Music to Work By

music to work by focus bluefeet Lilli Cloud meditation


I peed my pants up until the time I was six years old. I was engrossed – in play. Playing something too important, too fascinating, too-in-the moment to be interrupted for something as mundane as a call of nature.

Oh, to be that focused as an adult.

Before I started meditating, the only thing that would get me to “oblivious-to-the-screaming-bladder state” was writing. That is, after I finally straightened all the toiletries, made the bed and checked email 35 times in one hour. Then, I would finally settle down and actually write.

With meditation, I’ve cultivated my concentration powers to a surprising level over the better part of the decade. I was once at a live theater production and at the intermission the woman next to me apologized for coughing so much. I had not heard any coughing. I was thoroughly engrossed in the play. Once, after proclaiming the benefits of meditation to colleagues, I ended up with a parking ticket. I was so focused on work that when the alarm went off to alert me to feed the meter, I shut it down without even realizing until it was too late.

But not all days are like that, and settling down and getting right to work can add hours of productive time. So lately I’ve been listening to music while I work. This is surprising me. I’ve always preferred silence to just about anything. I absolutely could not study with music or TV like so many of my peers. Even worse, the 24-hour cable news on the office TV.

According to an article in Scientific American, background or low-level noise often disrupts concentration and can even disrupt one’s capacity to think clearly and retain information.

And then there’s high-level noise, where someone is standing outside your work area chatting away like they’re at a party.

I love the energy and activity of the co-work space we moved to late last year. But the trade-off is that activity and energy is sometimes right outside my office.

But now I have “scientifically optimized music” from Focus@Will, and I even pay for it.

I’ve tried music in the past, chant, classical, jazz. Music I’ve already paid for. Free radio online.

But I’m choosing to pay for Focus@Will – about $100/year – and I think it’s worth it. (For the record, they are not paying me for this. They don’t even know I’m writing about them.)

There’s an entire section on their website that explains the science, but in a nutshell:

“The trick is occupying your brain just enough to let you work, but feeding your brain novel stimuli at just the right times so that you don’t try to seek novelty by distracting yourself. It turns out listening to music while you work can do the trick.”

Italics mine – this novelty is also known as checking email, walking down the hall to get coffee, checking email, reading social media, answering a text, having a quick conversation with a colleague, checking email, answering another text… you get the picture.

Focus@will also says:

“…it is best to use music that workers neither like nor dislike…” Because if you like the music, that means you’ll want to give your attention to it.

“…music with lyrics is distracting…” This is absolutely true, although I find that music in a foreign language less distracting than music in my own language.

I’m willing to admit that correlation does not imply causation. Perhaps it’s not the music that makes me focus better. It could be that:

  • I think the music designed in partnership with neuroscientists should make me focus, and so I do.
  • The act of plugging in and tuning out could create a Pavlovian response to focus.
  • The fact that I paid for it means I damn well better focus because it’s costing me money.

That’s okay. I’ll take it. Whether it’s actually the music or not, I’m having more extended periods of focus and – bonus points! – I feel less fatigued after a long day of focus periods.

No doubt this comes from not having to use my brain to tune out external stimuli. Instead of constantly scanning for incoming, my brain is tied up with music, but just enough so I can focus on where I need to be. Here. Right. Now.

I think it’s working. I got this essay written!

What do you use to improve focus?