As a writer, I’m obsessed with my ability to focus. As a student, you should be too. Whether writing application essays, dissertations, or novels, the ability to sit down and work without distraction is vitally important to producing good work. PhD students know this better than anyone. You can’t write well (if at all) when your iPhone is chirping every ten seconds and your roommate is binging Netflix across the room.
Of course, you know this already. That’s why you study in the library, right?
But what if you could get more out of your study time? What if you could improve your focus, remember more, write more fluently, and finish your session feeling fresher than you started? A striking proposal, no? We’re all looking for an edge, after all.
I first contemplated this notion after reading Deep Work by the luminous Cal Newport. In this book, Newport put forth the idea that ability to conduct “deep work” is the single most important skill for knowledge workers, academics, and artists. What is “deep work?” According to the book blurb:
“Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time.”
Coincidentally, while reading this book in 2016, I was simultaneously playing with various “brain-entrainment” apps that promised the focus abilities of a chess grandmaster. I combined them with meticulous records of my daily “deep work” time – 4 hours per day of intense writing.
And you know what? It changed my life.
Over the last 5 years, I’ve used brain entrainment apps for 2-4 hours per day, 6 days per week, 50 weeks per year. That’s around 5,000 hour of intense work. And my records showed that the more I used these apps, the more productive I became. My writing was stronger. I could focus more easily. And unexpectedly, my stress levels all but disappeared.
Needless to say, I grew addicted.
Now, scheduled use of brain-entrainment apps is a requirement for all of my long-term students. It’s an invaluable tool for achieving more (and writing better) in our hyper-competitive world. In the past, I always recommended an app called Brain.FM, but that’s not my recommendation anymore. Because in the world of hyper-focus tech, one app has emerged as the clear and undisputed champion.
(note: this is definitely an affiliate link, because I’m a huge supporter)
Focus@Will is a mobile phone- and browser-based app that generates “personalized focus music to help you get stuff done when you’re stressed and under pressure.”
Perfect for harried graduate applicants!
Based on extensive neuroscience research, this music addresses the seemingly universal problem that humans aren’t very good at focusing for more than 20 minutes. There are just too many distractions. Twitter notifications. Email streams. The smell of your coffee. A creaky air conditioner. The girl two tables over who won’t stop singing BTS’s “Dynamite” under her breath. They all inhibit your ability to concentrate.
Most people don’t even realize how many aspects of our modern world can devastate our ability to do good work. It’s no surprise that so many of history’s great writers worked in a isolated cabins in the woods.
Focus@Will provides a staggering solution. It gets you in a focused state within 20 minutes of listening, and keeps you there for up to 200 minutes.
The audio tracks use “brainwave entrainment” – periodic stimuli that nudge brainwave frequencies toward those corresponding to an intended brain-state (induced focus, in our case). Like auditory Adderall, the music’s binaural and isochronic tones gently slide our brains into focus (without the nasty side effects of chomping amphetamines or overdosing on coffee).
Brainwave entrainment doesn’t affect neural-impulse patterns long-term. Quickly after the music stops, brainwaves return to their normal state. For me, this has been like a superpower, and thousands of other users agree. Countless listeners have even reported that the app mitigates the affects of ADHD.
Best of all, Focus@Will perfectly aligns with the Pomodoro Technique, that time-management method beloved by medical school students worldwide. It allows you to choose the length of your “deep work” sessions, and when you finish, you feel like time has slid by effortlessly. You don’t feel like your brain is buried in goo. You feel fresh, and the quality of your work at the end of each interval is just as good as when you started.
How To Get Started
First, after downloading the app, you want to find the type of audio track that suits you best. You might like “Alpha Chill” or “Zen Piano.” I recommend choosing the music that’s the least intrusive. I personally use “Water” myself every day.
Next, choose your work interval. If I’m doing long creative-writing sessions, I’ll go for 2 hours. If I’m doing other projects (like writing this blog post right now), I’ll set it for 1-hour intervals.
Lastly, if you’re using the mobile app, I demand you explore “offline mode.” This is a major (and idiotic) problem with most other focus-enhancing and meditation-type apps. They’re streaming-based, and that means you still get interrupted if a robo-scammer calls to harass you about car insurance.
Talk about frustrating, right?
With offline mode, you don’t have that problem. You can stay in your sweet zone of hyper-focused bliss until your work interval expires.
Annual subscriptions for Focus@Will typically run $70 per year, and in my opinion, it’s an incredibly valuable investment in your productivity. Luckily, they’re offering 25% off right now, and a 1-week free trial on all signups. Trust me. Sign up for the free trial. You won’t regret it.
Why Is Focus@Will Better Than Brain.FM?
I have to admit – I’ve used Brain.FM for thousands of hours. It was a game-changer for me. But now, I never recommend it to anyone. If you really want to improve your focus, Focus@Will has two drastically important upgrades.
- Flexible Time-Interval Options
Brain.FM only lets you choose 30-, 60-, 90-, or 120-minute intervals. Focus@Will let’s you go for as long as you want. That might be 25 minutes if you’re a Pomodoro Technique classicist. Or that might be 53 minutes if, like an OCD poet friend of mine, you demand a cigarette break every hour. (Hey, whatever works for you, Juan.)
- Audio Tracks Don’t Overlap
With Brain.FM, if you find an offline-mode track you like, it restarts every 30 minutes. That can be a little intrusive. Sometimes, it can be downright annoying. Just as you’re putting the finishing touches on a stochastic gradient descent algorithm, the “Chimes and Bowls” track restarts, your mind goes blurry, you fat-finger code, and then you’ve got to go back and figure out what went wrong. It’s not so bad the first time it happens, but it’ll drive you nuts eventually.
How Do I Know This Works?
Data. Anecdotes. The science. All the above.
When I scoured a year’s worth of my own meticulously tracked time-management data, I found that with brain entrainment, I can do really intense writing and editing for 2 hours straight. Without it? I can never manage more than 1 hour 15 minutes.
My friends report the same benefits.
One of my lifelong friends is a historian who claims that before he left Princeton, he’d gotten half of his department to use brain-entrainment every day while they work.
Another friend is a celebrity in the health and fitness world. He’s published 10 books while pumping out podcasts and essays, and flying all over the world to train special forces commandos and NFL athletes. He claims he hasn’t sat down to write without his brain-entrainment app in years.
Yet another friend is a hotshot programmer in the FinTech space. She says she quit using Modafinil after she discovered how Focus@Will can keep her zeroed-in on her work all day without crashing and burning in the evening.
I’ve never met anyone who didn’t love using this app after I introduced it to them. So, here I am, recommending it to you.
If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you’ve probably seen me recommend Brain.FM in the past. In fact, I did so just a few months ago. But now, I’ve changed my opinion entirely because of those two upgraded features listed above. The ability to personalize your time slots for Pomodoro Technique (or whatever time-management method) is crucial. And neverending audio tracks just work so much better when you really need to dive into a long day of thesis writing or coding.