The pace of modern life is often frantic, our minds are always busy and we're always doing something to the point where we're distracted from the world in which we live.
The Science and Power of Mindfulness For Productivity
The originator of the mindfulness movement Jon Kabat-Zinn defined mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way, in the present moment, non-judgmentally”. This is usually done by directing your attention to your breath and not thinking about the past or future, hence focusing on the present moment. If you've practised mindfulness you'll know that it's easy for your attention to wander and thoughts to creep in. This is the non-judgemental part where you accept that your mind has wandered and return to focusing on your breathing in the present moment.
There is strong evidence that mindfulness can help reduce stress, improve attention, reduce distractions and improve memory and academic performance.
A randomised controlled trial in 2013 by the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital found that mindfulness can help to reduce stress and anxiety and a 2018 study by the same researchers found that mindfulness practise can actually reduce stress hormones released by the body.
Mindfulness has been shown to have positive benefits on attention in a number of studies. A leading study from the University of California in 2010 examined those who practised mindfulness over a 3-month retreat. The study showed that while normally people’s attention declines over the course of a task, this eﬀect had virtually gone away after 1.5 months of intense mindfulness practice.
Another eﬀect that has been studied is the tendency to get distracted. A study by Mrazek et al in 2012 observed that 8 minutes of mindful breathing reduced behavioral indicators of mind-wandering when participants were given a very boring task. The authors hypothesised that mindfulness practice helps to reduce outside thoughts creeping in and helps you to become more aware of distractions when they occur so you can quickly identify them and get back to the task at hand.
Mindfulness has also been shown to have a positive impact on memory and academic performance. A study of 191 students by Bakosh et al in 2015 demonstrated that an automated audio-guided 10-min-per-day mindfulness program significantly enhanced students’ quarterly grades in reading and science, compared to a control group, without disrupting teaching operations.
So mindfulness can help to improve attention and memory while reducing stress and your tendency to get distracted even if you practise for as little as 10-minutes each day. Now that we've covered the benefits of mindfulness let's look at the evidence for using music to help you stay focused and productive.
The Science of Music and Ambient Noise For Study
Music has long been the subject of research to ascertain whether it is helpful or a distraction for work and study. In 1972, a study published in Applied Ergonomics suggested that people doing repetitive tasks worked more efficiently when background music was played. In 1994, The Journal of the American Medical Association published a study showing that surgeon accuracy and efficiency improved when surgeons worked with music playing.
Research in 2015 from the The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America found that using natural sounds like a flowing stream was an effective way to improve employees’ productivity and moods in the workplace. One small experiment (n=40) found lower stress levels among those who listened to nature sounds compared to silence or classical music. If reducing stress improves productivity, then listening to nature sounds could help boost your workrate.
The Science (and Emotion) of LoFi and Chill Hop Music For Study
More recently LoFi and Chill Hop music has been made popular for working and studying by YouTube channels like ChilledCow which is now known as LoFi Girl.
LoFi music is mid-tempo, melodic and often samples ambient sounds giving your brain just enough stimulation to tune out stress, reduce anxiety and be productive. LoFi music is characterised by lack of vocals and a repeatable, predictable, beat that evokes a calming emotional response which relaxes the listener. The tempo of LoFi chill hop tracks is usually relatively slow, between 70 and 85 BPM. In terms of instrumentation, its sound tends to favour acoustic or electroacoustic instruments.
While the tracks supported by LoFi Girl's YouTube channel possess some of these qualities the overall tempo and emotional aspect of the music likely apply the main calming effect. A research paper in the Journal of The International Association for the Study of Popular Music concludes that the emotional connection listeners make with LoFi music evokes a nostalgia combined with the repetitive, soft, anime visuals that feature on YouTube channels likely factor into its calming effect.
Chilled Cow/LoFi Girl originally used the studying scene from Studio Ghibli's 1995 anime movie Whisper of the Heart before switching from lead character Shizuku Tsukishima to Cilled Cow's own LoFi Girl due to copyright issues.
Specific, Practical Strategies You Can Use To Apply Mindfulness and LoFi Music To Your Work
So hopefully I've now convinced you on the benefits of both mindfulness and sound to help you focus and avoid distractions. Now listening to background music and practising 10-minutes of mindfulness each day isn't rocket science but I know many of you appreciate specific strategies so here are three that I find useful.
Lo-Fi Playlist Routine
Strategy number one is to put on a LoFi or Chill Hop playlist as soon as you start a work session. For me I have Spotify connected to my Sonos speakers at home and so I'll put on a playlist like Electronic Concentration or LoFi Girl's playlist. I know I'm most productive in the morning and so as I'll put this on straight away and sit down at my workspace which I've tidied and prepared the night before. If I'm working in the office I'll use my AirPod Pros or Bose Noise Cancelling headphones to immerse myself in the sound and get down to work. I'll also ensure that if I'm using Spotify on my phone I have it on do not disturb mode.
If you don't have Spotify having LoFi Girl's YouTube channel livestreams on in the background is a great way to discover new LoFi and Chilled music and they also have a Discord channel if you are obsessed with the LoFi community. Obviously if LoFi music isn't your thing replace with classical music or some ambient sounds as you wish but the main point is if you turn anchoring music with your work into a habit you'll train your mind to get into that flow state and focus on being productive.
Calm and Audio Meditation Apps
Strategy number two is to pick up a mindfulness app like Calm. I use Calm everyday and mainly use the mindful guided meditations like the 10-minute body scan to help me focus my attention on the present moment.
I tend to schedule 10-minutes for meditation just after lunch or as a quick break between tasks. This helps to reward me for a period of focused work and stops my mind from racing if I've come off back-to-back meetings or a period of deep work. If you don't have Calm there are lots of mindfulness apps and YouTube videos available and UCLA have a great guided meditation library in a number of different languages.
Practise Observing Your Mind
My final strategy is for those of you who have a racing mind and who struggle with overthinking and self-talk. While audio meditation is great real self control is to practice trying not to think about anything. This is usually best done at the end of the day when lying down in bed. When you are comfortable you might want to start by shifting your attention to your breath or your hands and then try to think of nothing. If a thought does creep in simply acknowledge it and think "What will my next thought be?". If you focus fully on that question you'll see it takes a while before the next clear thought arrives. By observing your mind you'll start to create a gap in the flow of thinking and if you practise enough you'll stop your mind from wandering.