Our brains are designed to pay attention to novelty in our environment: at the most basic level, early in our evolution, novelty often meant danger — a predator approaching in the forest, say, or a severe storm approaching. So even as you’re focusing on a task, some portion of your brain is still busy scanning the environment for change, even when those changes are not likely to signify life-threatening conditions. If your brain is easily alerted, it can make it difficult to focus your attention.
One way to soothe the brain’s alert system is by adjusting factors in your environment. People who are easily visually distracted, for instance, often need to completely clear their desk or work surface, or draw curtains closed to avoid light changes caused by clouds or passing cars.
For myself, I’ve found that adjusting the sounds in my working environment make a huge difference in my productivity. I’ve written before about using white noise generators to promote a good environment for sleeping or for focusing. I’ve also reviewed Noisli, which combines white noise with a distraction-free writing environment. And in a holiday post a few years ago, I mentioned my favorite binaural beat CD, Jeffrey Thompson’s Music for Brainwave Massage.
Focus at Will
Recently, I’ve been trying a new music service, Focus at Will. This service provides an array of music channels specifically designed to help your brain enter into and stay in a focused state of concentration for up to 100 minutes at a stretch (although individual concentration times vary — most people will find that 20, 30, or 45 minute blocks of time work best). In an interview on Jeff Sanders’s 5 AM Miracle podcast, Will Henshaw, the creator of Focus at Will (who was also a founding member of Londonbeat), explains that the music played on the site has been written or edited to avoid sounds that the brain tends to find distracting, so there are no tracks with vocals, or even instruments that sound a lot like the human voice. (He also discusses some of their research findings and how this research drives the development of the site.)
This music is designed to be listened to at low volume, as background for focused concentration. The research behind the design of these tracks drives their recommendations for users, which include the non-intuitive suggestion that you should pick a style of music that is different from what you would normally listen to for pleasure. The idea is to pick music that will let your brain focus, rather than draw your attention away from your work. The available styles range from classical, ambient, chillout and uptempo electronica, cinematic, baroque, and acoustical muisc, as well as water sounds. A Labs section offers additional styles, including cafe sounds and drums-only channels. The site also currently offers one channel specifically designed for people with ADHD.
What also can seem non-intuitive at first is that you should select a channel that matches your brain’s current energy state. If, for example, you tend to feel speedy or highly distracted, then selecting faster music will provide better results. The best speed and style of music for you will vary depending on the time of day, your fatigue level, how much caffeine you’ve had, and your natural brain patterns. Different music channels have different default patterns — the acoustic or alpha chill channels play music that tends to be slower paced than the uptempo channel. Additionally, you can set the energy level to Low, Medium, or High for each of the musical channels, allowing you to fine tune the energy of the music to your particular mental state.
You can sign up for a free 15-day trial of the site (and, judging from my experience, you’ll get an offer for a discounted rate on a membership if you sign up within that time). A full priced membership is $11.83/month, with a discount if you purchase a full year at a time. Three month gift memberships are also available.
I’ve found Focus at Will to be of great help for me in creating an environment for concentrated work, particularly at times of day when I’m more likely to be distracted. I tend to listen to the Drums and Hums or Uptempo channels, even though these are somewhat similar to my preferred genres of music, because I found they offered the best level of stimulation for my brain. (That’s probably why I tend to listen to EDM anyway). I haven’t been listening with headphones, although I imagine that would provide an even more concentrated environment. I also don’t use it all the time, preferring to use it only for certain tasks or at certain times of day. For certain kinds of writing, for example, I prefer to listen to my own music; but for coding or editing, Focus at Will has been tremendously helpful for me. Your mileage will vary, which is why the trial period is so beneficial, since it may take a little experimenting to find the channels and settings that work for you.
How do you use music to help your productivity? Let us know in the comments!
[Creative Commons licensed photograph by Flickr user Barbara Walsh]Return to Top