Tag Archives: Concentration

Sounding out the best music to work to

John Coltrane. Pic: Hugo van Gelderen

John Coltrane. Pic: Hugo van Gelderen

Blame the iPod. The ubiquity of that little device in the mid-2000s changed the working lives of many of my generation.

That, and the noisy open-plan offices we worked in. Steve Jobs’ little white box provided a perfect way to drown out background noise, focus on the task at hand, increase focus and productivity.

Didn’t it?

Perhaps it did, for some. As a working journalist in those years, listening to music wasn’t an option. The time you spent after phoning and meeting contacts was used to write, usually against a deadline. Fidgeting for the new Coldplay song five minutes before your copy was due was not advisable.

Outside the office it was different matter. At home I’d write and read to a constant soundtrack, and still do. Over the years I found some recordings worked better than others when it came to cognitive function.

For months I read at night to Aphex Twin’s “Selected Ambient Works Volume II”. But when I tried to do the same with John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” it was a no-go. I’d barely last five minutes. Beethoven’s sonatas? No problem. Bob Dylan? Not a chance.

After years of hit-and-miss listening I recently investigated what works and what doesn’t.

With the help of a couple of articles, from Inc and Time, I’ve narrowed it down – for myself at least.

Here’s the secret:

  • Listen to music without lyrics (no Dylan, more Beethoven)
  • Don’t listen to new music
  • Don’t listen if you’re trying to learn something new (the line between this and reading for pleasure is blurred, I find)
  • If you’re learning something new, listen before you start
  • If the task at hand is repetitive, listen to music (even if you’re a surgeon)
  • If there’s a lot of background noise, music you’re familiar with will calm your brain, improving focus

A case in point: as I write this I am listening to Caribou’s album Swim. It’s a recording I know pretty well, with songs whose lyrics are simple, few and repetitive. Hearing the music raises my levels of feel-good neurotransmitters (dopamine and serotonin), which relaxes me and helps me focus. My thought process is smooth and my output is consistent.

As a test I’ve now switched it out for one of my favorite non-cognitive tracks, music I use during workouts but not elsewhere – Slayer’s Raining Blood. My foot’s tapping but my concentration’s shot.

My perfect music while working is somewhere between these two poles – Brian Eno’s Discreet Music or Dustin O’Halloran’s Lumiere are two albums that spring to mind.

Of course there’s a simpler way to improve your working focus, your reading and your writing: work in complete silence and listen to nothing. Modern life renders the first impossible and, frankly, where’s the fun in the second?

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Reading, the long and short of it

What would Cervantes, Tolstoy or Wallace think? Pic: Steve Rhodes (David Foster Wallace)

Unimpressed? Cervantes, Tolstoy, Wallace.
Pic: Steve Rhodes (David Foster Wallace)

HOW long is too long?

Around 250 pages – if you’re award-winning novelist Ian McEwan.

More than one reader probably slammed down their Hilary Mantel in disgust last week on encountering the writer’s comments on the length of the modern novel.

Using his new release, The Children Act, as a convenient guide, McEwan reckoned 65,000 words is about the right length for a book nowadays.

Such a work can be read in one sitting, he suggests, “like enjoying a three-hour movie or opera”.

Moreover, “very few really long novels earn their length…the Americans especially love a really huge novel…a real brick of an object.”

This shorter-is-better mindset shouldn’t surprise anyone. McEwan is about as far from an American as I can imagine, and most of his novels clock in well under 250 pages.  (The much-lauded On Chesil Beach runs to 166, placing it firmly in novella territory.)

"A real brick of an object."

“A real brick of an object.”

One can only imagine what David Foster Wallace (1079 – Infinite Jest), Cervantes (1072 – Don Quixote) or Leo Tolstoy (1225 – War And Peace) would make of it all.

As a reader (or masochist) who has made it through Moby Dick (625) twice in his 36 years I’m not on McEwan’s page on this.

His comments did get me thinking, though. What was the last 800-page novel I read? And, for that matter, when was the last time I watched a three-hour movie?

It’s been a while, on both counts. But I haven’t avoided longer books because, as McEwan suggests, characters should be established “very quickly” and one or two subplots is enough.

If only it was that simple. Like most people the reason I avoid longer books is time.

Time that’s eaten into by digital grazing, by work, by working out, by (sometimes) just wanting to sit in a room and stare at the ceiling.

Any number of reasons, really. But they combine and conspire to cut into reading time and the concentration required to read.

A slim Steinbeck.

Flat boy – slim.

When my time comes under pressure like this shorter books quickly look more attractive. And so I buy The Children Act and not The Goldfinch, lamely convincing myself that I will, one day, get to Donna Tartt’s 784 pager. (Spoiler: I won’t.)

But once or twice a year, usually on vacation when the time pressure eases, I’ll attempt something longer – The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle on a two-week trip last May, for example.

The increased time investment usually yields a greater reward – more time spent with characters, deeper immersion in plot – and I tell myself I should really do this more often.

And then my eye is caught by a slim Steinbeck and I’m back in the sub-65,000 aisle again.

With a clear two-week period coming up soon I’m already promising myself great things: maybe even Murakami’s gargantuan 1Q84 (brace yourself …928).

We’ll see. Maybe it’s time for a very short story (4), just while I decide.

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A shocking need for distraction

'Everyday robots on our phones'?

‘Everyday robots on our phones’?

I’d like to think that I wouldn’t do it, or that I’d at least be able to last longer than 15 minutes.

But the truth is that I’d be like the majority of men.

I’d trip the switch, give myself the electric shock and spend days afterwards wondering why I did it.

Luckily I didn’t take part in the experiment run by psychologists at Virginia and Harvard Universities, so I’ll never find out (nor do I plan to).

The test, details of which were published last week, was designed to find out why most of us find it difficult to simply sit and do nothing.

As part of their study the researchers picked 100 people and asked each of them to sit in a room and think. Just the subjects, the four walls and contents of their heads.

Left alone with just their thoughts two-thirds of the male subjects, and one-quarter of the female, felt so uncomfortable that they opted for the only distraction available: giving themselves with a mild electric shock.

Or as one of the scientists put it, somewhat depressingly: “Simply being alone with their thoughts was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid”.

'In the process of getting home.'

‘In the process of getting home.’

Like most people I’d like to think that I am one of those self-contained, focused, individuals who could sit in such a room and happily devised shopping lists or silently hum a tune, without zapping myself.

But could I? My morning commute, for example, sees me sit in an enclosed space for about 15  minutes. And I rarely do it without some distraction, either by way of my iPod or my phone.

I convince myself this time spent checking emails, reading news sites and scanning Twitter is productive. But I still do it on days when I’m not working, or even on vacation.

So perhaps it’s less duty and more distraction. (Something I’m also conscious of in my daily battle for silent time).

In timely coincidence the same day I read of the experiment my wife played me a song called Everyday Robots, written by Damon Albarn.

We are everyday robots on our phones
In the process of getting home
Looking like standing stones
Out there on our own

Which just about sums up the 18.53 from Connolly.

Mind you, I’d never have been aware of this mass distraction crisis unless I’d read of the room test. And where did I do that?

On my iPhone of course, standing on a train, during a 15 minute commute.

Sign me up for a shock therapy.

 

 

 

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