1) Noisli: PC (Free) iPhone, Android (Paid)
You may have experienced “Irrelevant Speech Effect” without even knowing what is it. ISE is the disruption of serial recall of visually presented verbal material; in laymen’s terms, having trouble remembering a list of items when someone is talking to you.
This psychology theory was expanded into “Irrelevant Sound Effect,” or the cognitive ramifications of studying while listening to music. Academic studies have found that studying in silence resulted in higher cognitive performance compared to studying with music, be it soft or high intensity. As most students know, however, it’s almost impossible to find a silent study space, be it at home or on campus.
Which is where Noisli comes in.
Noisli is a background noise generator, allowing a user to mix and match sounds to improve their focus or productivity. Options include rain, wind, train tracks, and three types of white noise static.
The app helps productivity by providing white noise that can block out unwanted sounds or distractions while simultaneously allowing a person to focus.
Noisli also offers a café sound which mimics the murmurs and dish clattering found in a local Starbucks. Research has shown that moderate background noise (less than 70dbs) enhances creativity, encouraging people to “think at a higher, abstract level.” The same research also states that this level of ambient noise can entice purchasing of new, innovative products.
Best to not browse amazon as a study break.
2) Forest: Stay Focused. Chrome, Firefox, Android (Free), iPhone (Paid)
StayFocused is a Chrome web browser extension that can block distracting websites (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube). A user inputs the websites they wish to block and are thereby allowed a designated amount of time to browse before those sites are inaccessible.
This may be considered an extreme form of focusing to finish a product, but it doesn’t solve the distraction problem entirely.
Every student has a laptop and a cellphone. They may have a third device or even a fourth too. How can someone restrict distracting apps and websites on all their devices?
Cue Forest: Stay Focused (no relation to StayFocused).
The app uses gamification to discourage phone use by growing virtual trees. The goal is to build a lush forest which is accomplished by not leaving the app. Choose a type of plant to grow and an amount of time to focus. Leaving the app, to check twitter or answer an email, kills the plant. Complete the designated time and be rewarded coins that can unlock different types of trees.
Unlike the web extension StayFocused, a user can leave Forest at any point. There is an option on screen to ‘give up,’ but it reinforces that the current plant will die.
Forest: Stay Focused is ideal for a person who has some control over restricting their screen time. However, it may not be completely compatible on all devices – leaving the app could have no effect on the plant, defeating the purpose altogether. There is an option in the settings to allow greater phone monitoring, but it requires further permission.
3) Brain Focus: Productivity Timer. Android (Free)
Like Forest, Brain Focus is a timer app, but it doesn’t restrict phone use. Brain Focus utilizes the philosophy of taking breaks while working.
There is research stating that working on one task for excessive periods of time actually decreases performance due to lost focus. Taking breaks can boost productivity; a brief walk can recirculate blood to the brain; making a cup of tea can destress a person and give a dose of caffeine.
Continuous stimulation on one item can lead to sensory habituation – like how people lose the feeling of clothes on their skin. Therefore, the constant stimulation of an essay or lab report will eventually be registered as ‘unimportant’ in our brains to the point our brains ‘erases it from our awareness.’
Unlike Forest which relies on the user to start and stop focusing, Brain Focus gives soft orders. When the timer begins, the user will work for the time they set, then a small break will occur after the designated work time. The cycle repeats until the chosen ‘long break.’
The vanilla settings of Brain Focus are 25 minutes of work time, a 5 minute short break, and a 20 minute long break. It is 4 cycles before the long break, which would mean over two hours of productive work with a total of 40 minutes relaxing.
The app allows total customization of the timer settings. There is no set research on ideal time working and not working, so users are free to find what works best for them.
4) RescueTime. PC, Android (Free)
Ok, maybe Forest and Brain Focus didn’t help. Maybe you couldn’t stop yourself and needed to check Twitter. More likely, you were anxiously waiting for a specific email or text and couldn’t put your phone down. Totally understandable. Not everyone can go offline for long stretches of time.
Thankfully, there is an alternative productivity tool that will allow a user to stay online but likely decrease their distractions.
This software, which can be downloaded as a phone app or for PC/Mac, runs securely in the background to monitor activity. It tracks time spent on applications, software, and websites visited and produces easy to read data at the end of the day. Weekly summaries are also available.
The CEO of RescueTime states that awareness of where time is spent and wasted helps improve a user’s productivity by 10 per cent.
Features include goal setting, alarms, and website blocking as seen with StayFocused. There is even an ‘efficiency’ chart which tracks the per cent of time spent doing productive things.
The bread and butter of Rescuetime is how it allows a user to adjust. By seeing what they are doing, they can actively focus on completing more work or browsing less social media. Using this data, setting and achieving a realistic goal is certainly doable.
5) HabitBull. Android, iPhone (Free)
When you google ‘habits’, results are typically about breaking bad ones and not so much forming good ones. Which is fair; people would rather stop biting their nails than learning to play the piano.
But what about those who want to start something new? Maybe you want to start jogging but feel like you don’t have the time, or want wake up earlier but always hit snooze.
HabitBull is the perfect way to start!
The app is user friendly and very intuitive, so it’s easy to start simple and work your way up to tracking multiple habits. It also features forum boards were users can discuss their goals and share tips.
Habit formation is a three-step process: cue, routine, and finally reward. The reward is what the brain likes that helps it remember the habit loop so the cycle can continue. Decision making and pattern recognition are in two separate parts of the brain. Neuroscientists have stated that once a behaviour becomes automatic the brain starts working less and this newfound mental activity can be devoted elsewhere. It’s why some people may zone out while diving – it’s become automatic!
According to HabitBull (and research) forming a new habit takes an average of 66 days, or about 2 months. The app automatically makes 66 days the goal for any habit and as additional stats like per cent success and monthly averages.
Users can track habits by time or units (ex. I studied for 4 hours, I drank 3 litres of water). HabitBull helps with the first two steps of the habit loop and your brain will naturally take care of the reward!
6) Anki: Card Memorisation. PC, Mac, Android, iPhone (Free)
A hallmark of any college lecture is absorbing the material and then regurgitating it during a test. Cramming is a studying staple that feels impossible to escape from, especially when juggling other classes, assignments, sports, clubs, and some free time.
A 2009 study found that spaced learning was 90% more effective than cramming, yet 72% of participants thought cramming was a better method.
Spaced learning sounds pretty self-explanatory. Learn something once, come back to it a couple days later, repeat until exam. Right? Kind of, but there is a method to it. It’s best to not waste time going over material you already know.
Which is where Anki comes in.
The software in Anki adapts to the user. Once a flashcard set has been created, say English-Spanish translation cards, the user will be tested. Depending on how hard the user found answering the card, the software will adjust the amount of time the card will be repeated in studying. So, if it was difficult to recall an answer, the card may be shown one day later. If it was simple to recall the answer, the card may not show up until a week or two later.
Users can create their own cards or download packs from associated Anki sites. There are more than just traditional flashcards too, like the “Cloze” type. With a Cloze card the user will be presented text with missing pieces ("O say can you see [...] early light"), and must fill-in said piece.
Anki cards can be synced to AnkiWeb and accessed while on the go, perfect for long commutes!
7) Slack. PC, Android, iPhone (Free)
This may sound like an unnecessary mention. Why bother with a messaging system like Slack when most everyone is on Facebook and groups can just use Facebook Messenger?
A fair question, but Slack is a lot more efficient for group work than Messenger could ever hope to be.
First and foremost, Slack is miles ahead of messenger for file sharing. When working in a group project, a file might get shared several times over due to small, minute revisions. A group of students will probably get around this by using Google Docs, but the process is better with Slack.
Apps like DropBox and Google Docs can be integrated straight into Slack and the files will become searchable too.
Currently, only desktop Messenger has a search function. Slack, however, has search across its platforms and even has modifiers for easier finding. Slack also indexes file content so a user can search within said files with the Slack search bar.
Slack also has a tagging function where a user can be notified (e.g. @Taylor) in and out of the application, assuming notification are one. This is a great way of addressing a person in the group directly within the group chat.
Private direct messaging is also available, if you don’t want to speak publicly about a matter within the group.
Nobody likes group work, it’s the worst part of any academic career, but Slack will make it a little more bearable.
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Author: Elizabeth Esnard