Softwire Side Projects: Build Focus


16 March 2016, by

At Softwire we have lots of people with interesting side projects, for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes you want a playground to learn strange and wonderful new things, perhaps you’d like to try out some unusual tech we can’t easily use day to day, and often it just feels good to test yourself with fun new kinds of problems.

In this post, I want to look at a side project I’ve released recently: Build Focus, a productivity tool I’ve built to help you improve your focus and avoid all the distactions and demands for your attention that the internet creates.

The Build Focus website

The Internet is a Distraction

A lot of the internet is actively designed to steal your attention and time. Twitter, Facebook, most news sites, and every app you use are doing all they can to keep you engaged, so you habitually and instinctively spend your time and energy with them, instead of doing whatever you really want to be doing (like getting things done). There’s a whole range of techniques behind this, particularly drawing from the tricks that make slot machines so addictive to help make apps like Farmville as compelling as possible and to lead you towards habitually constantly checking Facebook.

All of this is a bit concerning, and the effects and problems it creates have been debated and discussed all over the place. I’d like to find a solution to this, and I’m particularly interested in whether it’s possible to use the same techniques that these sites use to distract you, but flip them around, to reward you for concentrating rather than getting distracted, and thereby addict you to focusing and getting things done.

Gamification for Good

Enter Build Focus. Build Focus is a city simulator (because building city simulators is fun), wrapped around a pomodoro timer. If you focus for 25 minutes then your city will expand or upgrade, but if you get distracted during that time (by opening Facebook, or any other distracting URL you’ve added) a random building is destroyed. It’s essentially gamified concentration.

It’s also remarkably effective; I’ve been using this myself for months, and found it impressively good at molding my day-to-day habits, and I’ve also got a few hundred early users, of whom 20 or so use Build Focus almost every single day.

This is a free Chrome extension (a strange and wonderful environment I’d never normally work in), it’s written in TypeScript (as a chance to build a whole project with a language a little outside the norm), and opens a huge range of interesting problems I haven’t looked at before: from simulating realistic traffic, to doing my own product marketing. It’s neatly ticking off everything I look for in a side project, and I’d highly recommend finding similar projects and challenges yourself.

For now Build Focus is still in private alpha, so if you want to give it a go you’ll need to sign up for early access at www.buildfocus.io. I’m iterating on user feedback to steadily improve the design though, and I’m aiming to have it publically available to the whole world in the next few months. Watch this space!

Are you interested in playing with different solutions to problems like this too? Do you have your own side projects? Send us yours on Twitter, or leave a comment below.

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