When is the last time you thought, “I am going to finish this History assignment right now” only to find yourself spending the next 25 minutes adding a list of your favorite movies to your Facebook profile? How many loud-talkers in the library or TV-show-watching family members have managed to derail your train of thoughts when you finally felt like you were on the right track to solving an important problem? And does your ritual for getting started with essays involve staring at a blank screen, hoping that your thoughts will magically organize themselves and leap onto the page?
All of those things have happened to me more times that I can count (or would like to admit), and they suck! There are a lot of self-help gurus who religiously rant about why you should use their biofeedback machines or nootropic drugs to improve your focus. These tools can work like a charm, but they often cost an arm and a leg or grant us attentional superpowers that go away as soon as our brains get used to their ingredients.
So iPhone applications might seem like the best of both worlds. They’re inexpensive, and they allow us to sharpen our concentration without relying on a cocktail of chemicals. However, after having been through my fair share of them, I’ve have found that some have very little to do with focusing, and most of the others don’t provide enough feedback to allow their users to make consistent progress. But every once and a while, I come across a rare specimen: a focus training app that does exactly what it claims to do without costing a cent. In this article, I’ve listed my top five of these apps and provided a quick explanation of how each one works. And no, I am not getting paid to say any of this. (With that said, I would be open to that opportunity…) These are apps that have been a positive contribution to my life, and I feel that they might be able to help others as well.
#1 – Focus: Train your Eyes, Reflexes, and Concentration by Austin Russell
First on the list is “Focus.” It’s kind of like the shell game that’s played by con artists all over the streets of Las Vegas—only this app won’t leave you penniless at the end of the day. It first displays the letters, “F,” “O,” “C,” “U,” and “S” on the screen, each inside of a black circle. The app then prompts you to tap one of them, hides all of the letters, and then sets the five circles into motion. “Focus” takes turns swapping pairs of circles until they’ve all been thoroughly shuffled. Once it’s done, it asks you to tap the circle that contains your letter of choice. If you get it wrong, then it’s game over. But if you get it right, then the app shuffles the circles again, only this time, a little bit faster than before.
When you use this app, you have to work hard to track one circle as it flips from place to place and avoid getting sidetracked by the others. “Focus” works kind of like the eye tracking software that’s used to increase the attention spans of patients with ADHD. Our ability to track moving objects in the presence of distractions is directly linked to our ability to concentrate. So tasks like these ones use our eyes as a gateway to improving our ability to focus. When I take a break from playing this app, it feels like everything in my visual field has gotten just a little bit sharper.
#2 – Time To Focus by Brett Ponder
Second, there is “Time To Focus,” which is more similar to “Where’s Waldo?” It starts by giving you a number…let’s say that it’s 21. The app then displays a grid of randomly arranged numerals ranging from 1 to 54. It gives you exactly thirty seconds to find and press 22, 23, 24, and as many other numbers as you can. This might seem like it would be easy; however, your brain has a hard time telling the difference between numbers that are tightly packed together. And even if you can master this task, the app offers more advanced levels—some coloring in a few random numbers or even spinning other ones to try to grab your attention.
Like tracking objects as they’re being shuffled, scanning an environment for a particular object improves our ability to concentrate by forcing us to direct our eye movements. “Time To Focus” tends to give me the feeling that my mind is more organized and that I can sift through complex streams of information after I’ve spent time playing it.
#3 – Super N-Back by Paul-Antoine Nguyen
“Super N-Back” is comparable to a game of memory on steroids. It presents you with a 9×9 grid with a button on the left that looks like a speaker and a button on the right that resembles a miniature version of the grid. Its rules are fairly straightforward. You start by setting the N-Back to a number between 1 and 6. This number is the amount of moves you’ll have to remember in order to play the game. For example, let us say that you have picked an N-Back of 2. When you press start, random boxes begin to slowly light up in turn, each one accompanied a voice telling you the name of a letter. If the letter that is currently being named matches the one that was named two moves ago, press the speaker button on the left. If the box is in the same position as it was two moves ago, you press the grid button on the right. If both are the same as they were two moves ago, you press both buttons. Alternately, if neither are the same, you leave your fingers off of the buttons.
N-back tests are used to measure and train our working memories—the parts of our memories that temporarily hold onto things like shopping lists, phone numbers, and reminders. Our working memories are an important part of our attentional systems. Without them, we would not be able to hold onto goals and sub-goals for long enough to get them done. Like eye tracking software, n-back tests have been used to help individuals with ADHD. This particular app makes me feel less forgetful and seems to make it easier for me to think of what to say and perform well under stress.
#4 – 30/30 by Binary Hammer
Unlike the other apps that I’ve listed so far, “30/30” is like a coach who keeps you on track while you work. It allows you to set timers for getting work done and taking breaks. But unlike most timer apps, this one allows you to set strings of timers. For instance, I can set 25 minutes of writing on this blog, followed by a 5-minute break, 10 minutes of online research, and another 5-minute break. Another feature that makes this app unusual is that these strings of timers can be set to automatically loop. For me, this would make my second 5-minute break automatically lead to a 25-minute session of blog writing.
This application is easy to use, and it feels really rewarding to get to the end of each session of work. It improves your concentration when you use it by giving you clear goals to focus on that have precise endpoints. I find that I tend to work far more efficiently when I’m using it because it gets me to start thinking, “Okay, I only have 25 minutes to get this task done. I’d better stay focused!” Additionally, it has more of a long-term effect on our ability to concentrate. People who habitually work on one task at a time tend to be more efficient and better at ignoring distractions than people who multitask.
#5 – Brain Trainer: Tune Up Your Left and Right Brain by Vinta Games
Finally, we have “Brain Trainer.” This is actually 12 focus trainig games in one. In almost all of these games, you are presented with words that conflict with certain visual elements, like colors, directions, or shapes. Your task is to quickly answer questions about those visual elements. However, there is a catch: words tend to grabbing our attention much better than most other things. To see this in action, try to look at a page full of text without processing any of its words. Because the words and the visual elements of the games in “Brain Trainer” conflict with each other, the only way to do well at them is to develop the ability to ignoring the conflicting words.
This is known as a stroop test, and is used as a standard measure of attentional control. It is interesting to note that there is also a strong correlation between haing high amounts of a personality trait called Fearless Dominance and being able to easily excel at at stroop tests. While I have not found any instances where stroop tests have been used for training people to become more focused, based on the fact that eye tracking and n-back tests can be used for that same purpose, I think it’s most likely that practicing a stroop test would lead to an increased ability to focus. I have found that “Brain Trainer” feels like it has the biggest impact on my ability to focus out of all of the apps I have reviewed. After I use it for long enough, background noises seem quieter, life feels less stressful, and it seems much easier to carry tasks through to completion.