Struggling to focus? Find what works for you
Don't fall for articles suggesting "THIS ONE THING ALWAYS WORKS" or the "MUST DO TECHNIQUE USED BY ALL CEOS"... Finding things that work for you takes a bit of exploration and support.
Sitting at a desk, rain splashing against the window, with your headphones on and chewing a pencil whilst your cat sleeps quietly in the corner.
I could be describing the average freelancer working from home, or the Lofi Beats girl.
If you’ve not met her yet, ChilledCow’s lofi hip hop radio – beats to relax/study to is a youtube channel which has been streaming endless lofi music on Youtube for years, with over 20M subscribers, and tens of thousands of listeners every day. The channel orginally used a Studio Ghibli character Shizuku Tsukishima from Whisper of the Heart on an endless loop, showing the girl studying or writing, but now curates illustrations by independent artists.
The channel has grown to become an youtube stalwart, and whilst the illustrations are always beautiful, its really all about the music - an infinite playlist of calm, lofi music which just sort of helps everything else drift away, ideal for relaxing, studying or working.
Lofi hiphop or chillhop is a form of downtempo music, and whilst its roots are firmly in the 1950s/1970s with a low quality home-made aesthetic, in more recent years it has found found mass popularity with youtubers, and increasingly in the pandemic, as people were looking to balance the anxiety and unrelenting stress of the lockdown with something a little calmer, background music for the weary.
Reddit observers comment: "I remember someone once calling it a popular modern form of ambient music, which is honestly a pretty good comparison. The repetition of a simplistic beats and jazzy melodies are easy to make and lead to some very effective wallpaper music. Most of the genre requires very little active listening and is easy on the ears, so people like throw it on in the background while studying or browsing the internet.”
Within music purists, there’s lots of hate towards the genre, and its saturation across the internet probably adds to the distaste from a critical level - yet, the numbers of hours listened cannot be disputed.
But does it have beneficial effects to focus?
Engadget’s Tim Seppela deep dive into lofi’s effects states: "good focus music has no vocals, no strong melodies, 'dark' spectrum, dense texture, minimal salient events, heavy spatialization, a steady pulse, sub-30-200Hz modulation and above 10-20Hz modulation.”
Yes, there’s real science behind how music modifies our brains ability to focus on a task.
Both Seppela’s article and Elisabeth Sherman’s Elemental go into the various studies which have shown the positive effects different types of music have on our mind’s ability to focus, and get into a state of flow.
"Victor Szabo, at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia explains that lo-fi and ambient music can make the listener feel secure, because this type of music often features looping or sustained sounds or tones that allow the brain to 'easily predict on a subconscious level how it will continue to sound.’"
It's almost as if it’s giving our brain some time off, by not having to figure out or be attentive to what might be coming next.
Lofi isn’t the only genre people choose for music to focus to. Long before the pandemic, but again popularised during - websites where you can listen to background noise of coffee shops, waves crashing against the beach, the hum of a French bistro or chatter from colleagues in an office to help fill out the quiet, and perhaps combat some of the feelings of being isolated and apart from others, when we had no other choice. Some offer long pre-recorded soundscapes like coffitivity.com from locations around the world. Some allow you to mix your ideal background noise like noisli.com and some platforms go a step further to use AI to generate infinite soundscapes, such as brain.fm.
Brain.fm has taken a science first approach to designing sound with the specific intention of encouraging focus, relaxation or sleep. It’s music designed to be effective at promoting the state you want, rather than hoping to find a tune which works for you.
I’ve started using brain.fm, and it has without doubt radically improved my ability to focus on a task for a period of time. I know I’ve always worked better when listening to music, especially music without lyrics and a consistent beat, setting myself a task and getting lost in it has felt so much easier with brain.fm, in fact, it’s led me to being so immersed, I’ve been late for meetings or overrun into my time for doing other things.
Whilst the brain.fm team have patents and plenty of science behind their business, there’s still plenty of debate over whether sound or silence is better for focus. Some research suggests that any sort of noise is distracting to the brain and adds cognitive load. Other research shows the benefits of noise to increase creativity.
There’s never going to be a single magical solution for helping your focus and motivation, so finding your own tools and techniques to create periods of time where you can be in deep-work without distraction is essential.
Matt D says: I tend to have the TV on. I like the distraction, particularly if I’m writing. My brain needs to be a zone where it’s not thinking about the thing I’m thinking about (if that makes sense). If I’m in the office, it’s not my office, so I have to listen to whatever they’re listening to. Unless I get my way, in which case it is always ALWAYS 80's tinged yacht rock.
Steph says: It varies. If I'm writing either silence or (if the neighbours are being distracting) classical musical or music in a language I don't know - nothing with lyrics I can understand. If I'm strategising or plotting, tends to be music I love and that fits my mood either on vinyl or on CD (or digital if I'm on headphones away from home). When I'm making tea I have my kitchen radio set to 80s pop, something I can dance to while the tea is brewing, during lockdown it became a habit to sneak regular short bursts of exercise in and it's stuck. Oh and I wake up to BBC 6 music, which I'll put back on later in the day if I'm doing more admin based stuff, any tasks where talking doesn't distract me.
Maria says: Silence... I need pin drop silence to work
Laura says: Whatever I listen to can’t have lyrics. Having said that’s if I’m working late on something fairly dull I do occasionally treat myself to cheesy 90s pop full blast on the headphones to get me through.
Jamie says: My ambient background noise is 2 babies under the age of 2, from 8am til 4pm. So if I put my headphones on and listen to 8 hours of White Noise on youtube, then its already an improvement! Otherwise really loving Acid Techno right now from Dave-The-Drummer (if anyone is old school enough to know whom he is). Just the progressive nature of acid techno helps me progress steadily through the day, until I have to take my headphones off and listen to my grown up kids all evening!
Karthik says: Early mornings when I start work I prefer the sounds of nature - birds chirping, trees swaying in the wind and so on. As the day proceeds further the need for music comes in, and the type of music I prefer depends on the work I do.
So, it really does vary depending on your personal preferences and own needs - take the time to explore and figure out what works for you. Here are our five tips to finding your own productivity playlists:
Try different things out - working for yourself is a constant learning experience, just because you’ve always worked in a certain way doesn’t mean it’s the only solution. Experiment with different approaches and see what works better or worse. Use your journal to capture what you discover.
Different styles of work require different styles of approach - not all work is deep-focus work, sometimes you need to be open to inspiration from outside of your head too. Consider when you need to be in deep-focus and what sound you use for that, and how that might be different for other settings, such as reading or relaxation.
Don’t aim for constant productivity - no-one can nor should sustain a sense of deep-work and productivity all day, we need breaks, we need variation, we need to mix it up. If you’re using sound as a way to eek out every possible hour, it’s never going to be effective. Try setting yourself ‘bursts’ of productive time, and understand your energy levels to maximise when you work and when you rest.
Make most of headphone-on mode - if you’re looking to really make the most of sound, it’s useful to have headphones which help immerse into it. Consider over-ear headphones rather than in-ear, and noise-cancelling can help too. Headphones can also be a really useful visual signifier that you’re ‘busy’ and not to be disturbed. Communicate to others that when your headphones are on, you’re in work mode.
Don’t rely upon digital - don’t forget there’s a whole world of real life sound, music and conversation out there. Whilst deep work and focus is essential, so is connection, conversation and mindfulness. Make sure you’re balancing your headphones on time with your eyes up and listening to the real world time.
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