How-To: Turn Mac Parental Controls Into Productivity Boosters

Parental Controls in Snow Leopard (s aapl) are an absolute hit with parents, but the usefulness of those tools don’t just stop at the kids. From blocking websites to tracking time, they can also be used to increase your own personal productivity. Here’s how.

On my computer,  I have a normal “everything goes” user account that lets me browse and use applications unrestricted. Unfortunately, that means there are a lot of distractions. However, to focus on particular work, like my GigaOM writing, I also have a separate, writing-specific account. My writing account uses parental controls to lock down certain things, because I can’t always rely on my willpower to keep me focused.

Setting up parental controls is easy. First, create a new account for productivity.

  1. Go to System Preferences, and click the Accounts icon.
  2. Click the lock icon in the bottom left corner. An administrator authentication dialog box will appear. Enter your administrator account password so that you can make changes.
  3. Click the Accounts icon, then the (+) icon and then the New Account window will appear.
  4. Go to the drop down menu next to new account and choose “Managed with Parental Controls” from the list.
  5. Give the account a name of your choosing. You can set a password if you want, but the account is so limited I leave it blank.

Now it’s time to set the parental controls. Click on the account you just created, then on “Open Parental Controls.” You’ll be greeted with the System setting first. I turn on Simple Finder, which allows me to specify which apps appear in the Finder. Select only critical apps. For writing, I do it all on Google Docs, so I don’t really need many applications.  You might opt to turn on Microsoft Word (s msft) or Keynote depending on your own preferences. If I’m reviewing software, I’ll enable that application as well.

The next tab is Content. Click “Try to limit access to adult websites automatically” and then click customize. Under “Always Allow,” add websites you know you’ll be using for work. Under “Never Allow,” add time sinks such as Facebook, Twitter, Hulu and anything else that might be a distraction.

The third tab is Mail and iChat. Since I primarily use Gmail, mail isn’t as relevant for me. Whatever you use, I’d recommend against using email entirely if you want to be at your most productive. For iChat, specify a small list of “safe” contacts. In my case, it’s my editors and key sources for stories. That way I won’t get family and friends chatting with me while I’m in productivity mode.

For productivity the next tab, Time Limits, isn’t as relevant. It can be useful if you want to limit your time per day spend working to achieve a healthier work/life balance. It may not pay off directly in terms of productivity, but in the long run it’ll help the quality of your work improve.

Finally, there’s the Logs tab. I use it as a way to balance my writing with other tasks. It’s great for billing purposes, and to see how much time I put into a task. Like many freelance writers, I get paid by the column, not the hours worked. I can then review how much time I spent writing for the week or month and compare it to how much I earned. If you set up accounts for individual projects, you can switch between the accounts and get real-time logs of what you did and for how long, making for a great way of tracking your time that doesn’t require any additional software.

Mac-based office might think about implementing these tips if they want more control over how their employees use the work day. Of course, if the computer is your own, you can easily switch accounts to enable and disable restrictions. But if your desire to procrastinate is so bad that you keep switching accounts or pull out your iPhone to check Facebook, then you may just be beyond help.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub. req.):