Conscious computing: 4 apps to fight distraction and to focus your mind
It's time to quit multitasking. Plug in and sharpen your attention with these meditative programs.
Wed, Jul 03 2013 at 1:44 PM
I’ve never been one to meditate.
It’s not that I don’t believe in the power of mental practice to focus your mind or expand your awareness. I’ve just always found the aesthetic and language surrounding most meditation practices somewhat alienating. So I was struck by an article in the UK’s Guardian newspaper looking at a new movement in the tech world known as “conscious computing.”
Drawing on both recent research in neuroscience and ancient traditions of meditation and mindfulness, advocates of conscious computing have developed programs and mobile apps which encourage us to abandon multitasking in favor of singular focus on the task at hand.
As someone who works from home as both a freelance writer and running my own branding agency, I thought I’d take a few of these apps for a test ride.
Here are some of my favorites so far.
OmmWriter: A writing program for actually writing
It’s a strange thing, but as someone who has developed his writing skills in the age of computers, I’m much more at home composing on screen than I am writing on paper.
Yet most word processing programs have too many options, and an interface that’s ugly as sin.
OmmWriter is different.
The screen is populated by calming grays, or a wintery backdrop. You have a choice of four typefaces and four font sizes. (The paid version features more options, as seen in the video above.) And you can plug your headphones in and immerse yourself in a selection of rhythmical, non-obtrusive soundtracks and keystroke tones. (The settings I chose created an experience a little like sitting on a slow moving freight train, staring out at frozen tundra, and typing on an old typewriter.) Best of all, once you’ve selected your settings, they automatically fade from view and you are left with nothing to focus on but your words.
Coincidence or not, but since I’ve started using OmmWriter, I’ve found my writing time more than cut in half, and I’ve been much less likely to multitask. In short, I’m hooked. And I’ve bored more than a few colleagues trying to convince them to give OmmWriter a go.
ReWire: Train your mind to your own tunes
ReWire is a classic example of the way that conscious computing is taking ancient traditions and updating them for a new generation.
Based on the meditative technique of observing transitions, ReWire creates a game-like meditation experience using either tunes from your iTunes library, or you can purchase “brain entrainment” tracks designed for meditation. Once you pick some music, select your session length and difficulty level, you are then asked to do nothing but sit with your eyes closed, focus on the sounds in the foreground of your mind and tap the screen any time the music stops.
You can track your progress. You can set reminders. And you can interact with others by sharing your performance. ReWire suggests using the app both as a means to train your focus over time, and also just before meetings or other tasks requiring concentration.
I’ve been testing out ReWire for a few days. I started with one of ReWire’s own tracks, and began using the app each time I turned on my computer to work. While the cracking thunder and wavy synth sounds of the “brainwave entrainment” did tweak my inner cynic a bit, I must admit that I left each session with a deeper sense of clarity, allowing me to focus on the tasks in front of me.
I’ve also tried a session with my own music - Primal Scream’s acid house/rock classic Screamadelica, to be precise. It’s an interesting experience, trying to meditate to music more suited to an illegal warehouse rave. In some ways, I actually found the session more effective. Because my own music was so familiar, and so engaging to me, I had to focus twice as hard to not get lost in the music and forget about the practice.
Buddhify: Meditation tapes for wherever you are
Like ReWire, Buddhify takes its cues from traditional meditation and is much more like what I’d imagine a traditional meditation session to be. Besides its fun, laid-back design and language, Buddhify also differentiates itself by offering bite-size and longer meditation practices for various different locations or activities (walking, gym, traveling and home).
You can select one of four “flavors” that you wish to hone - clarity, connection, stability and embodiment. The practices then each focus on one simple task - whether it’s breath counting, body awareness exercises, or focusing your attention on the sensation of walking - and they casually guide you through that practice.
As the makers acknowledge, intense meditation practice is usually best pursued away from distractions. But given the pace of our modern lives, finding ways to still apply these techniques as we go about our business can both increase our practice time and hone our ability to apply mindfulness and focus in the busiest situations.
I’ve been working with Buddhify over the past week, using both home practices and walking practices, and have certainly learned techniques which I find helpful. In fact, it appears to be somewhat of a gateway drug for mindfulness and meditation in general. I now find myself now applying those techniques (breath counting in particular) without the need to fire up the app.
Coffitivity: Sounds for creativity
Coffitivity is based on the notion that it is really hard to be creative in either an entirely quiet space, or a particularly loud one.
The Coffitivity premise is that the ambient noise of a coffee shop is perfect for nurturing creativity. (Yes, they do point to some peer-reviewed research to back up their claims.) So Coffitivity plays you those sounds, and allows you to mix in your own music in the background.
If you’re working from home and it’s eerily quiet, I can absolutely see the attraction of something like Coffitivity. But I’ve always found coffee shops kind of distracting. Not because I don’t like the noise, but because I am nosy and I listen in on other peoples’ conversations.
So the other day I walked to my local cafe, ordered a latte, fired up my noise-cancelling headphones. And I proceeded to work in the coffee shop to the piped sounds of a pretend coffee shop. Yes, I felt like a doofus Yes, this probably isn’t what advocates would consider true conscious computing. (Aren’t we supposed to be connecting more fully with the world around us?)
But boy did I get a lot of work done.
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