A fascinatingly simple method for getting focussed (and the science behind it)

focusatwillIf you are urgently looking for a way get focussed right now, just head over to focus@will and everything will fall in place. If you want to read my quick story, read on.

I am almost a bit embarassed to admit that I only found out now just how much it helps to listen to music while working. More specifically, it helps me to get (and stay) focussed. Until last week, I tended to frown at all those hipsters with their headphones on while working on their laptops MacBooks. Like: “Yeah, as if listening to your favourite music is going to help you focus…”

Turns out, I was so wrong (but also a little bit right). Wrong, because I’m now listening to music while I work and it is incredible how much it helps me to focus. Right, because I’m not listening to my favourite music.

As an academic, I always have an open ear for scientific arguments and when I learned the mechanism behind why listening to music helps you focus, I got curious: Basically, the theory goes like this: when our brain is focussed on a specific task or goal, it eventually gets used to that goal and it becomes increasingly boring. It’s called “goal habituation”. So what happens is that your brain is starting to “look for” something new and more exciting than that task that it’s been looking at for half an eternity (read: 10 minutes?). So that’s when you start checking your phone or remember that you really need to add something to your shopping list.

And this is where the background music comes in: listening to (the right) music apparently keeps your brain just busy enough to not get bored but not too busy so that you are distracted. In other words, it prevents (or perhaps: mitigates the effects of?) goal habituation.

The trick is that the music has to be such that you neither particularly like it nor dislike it.

It sounds plausible, doesn’t it. So I got curious and tried out focus@will  last Friday and was baffled how well it worked. I got so much done! I had achieved similar states of flow before and without music, but those were special moments, when something really cought my attention and no other important things were on my mind.

But I decided not to believe this until it worked multiple times. So I turned it on on Monday too and it worked just as well. And so it did on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and right now (Friday again). So I am confident now to say: this really works for me.

In fact, I’ve almost become addicted (in the good sense): I now sometimes find myself craving to get back to my desk, turn on the music, and get flowing again.

I combine focus@will with the PomodoroTechnique, which means that I now consider any 30 minute slot between two scheduled things a slot in which I can get something done, instead of thinking: “oh well, I only have 30 minutes, it’s not worth working on that article because by the time I get started, I have to stop again.” Now I say: “Yippieh, 30 minutes, that’s perfect to do one flow-pomodoro session” and off I go.

Another advantage with the focus music might be that colleagues will learn: when s/he is listening to music, s/he is working working hard and doesn’t like to be interrupted.

Okay, enough for today. I’ll update this post if my opinion about flow@will changes. In the mean time, please let me know if I’m the only one who is so fascinated with this tool or if you have similar experiences. More importantly: if you feel it’s not working for you, please leave a comment so that this review get’s some necessary balance.

Also, I’m wondering if anyone manages to achieve a similar effect with a Spotify playlist (or their 1980s mixtape, for that matter). If you are already paying for Spotify (I don’t), it might be worth trying one of their ambient or chill playslists first…

 

UPDATE1: After two months, I am still using focus@will, but not as often anymore. I’m not sure whether this is because I’m getting tired of it or because I have just had so much to do in the past couple of weeks, that I was constantly focused anyway. I guess it also depends on my mood, some days background music is just the right thing while on others, I just want quietness.

UPDATE2: About 7 months later, I am still using focus@will occasionally but the past months I have been pretty busy with teaching and administrative tasks where I don’t need the kind of deep focus, or rather: it doesn’t help me when I have a lot of smaller tasks to do. I do have one gripe with focus@will though, and it somewhat upsets me that they don’t seem to care about fixing this: when you listen to the same channel for several hours (the other day I was on it for more than four hours in the morning and then another four hours in the afternoon) you get to hear the same stuff multiple times. I told them months ago and considering the price tag, I would expect something better. But they haven’t fixed it.

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