12 Top Zen Apps to Keep You Focused

Perhaps every once in a while we should all dip a calming toe into a simpler working life. That’s the idea behind zenware—offbeat software applications that deliberately eschew the busy, complex interfaces that most of us tend to use all the time.

Jeffrey MacIntyre, in an article for Slate last week, created an interesting argument for what he dubs zenware. In it, he says you and the rest of us software users have “paved over every spare pixel in an iconistan of clutter.” If this rings a familiar note, perhaps a review of some of the better zenware applications, many of which are free and available for Windows or Mac OS X, is in order.

Widgets, wizards, gadgets, icons, docks and system trays abound in today’s software landscape. Among applications that deliberately try to free you from all of the clutter, many are designed to keep you looking just at what you’re working on, minus interface distractions. In my opinion, word processing is a particularly optimized task for a zenware approach. There are several good word processors that reach for this goal, and my favorite one (for Windows) is DarkRoom.

DarkRoom (see the document in the screenshot below) is a port of the popular zenware word processor for the Mac called WriteRoom. Both of these word processors present you with a stripped-down interface designed to keep you focused on the text you’re working on and little else. You can also see a lot of text on screen at one time. WriteRoom is good, but DarkRoom is free, and WriteRoom now costs $24.95.

If you like DarkRoom, you may want to give JDarkRoom a try. It is a Java-based, cross-platform version of a zenware word processor. I use it on an Asus Eee PC, which runs Linux, because the Asus systems have small 7-inch screens and JDarkRoom looks much better on it than a cluttered word processor.

Some applications are not designed from the ground up as zenware, but they give you interface choices that remove lots of the clutter you usually see. Scrivener, for example, bills itself as a “writing studio” and you can choose to write in a Full Screen mode in it that presents you with just the text you’re working on, in classic zenware fashion. It’s for Mac OS X and it costs $39.95.

While on the topic of zenware as an interface choice, keep in mind that hitting F11 in either the Firefox browser or Internet Explorer will strip away menus and toolbars for a Full Screen view. That’s an on-the-fly zenware trick.

Running scads of applications at any one time is an anti-zenware practice. If you do this a lot and you’re on a Mac, try Spirited Away, a free download that automatically hides an application if it hasn’t been used for a set amount of time. If you’re a Windows user, Swept Away is a similar product for Windows that automatically minimizes an application to the system try if you haven’t used it recently.

Windows users may also like Dropcloth, which darkens out everything on your screen except what you’re currently working on (it’s free). Backdrop is a similar free utility for the Mac.

Do you give a lot of presentations? If so, and you’re a Mac user, you can take a zenware approach to them with Desktopple Pro a $17 application that will automatically, temporarily strip all your desktop icons away for a clutter-free desktop view.

Finally, in MacIntyre’s Slate article, he discusses AlphaXP Lite (Windows) and MenuShade (Mac), which change the transparency of windows and menu bars for a more zen-like presentation. As you can see, there are many ways to free yourself from desktop clutter. For more on zenware writing tools, see Leo’s previous post.

Do you use any of these applications or any other zenware applications? Do you find zenware to be anti-evolutionary?