Updated: Jan 7
One of my most frequently asked questions about research and data use in education is – How am I supposed to stay focused on the task when there are a hundred other things going on around me?!?
Listen, I get it. We are living in historical times and it often feels suffocating. Even when you carve time out of your hectic schedule to complete a data analysis of your latest instructional unit or review some research related to a persistent problem of practice, it can be a real challenge to tune out the distractions and focus on the task at hand. So how do I manage to keep up a blog, travel to deliver trainings, publish research papers, tend to my family, and hold down a day job? Through the power of music!
As a former music educator, I know the power that music has to shape the mind. I became interested in music’s ability to shape our mood and control our thoughts in my second year of teaching. I was teaching with a powerful piece of orchestral music when I looked over and saw a second grader sobbing beyond control. I pulled him aside and learned that his cousin, who lived in the same house as him, had died of a drug overdose the night before. He didn’t tell anyone when he came to school. He was told to be brave and keep family concerns private. The music touched his heart and facilitated a cathartic episode that this young man needed in order to successfully continue the day.
Music interacts with your brain in a different way than other stimuli. Recent research into the way music interacts with the brain has shown that music interacts with the brain and can create a visible moment of change that has been captured on brain scans. Music therapists use music to support patients with anxiety, depression, autism, and even dementia.
I am no music therapist, but I am a researcher and so when I need to focus, I turn to one of three types of music that have been proven to alter mood and increase focus.
The first type of sound I turn to is called a “binaural beat”. In a binaural beat, two slightly different frequencies are played at the same time; one in each ear. When the brain begins to process those tones, it creates a third tone. This is called a perceptual illusion. The third tone is not there, but your brain picks up on it and channels it. Research suggests that this activity in the brain may help to increase focus on a given task.
I use binaural beats any time I need to tune out the rest of the world and focus on completing a metacognitive task – such as writing. In fact, I’m listening to them right now as I complete this blog post. For me, they help me to tune out the rest of the world and focus on the task at hand. I find that when I listen to binaural beats while I write, my writing flows more easily, requires less post-editing, and feels more conversational. Below is the specific playlist that I use.
Another type of music that I use to increase my focus are video game soundtracks. Think about this for a moment. When you play a video game, you are often completing detailed tasks that require you to remember and recognize patterns, perform fine motor motions with automaticity, and remain intrinsically motivated through multiple attempts and failures. To me – that sounds an awful lot like analyzing data. Research has demonstrated that video game soundtracks help to promote all of those skills. From a practical standpoint, the video game industry hires sound engineers who can develop ambient soundtracks that make you want to keep playing the game for hours on end – it benefits their bottom line for you to do so.
I listen to the playlist below when I need to complete a detail oriented task that I’m not really looking forward to. I like that video game soundtracks often have a motivating forward motion in the undertones. This helps keep me motivated and feeling like I’m making progress towards my goal even when Excel or R is blinking at me and telling me I’m not. I also listen to video game soundtracks when I am preparing to give a big presentation or keynote address. They often pump me up and they know how to push out just the right amount of adrenaline to make me feel focused and amped without feeling jittery.
Finally, when I need a little musical boost to get through the day, I listen to a playlist of happy, inspirational songs to lighten my mood. Music has been shown to greatly influence your mood and research says that changing up your tunes can also change how you feel. When you’re feeling down, consider a playlist with an upbeat and happy message or music that you listened to in your late teens and early twenties. Data collected from Spotify and reviewed by data scientists at the New York Times indicates that our tastes in music usually lock in before our 30th birthday.
I use the playlist below to pump myself up to do tasks that require lower levels of cognition – things like pulling research articles out of a database to read deeply later or skimming through news media reports to try to identify policy trends that are likely to impact my work. It helps me to stay positive and motivated and also gives my brain a much needed break from the heavy thinking that I often have to do as a researcher, data analysis, and policy maker.
So, there you have it – music is my secret for staying productive and pushing through difficult days. None of us are immune from the persistent distractions that come from living in the 2020s and we must all find a way to rally what few brain cells we have left to drive positive, evidence-informed changes to our schools and systems. I hope you found this rundown helpful and give some of these playlists a try. If you do, let me know how it goes! I would love to hear from you. Good luck on your journey friends and let me know how I can help.