An ability to focus and work deeply for an extended period is the holy grail for productivity nerds like me, reports Forbes.
It's a gauntlet Cal Newport threw down for us in his enjoyable book, Deep Work. He defines deep work as: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.
In case we're not convinced, Newport added, "These efforts create new value, improve your skill and are hard to replicate.”
I want that!
But it's difficult to enter this state without getting distracted by the lure of social media, the distracting dings from mobile devices and our own tendencies to procrastinate.
The good news is you can take three different approaches and cultivate this state faster. And apps available right now can help, and I've road-tested them.
Meditation is a useful practice for clearing your mind, learning how to deal with stress and practising the art of focus.
First, the good news: It doesn't take a lot of skills to learn meditation.
Meditation has many variations, but the most simple practice, known as vipassana, involves focusing on inhaling and exhaling for five, 10 or 20 minutes.
Now the bad news: Meditation demands extended practice to get results. And many teachers will tell you not to expect results!
If that sounds like a perplexing conundrum, consider Headspace, which offers guided meditations aimed at encouraging focus and conquering feelings of overwhelm.
The developers claim to have published 16 studies in the leading mindfulness peer-reviewed journals that show the impact of Headspace on health outcomes such as stress, focus and compassion.
More than one million people subscribe to this service. I joined three years ago, and I find Tony Puddicombe's voice oddly reassuring.
Listen To Instrumental Music
Rain falling. The sound of thunderstorms. Anything by Brian Eno.
There's something soothing about a repetitive sound drawn out over time.
If you're feeling anxious about a troublesome project, find an album on Spotify (or elsewhere) of instrumental or ambient music, don your headphones and turn up the volume.
(I recommend "Rain for Sleeping and Relaxation" by Joe Baker.)
If you still need help, consider Brain.fm.
Brain.FM plays melodies for the brain carefully crafted to encourage focus, relaxation and even sleep.
I use it when I want to write early drafts of book chapters or block a noisy coffee shop or office.
According to scientific papers available on the Brain.FM website, "Brain.fm uses algorithmically generated music to modulate cognitive states."
I've no idea what a modulated cognitive state should feel like, but the first time I tried this service, I forgot where I was because I became so engrossed in my work.
Have you ever started working on a difficult project like preparing a report or drafting a big presentation?
Then 15 minutes into this project you decide you need to research a new Excel trick, and while you're at it, who really died in the last Avengers movie?
Before you know it, you disappear down a rabbit hole of YouTube videos, Twitter moments and Reddit threads.
English academic and economist Richard Whatelyis turning is his grave. He knew a thing or two about the cost of lost time and once said, "Lose an hour in the morning, and you will spend all day looking for it."
According to the Freedom.com website, multitasking is "40% less productive" than single tasking.
Use this app to shut off internet access for predetermined periods like 30 or 60 minutes and work on one thing, without (gulp) internet access.
Alternatively if going offline feels too hardcore, Freedom can block access to certain sites like Twitter or Facebook.
Remember, Apps Will Take You Only So Far!
Although technology is sometimes a hindrance to productivity, it can also help you enter a state of flow.
These top productivity apps will help find that coveted state of deep work Newport described in his book, but YOU still need to actually do the work.
There's little point sitting on your cushion and listening to rain albums on repeat if you still don't meet that deadline.
In other words, consider apps like these as tools you can use to solve a particular problem, but don't rely on them solely to get the results you're after.
Remember, only you can push yourself to the limit.