July 21, 2016
By Julia Mossbridge, MA, Ph.D., “Dr. Julia”
Science Director, Focus@Will labs
Note: This is part one of a series of posts examining how the focus tool Focus@Will works, based on a recent series of experiments performed with the participation of Focus@Will subscribers.
Coffee, sleep, standing at our desks, exercise, meditation, music – the list of tools we use to help ourselves reach mental clarity and focus is diverse and growing more diverse by the day, especially if you include recent advances in pharmaceuticals (complete with scary side effects).
Which focus tool to choose? The one that works for us, of course. But how do we know what really works? What if drinking coffee makes us feel like we’re more focused but actually we’re just more anxious? What if exercising gives more energy so we feel focused, but we’re not?
Many of us take it on faith that we are correct in our ability to sense our own focus level, but it’s worth checking out whether our own experience of mental focus (called “self-reported” focus) really matches anything related to task effectiveness. Subscribers to Focus@Will, which offers background audio scientifically designed to improve mental focus, swear that playing the audio in the background helps them focus. They report large increases in productivity. But that could easily be a placebo effect, and we wanted to find out if it was.
Is self-reported focus really linked to performance? And what if any music would help people feel more focused, not just Focus@Will’s audio tracks? In order to discover the answers to these questions, we needed a bunch of research participants. To our delight more than 900 new Focus@Will subscribers offered to help out. Of these, about 300 did an extended series of experiments that allowed us to examine self-reported focus and performance on a series of tests. About half of these 300 listened to music while they did a bunch of tasks we set out for them, the other half listened to their favorite Focus@Will channel. Then about half of those did everything again – those who listened to Focus@Will the first time now listened to music, and vice versa.
We learned two important things from these experiments. First, when people were listening to Focus@Will as they did the tasks, they reported significantly more mental focus than when they listened to their own music (including some music from other focusing services). We got this result twice, for the group of people who started out listening to Focus@Will and then switched to music, and for the group who did the experiments in the opposite order. Regardless of order, Focus@Will gave the best self-reported focus ranking (see figure showing average data from each group in each experiment).
These people were from all over the world and were also new to Focus@Will, so we don’t think they had some kind of agenda to rank Focus@Will higher on their focus scale. We weren’t completely surprised by this outcome, because we have already heard from thousands of Focus@Will users who have told us that they feel more focused listening to Focus@Will in the background than they do when they listen to regular music. Now we wondered if could we trust these subjective reports of increased productivity and focus.
It turns out we could. In both the first and second experiments, the self-reported focus rankings matched performance on a fairly difficult logic test (Test of Logical Thinking, Tobin & Capie, 1981). The test had questions like, “In a new Shopping Center, 4 store locations are going to be opened on the ground level. A BARBER SHOP (B), a DISCOUNT STORE (D), a GROCERY STORE (G), and a COFFEE SHOP (C) want to move in there. Each one of the stores can choose any of 4 locations. One way that the stores could occupy the 4 locations is BDGC. List all other possible ways that the stores can occupy the 4 locations.” So it took some thinking.
What we found was that the higher a person’s self-reported focus, the better the performance on this logical-thinking task. In other words, when people felt they were more focused, this correlated with objective evidence for better mental focus, even on a fairly difficult task.
What does this mean? Trust yourself and your ability to determine whether you are mentally focused. You’re probably right, so listen to your own wisdom about the tools that work for you. Also, it means Focus@Will is doing what we thought it was doing – helping people focus!
I will discuss how Focus@Will influenced performance on other tasks in the next several blog posts (see next post here), and I’ll also talk about what this means about how your brain is changing when you use Focus@Will, so stay tuned!
NOTE: While writing this blog post, I kept focused on my work via the scientifically designed Hand Drums and Hums audio channel, one of many such channels created by Focus@Will labs.
About Julia Mossbridge:
I am a parent of a 16-year old composer and a partner to a wonderful human being. I give talks about work engagement, authenticity, and aliveness. I am working on changing the culture of Silicon Valley to move it toward a greater appreciation of the gifts of being human (watch a video of me giving an hour-long talk on this topic). I am the author of Unfolding: The Science of Your Soul’s Work, and my upcoming book co-authored with Imants Baruss, Transcendent Mind: Re-thinking the Science of Consciousness, will be released by the American Psychological Association in August 2016. I am also the Science Director at Focus@Will Labs, Director of the Innovation Lab and a Staff Scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and a Visiting Scholar in Psychology at Northwestern University.
Tobin, K. G., & Capie, W. (1981). The development and validation of a group test of logical thinking. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 41(2), 413-423.