The time management software that actually works

Your time is valuable and there are hundreds of tools that claim to help you make the most of it. Some are genuinely useful but others add needless complexity to your day, introducing new systems that force you to change the way you work rather than adapting to suit you.

It's hard to know which is which without experimenting with them all, so we've assembled a collection of the programs and web apps that will really help you become more productive.

If it feels like there just aren't enough hours in the day, this toolkit will enable you to prioritize jobs and focus all your attention on the tasks that really matter.

1. FocusWriter

Get into the flow and work without distractions

If your work involves writing, FocusWriter is the time management app you need in your life. There are lots of distraction-blocking word processors that promise to help manage your writing time, but FocusWriter has a killer feature that greys out everything except the paragraph, sentence or line you’re working on.

The default interface is a blank page tinted an eye-friendly beige, but you can customize it to something more inspiring if you prefer. Menus and other options can be brought into view by mousing over the edges of the page, but all temptations are otherwise hidden from view to help you get lost in your work.

FocusWriter also lets you set daily goals to help you keep on track with big tasks (though your progress is only visible if you move your mouse pointer to the bottom of the screen). If you’re the type who gets a kick out of in-game achievements, you can build up ‘streaks’ by achieving your goal consistently over a period of several days. 

If you do get absorbed in your work, you might need the occasional reminder to get up and stretch your legs. FocusWriter's time-managing tools can help there too, with alarms to give you a nudge when it’s time for a comfort break.

Download here: FocusWriter

2. RescueTime

Discover where every hour really went

Do you ever find yourself wondering where the time went? RescueTime could be the solution to your problems, helping you understand your behaviour and manage distractions.

It’s sometimes hard to be honest with ourselves about how much time we’re spending actually working. RescueTime monitors the time you spend in different websites and applications. The free version has everything you need for basic tracking and goal setting, including a weekly email report and access to three months of records.

If you want alerts throughout the day and tracking of time away from your desk, a premium subscription starts at US$ 6.75 per month (about £5, AU$ 8.50).

You can connect to RescueTime via a proxy server for improved security – a feature you won’t find in other similar tools – and everything is easily accessible via a web-based dashboard.

Download here: RescueTime

3. Focus at Will

Custom music and ambient sound to boost concentration

Stephen King claims to work best listening to Metallica and his prolific output suggests he’s onto a winner, but if you haven’t figured out your own working soundtrack, Focus at Will is here to help. It’s a music service that delivers a custom playlist specially designed to help improve your concentration, and its creators claim it can make you up to four times more productive by helping you achieve a ‘flow state’.

There are over 50 channels, and the tool will suggest which one will best suit your personality based on a quick quiz. Your playlist becomes more personal over time based on the way you use it.

It might sound strange, but it’s the work of experienced musicians assisted by a scientific advisory board including neuroscientists and psychiatrists.

Focus at Will is neither free nor cheap – subscriptions start at US$ 9.90 per month – but there’s a 30-day money-back guarantee and you can cancel your subscription any time if you change your mind.

Try it here: Focus at Will

4. Todoist

Get a custom schedule of tasks delivered each morning

Ticking off items on a to-do list is hugely satisfying, and is a time-honored way to manage your time and get more done during the day.

Todoist is a simple but effective tool for desktop and mobile that lets you set recurring events and essential one-off tasks, and check them off once they're complete. You'll receive a schedule of jobs at the start of each day (unless you choose not to), enabling you to plan your time effectively. 

Tasks are collected in groups called 'Projects', though these might be more accurately called 'Activities'. The default options include shopping, personal, errands and work, and you can add or edit them to suit you.

Some features are exclusive to the premium version, and unfortunately you won’t always know until you try to select one, but the free version has plenty of tools to help you achieve more every day.

If you're looking for a more heavy-duty tool for tasks with multiple parts and deadlines, take a look at Trello. It's generally a better tool for business use, whereas Todoist is perfect for your own personal tasks.

Try it here: Todoist

5. Simple Blocker

A brute force method of avoiding sites that devour your time

When you’re working, of course you’re not going to start checking Facebook, YouTube, Twitter or any of those other attention-sapping distractions. Not intentionally, anyway.

Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to click a link without realising it leads to a tweet, or post on a site you’re trying to avoid. Whether it's a link a colleague has included in an email or a suggestion shared on Slack, an innocuous click can lead you down a rabbit hole of time-wasting.

Simple Blocker is a browser extension for Chrome that helps you take back control of your time by halting URLs at the domain level, so there’s no chance of accidentally straying onto a site that’s likely to draw your attention away from the job at hand.

Download here: Simple Blocker

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