5 (Almost) Free Tools to Help Distracted Freelancers

freelance productive

To say I am easily distracted is an understatement; I have the attention span of a child at Disneyland. I used to blame my distraction problems at work on general office issues like people talking, people laughing, people getting up to get water. Literally everything seems so much more interesting than my computer screen, someone printing out copies, reheating leftovers or walking to the bathroom. Why focus on work when life is happening all around me!?

But now I freelance, most often away from a client site. I’ve tried beautiful coworking spaces with abundantly flowing pour over coffee and motivational handlettered art on the walls. I’ve tried coffee shops filled with interesting looking people that I am fascinated with trying to figure out what type of job they have where they can sit at Starbucks looking for hours on end. But nothing was quite as fantastic as rolling out of bed and setting up shop at my desk. With no need to get dressed, put on makeup, or even brush my hair, I feel like I am truly living the dream.

Although this might not work for everyone, it works well for me. But, since I don’t have office distractions to blame anymore, I’ve substituted external distractions for internal ones. It’s a constant struggle to focus on project work when I have emails to respond to, meetings to schedule, Twitter to check, Wikipedia is calling my name or my cat is being super cute laying on my laptop in a little ball.

Somehow, through much trial and error, I’ve found a system that works for me and allows me to focus when I really need to. These tools might not work for everyone but they’ve helped me tremendously I highly recommend anyone struggling with distraction problem to give them a try.

What has helped a distracted mind like mine find focus:

Make a to-do list

Yes, it can be that simple. Every morning, after making a cup of coffee and checking the morning news, I make a list of small and manageable tasks I want to finish by the end of the day. These may include emails I need to send, a mostly finished wireframe presentation I need to complete, a few calls I need to make, a birthday gift I need to buy, or graphics I need to create. The list changes every day but somehow the act of committing these tasks to paper makes everything feel more real and more manageable.

I’m a firm believer of the saying, “If it’s not scheduled, it’s not real.” After writing my to do list, I give each task a time estimate. I group the smaller tasks together, generally in an “Admin” calendar event. Then, I add the larger tasks individually to my calendar. It’s a little laborious but it help me focus and prioritize while I wake up and drink some tea.

Set the stage

In order to start focusing, I need to make sure my work space is as clear, which, as prolific scrap paper note taker, is easier said than done. I do the best I can do remove as much as I can from my desk (usually by shoving everything into a desk drawer).

I also have a weird quirk where I focus best with headphones and music playing in even when I’m working home alone in a quiet apartment. My music taste runs the gamut but I tend to work best with instrumental music that fades into the background as to not be tempted with too much desk dancing.

These are a few playlists I’ve found that help me concentrate:

Screen Shot 2016-01-23 at 6.12.49 PMCalmly Writer

The name says it all. Calmy is a simplest and most wonderful text editor I have ever encountered.

Calmly makes it fun to write again. Sitting in from of Calmly, brings back the feeling of using an old-fashioned typewriter. It’s you, the typewriter and the words. Nothing else. It’s beautiful.

Designed and developed by designer, Yusef Hassan, Calmly’s feature set is barely more robust than Notepad, but much more thoughtful.

Features include:

  • There is the choice between just two very legible fonts. No need to struggle for 10 minutes with finding just the right font for your mood. (Am I the only one who does this?)
  • No distracting tabs, toolbars or buttons. Focus only on your words and nothing else. Turn on focus mode and only see the sentence you are writing at that moment. Until you use it, you won’t understand what you’ve been missing all these years.
  • Open Dyslexic mode: Uses the font “OpenDyslexic” which includes weighted letter bottoms to indicate direction to help ease some of the symptoms for people with dyslexia.

Price: $2.99

Buy Here

Pomodoro Timer

Time tracking

I discovered this technique from a very savvy, lifehacking friend. One of the biggest issues I’ve faced while freelancing is working too damn much with no enough to show for my efforts. Designing can be very difficult and it’s easy to get carried away working through problems only to discover 3 hours later, you’re right where you started and even more confused.

Pomodoro’s goal is to get more done in less time by focusing for 25 minutes at a time then allowing for a short break to check email, social media, get a snack. It’s like going on a no-sugar diet. After 10 minutes, all you can think about is sugar and after 15 minutes you’ve eaten half a bag of chocolate chips.

All you need to do to get started is set the timer on your phone to 25 minites. Work. Take a 5 minute break. Do that a few times. Take a 10 minute break. Get lunch. Repeat.

Personally found the Pomodoro technique helpful to keep myself motivated and focused and somehow it makes the workday fly by. Try it for a few days and let me know what you think. I’ve

Pomodoro Technique


Screen Shot 2016-01-23 at 6.13.51 PM

Self Control App

When I open a new tab, unconsciously my fingers start typing in I am not particularly a Facebook fan. In fact, Facebook generally makes me more angry than anything elses so I consciously avoid it. I’ve deactivated my account, deleted the app from my phone and still I find myself typing in fa…… sometimes I abruptly stop myself, sometimes I don’t.

I’m an addict. No way around it.

But, I’ve found this wonderful tool that helps break the cycle. It’s called Self Control.

Self Control allows you to block distracting websites from yourself. I block all social media, a lot of news sites and my one guilty pleasure celebrity gossip blog. For a while, it’s rough but after 300 failed attempts, I usually learn my lesson and reluctantly get back to work.

Available on mac only:

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Drew Lepp is a UX/UI designer and founder of TimeKat, who aims to create online experiences that help make people happier and more productive. She lives in Washington, DC and enjoys inventing terrible dance moves, never cooking and taking videos of her forever kitten, Tiny Taco.