Time Out Free: A Small Step Toward Healthier Computer Use

If you’re reading this article then in all likelihood you spend a significant amount of time on your Mac, whether for work or play. However, while the increasing digitization of the modern world has led to real tangible benefits such as unparalleled communication, the easy spread of ideas and, of course, Lolcats, there is a more harmful side to heavy computer use and that is the effect it can have on our health.

These health risks often present themselves with issues such as back pain, RSI (or repetitive strain injury) and an increased risk of cardiovascular problems. In an ideal world, we’d simply not work so much and go outside and enjoy some exercise but since this is not always possible, there’s Time Out Free.

All Things In Moderation

Clearly, too much time spent using a computer is likely to impact your health eventually, but when deep in concentration and tapping away at the keyboard, it’s difficult to emember to take a breather and an app like Time Out Free, which prompts such a break, can be very useful. Designed by Dejal, Time Out Free takes a two-pronged approach to ensuring you have that all important rest, making use of both Micro Breaks and longer Normal Breaks.

Micro Breaks

Time Out Free's Micro Breaks ensure that even the busiest amongst us can remember take a momentary rest

Time Out Free's Micro Breaks ensure that even the busiest amongst us can remember take a momentary rest

Time Out Free’s Micro Breaks are an interesting take on the problem of finding time to take a break, the basic premise being that even a very short twenty second rest will encourage a change of position and allow ones muscles to adopt a different posture, thus helping to minimize some of the worst effects of RSI and a myriad of related maladies.

By default, the breaks are scheduled as shown in the above screenshot but this is as easy to change as heading to Time Out Free’s Preferences and selecting the Micro-Break preference pane. Though the breaks seem to come quite quickly when getting stuck into some work, I didn’t personally find them too distracting or annoying, in part due to the ability to reschedule or skip inconvenient breaks with the press of a button.

Normal Breaks

Normal Breaks enable one to take a proper break from the computer

Normal Breaks enable one to take a proper break from the computer

In addition to frequent Micro Breaks, Time Out Free also recommends that you make use of Normal Breaks, which by default are set to enable the user to work for fifty minutes out of each hour, with the remaining ten minutes taken up with a break which one can use to get up, stretch, go and make a coffee or whatever else you might do when not working. This default setting was a little too much for my liking, so I instead changed the work schedule to fifty five minutes with a break of just five minutes.

Help Or Hindrance?

Time Out Free's timeout screen is simple and functional, allowing one to skip a break if desired

Time Out Free's timeout screen is simple and functional, allowing one to skip a break if desired

The very nature of an application like Time Out Free ensures that it’s going to rub some people the wrong way and serve to irritate, rather than relax. However, though at first I found Time Out Free interrupted my workflow, I soon re-adjusted to the regular rhythm of short Micro Breaks and longer Normal Breaks until I even the routine helpful and conducive to good concentration over a longer time frame.

Idling unobtrusively in the background while you work, after the set period of time, Time Out’s whiteout screen will slowly fade-in over a number of seconds and thus allow the user to anticipate an impending break and finish off any incomplete sentences or images. Once fully visible, the Time Out screen prevents you from working, but crucially still allows the break to be skipped or rescheduled for one minute, five minutes or ten minutes, depending on the type of break.

Dejal have included several well thought out options for the user to get stuck into in order to more fully customize several aspects of the Time Out Free experience. These include options for setting the app to launch automatically on login, the ability to exclude Time Out Free when a certain app is in the foreground (handy to ensure uninterrupted Minecraft playing, for example) and the playing of music, in addition to launching an AppleScript for the more technically inclined.

A small quibble is the absence of a menubar icon or being able to banish Time Out’s Dock icon, though this functionality may well eventually find its way into future updates of the app.

Conclusion

Time Out Free is not an app which will be useful for everyone, but those who do find it helps wrangle their workflow into healthy and creativity-helping chunks will, like me, consider it indispensable. For this reason, in addition to it being offered free of charge (with no advertisements), I feel that it warrants a very high score.

Dejal appears to have some big plans for Time Out and a look at the developer’s website offers some details which include three separate editions of Time Out 2, configured especially for OS X Lion and Mountain Lion – two of these will be paid apps, while Time Out Free will continue to be offered free of charge.


Summary

Time Out Free can help alleviate or even prevent the harmful effects of overly-heavy computer use. Well designed, intuitive and free, there's a lot to like about this diminutive app.

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