the reports that tell you how you spend your time when at the computer (Figure B and C). Rescue Time comes with a free plan (Solo Lite) or Solo Pro for individuals (costs $6/mo if paid a year in advance), as well as a team-based plan (which feels pretty Big Brother). If you have a license for Concentrate, you can probably get away with using Solo Lite, as some of the features that Solo Pro provides are duplicated in Concentrate.

The Rescue Time setup uses both its own server to track information, and a client that collects it. The client is available for Mac, Windows, or Linux (there is a warning for the Linux version that it is not officially supported or developed by Rescue Time so its mileage may vary).

Setting up a Rescue Time account is very painless, and you have the option of downloading the client tools at the same time. During the setup you will be asked questions to determine what your most distracting and most productive activities are, and you can set various goals for yourself (such as spending less than an hour on distracting activities per day, or how many hours you must spend on productive time). You have the option of tracking time spent away from the computer, and also whether you want to track individual websites (so you can see exactly how much time you spend looking at YouTube or other specific sites).

Figure B

Figure C

Once the account is set up, installing Rescue Time’s client application on the Mac is a drag-and-drop affair. Once it is installed, launch it, and it will connect to Rescue Time with your credentials and be accessible from the menu bar. Give Rescue Time a few hours and then use the menu bar icon to launch the Rescue Time dashboard and get an idea of what you are spending your time on.

The nice thing with Rescue Time is you can install it on all of your computers, to get a true representation of how you spend your time on the computer, regardless of which one you happen to be using. Whether you use OS X or Windows, Rescue Time will present you with the stark reality of how you spend your time, and then it is up to you as to whether that is productive use of time, or whether you need to re-think how you spend your time in order to make you more productive.

Using Rescue Time Solo Lite with Concentrate works great for those that are strictly Mac users. If you do work on multiple platforms, or do not want to use Concentrate, the Solo Pro plan may be worth the money if you are serious about getting focused. Either way, if you need help remaining focused in a world that has so many distractions and “shiny things” around each corner, these tools may help you get back on track.