During the 5-minute walk from my home to the outdoor gym, I’ve swiped across 4 apps, texted 3 friends and caught up with the news overnight.
I almost forgot where I was going.
At work, I’m used to having more than 10 tabs open on my laptop – guitar tabs of songs I need for the sessions, inboxes, report I’m working on, chats, and some research papers I never manage to read…
Multi-tasking is NOT a thing.
I’m barely juggling and switching apps and tasks.
The problem is, not only am I not able to focus on getting work done in a productive manner, I also become more jumpy and overwhelmed as my compulsiveness grows.
You know that feeling when you try to multi-task, only end up not getting any task done that is up to standard.
You also know that feeling when you think you are “addicted” to your phone – with the constant scrolling and fidgeting, needing something to stimulate you.
When we can’t stay focused, we can’t solve problems or enjoy life fully. We lose sight of what truly matters to us. This can cause a tremendous effect on our health and wellbeing.
Almost everyone has an attention problem nowadays.
When I read about how powerful algorithms are nowadays I almost felt hopeless that we, as individuals, are fighting a lost battle against giant tech companies.
I partly grew up with computers and social media (I’m a millennial). I had hobbies that required no technology or even electricity to enjoy (can you even imagine?), but still I found myself drown in the sea of information these days. And it concerns me how the younger generation is going to cope with all the problems and costs that come with reduced attention span.
As a Neurologic Music Therapist, I have particular interest in learning about how we can harness music to change our brain in terms of improving our attention in everyday life. If you are interested in learning new, creative ways to get your attention back, keep reading.
5 Types of Attention 👀
Let’s briefly look at the different types of attention we use in everyday life.
Sohlberg & Mateer (1987) divided attention in 5 different levels. The basis is focused attention – the ability to direct attention to something in particular.
Sustained attention involves being able to focus on a task for a sustained period of time, such as studying for a test.
Selective attention is the ability to maintain attention while distractions are present, like focusing on the conversation with your friend in a noisy restaurant.
Alternating attention is the ability to switch between two or more tasks, like when a student is writing an essay while also checking their phone.
Divided attention is the ability to do two or more tasks at the same time, like listening to the podcast when you are driving.
On a macro level, having a good attention span is vital to achieving our goals in life- whether it’s improving our academic performance, completing work tasks efficiently, or simply enjoying the finer moments of life. With the ability to focus on the task at hand, we can make more meaningful connections with the people and things around us, and therefore find greater satisfaction in life.
With our gadgets, information overload and 24/7 news cycle infiltrating our lives and our brain, it is hard to stay on top of everything and focus on our lane. I believe that we can, and should train our brain like how we train our muscles. The good news is, it doesn’t have to be mundane. Let’s dive into how we can use music to improve attention.
How Can Music Improve Attention? 🎶
You might not have thought too much about it when you put on your favourite study/focus playlist before you get to work, but here’s what music does to our brain in terms of attention:
1 Music captures our attention naturally (1)
2 Music changes our state of mind by helping us adapt to a changing environment
3 Music improves our mental performance and reduces anxiety (at least temporarily) (2)
4 Music can serve as a distraction from challenging tasks (pain/anxiety)
Attention and Flow States
Essentially, what we are aiming here is to put ourselves into flow states. Flow state is a psychological concept that describes a state of optimal focus and concentration. In this state, one is completely immersed in the task at hand, allowing for higher levels of productivity, creativity, and efficiency. They might even forget about time and hunger. It is an ideal state for those looking to improve their attention span and accomplish more.
To get there, the difficulty of the tasks shall be at the edge of our abilities. If it’s too easy, we get bored and we start distracting ourselves; if it’s too hard, we give up very soon.
All it takes is a little bit of practice and the right environment to help you get into the flow state. Once you’re there, you’ll find yourself more energised and motivated to tackle any task.
How to Use Music to Improve Attention and Focus 🔎
I’ve used Music and Attention Training (MACT) in my music therapy work for different population – including kids with different function levels and adults with schizophrenia. It was fascinating to see how music acted as motivation and cues for them perform different cognitive tasks. Drawing from my experience and other research, here are 5 ways that you can use music to improve your attention:
Using music to Improve Sustained Attention
Use music to help regulate emotions (to get into flow states)
- Use rhythmic music to help regulate breathing
- Incorporate music with relaxation techniques to help reduce stress and anxiety (if you struggle to sit down and focus for just 5 minutes) (3)
Incorporate music with physical activities for improved attention
- Not only does that increase your physical activity duration and intensity, you also reap the benefit of staying more focused and alert after the activity (4)
- Play upbeat music to help increase motivation
Using Music to Improve Selective and Alternative Attention
🎶 Use different genres of music to help cue different tasks
- E.g. listen to a specific playlist you designed for creative work so that you are not distracted by the environment; keep a wind down playlist so that you can unplug from work fully
Other Recommended Habits and Tools 🛠
Note: this article is not sponsored. I’m genuinely recommending products or “hacks” I discovered over the years which might help you improve attention span and brain health.
As I said earlier, we shall train our brain like we train other muscles. While meditation is a great tool, I understand that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.
Here are some hobbies and apps I employed consistently in the past 5+ years to keep my brain active:
1 Learning - Specifically, Instruments and Languages
I have a thing for learning instruments (duh) and languages. It hits all the right spots: it’s challenging enough to keep me engaged, it’s interesting, and it feels rewarding after practice.
What’s more? There’s no end to it.
P.S. I’m currently learning Turkish as my 6th language. When I moved away from Chinese characters and Latin-rooted languages, it is definitely a challenging one.
2 Working Out
Yep, it’s not just a physical game – but for the mind too. Noticed how you almost always give up in your mind first?
“I can’t do this anymore.”
All these inner voices in your head telling you that you can’t take another step forward or complete another rep.
Working out is about challenging both our body and our mind while we break through the mental barrier. You’re not just building muscles, improving endurance or losing fat – you are improving your resilience.
3 Games to Improve Brain Health
My favourite app is Lumosity. I never paid for it – you get 3 games every day with the free version for different skills – attention, flexibility, memory, executive functioning and more. My favourite game is “Trouble Brewing” .
If you have 5 minutes to scroll social media, you definitely have time to learn a new language or play brain games. Start taking baby steps now to improve your wellbeing and brain health.
Take Action Now 👟
Our attention is limited. It is the new currency for big tech companies – the longer we stay on the platforms, the richer they get. We have to proactively guard our mind so that we can focus on what truly matters (and the real world too).
Music can be an effective tool to help improve attention. Through the use of rhythm, noise reduction, motivation, physical activities, and emotion regulation, music can help boost our attention span. Start incorporating different music in your everyday life today for better health.
Apart from losing focus, we might also feel overwhelmed and restless from time to time. This is why I created this emotional resilience scorecard for you: find out how resilient you are, and what areas you need to focus on in order to reclaim your peace of mind.
It only takes 2 minutes. Tips and recommendation included.
1 Klein, R. M., & Lawrence, M. A. (2012). On the modes and domains of attention. Cognitive neuroscience of attention, 2, 11-28.
2 Irish M. Cunningham C. J. Walsh J. B. Coakley D. Lawlor B. A. Robertson I. H. et al. (2006). Investigating the enhancing effect of music on autobiographical memory in mild Alzheimer’s disease. Dementia and Geriatric Cognitive Disorders, 22, 108–120. doi:10.1159/000093487
3 Van Goethem A., Sloboda J. (2011). The functions of music for affect regulation. Musicae Scientiae, 15, 208–228.
4 Besson, M., Schön, D., Moreno, S., Santos, A., & Magne, C. (2007). Influence of musical expertise and musical training on pitch processing in music and language. Restorative neurology and neuroscience, 25 (3-4), 399–410.