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July 21, 2018

Can a gadget save you from the distraction of gadgets? We tried Foci

by John_A

Most people I know are, to some degree, addicted to their cellphone. We’ve all felt it. How an illuminated screen demands every ounce of your attention. How an unexpected text message evokes a physiological response like an amphetamine. And then there’s that seemingly insatiable impulse to check the time, check the weather, then check the time again. It’s gotten to the point that much, if not most, of the time I spend on my phone is in a state of distraction, not productivity. I’d bet you’re in the same boat.

Call it what you will — addiction, obsession, or some strange form of cyborg dependency — but, whatever it is, our relationship with technology is fraught and unwell.

Whatever it is, our relationship with technology is fraught and unwell.

One of the most obvious issues is our inability to focus for more than a few minutes on end. It’s like we live our lives in little vignettes, punctuated by moments when we check the phone. If an alien civilization started observing humans just a decade ago, they’d probably assume cellphones were a power source we use to recharge.

So I was intrigued when I recently got an email about Foci, a wearable device designed to boost focus. I’ve tried more organic routes — dabbling (albeit superficially) in yoga, meditation, and mindfulness techniques — but my efforts were in vain against the omnipresent tug of my iPhone and the many senseless wonders of the World Wide Web. I asked them to send me a product for review and hoped I’d find a newfound, distraction-free mentality.

A wearable for the age of mass distraction

Foci is a biometric wearable that looks a lot like a bluetooth earpiece. The only difference — and this is important — is that you wear it on your waist instead of your face. The device uses tiny sensors to track your breathing patterns (which research and thousands of years of practice have linked to the mind) and runs them through a machine learning algorithm, which the creators say helps the device identify your cognitive state and keep your mind on track if it begins to wander. When you veer towards distraction, a few soft vibrations bring it to your attention.

(Note: Before you put your money into a crowd-funding campaign, we suggest you read our guide to not getting burned. Even inventors with the best intentions have been known to fail investors.)

Complementing the wearable is an app that uses a fluid orb to depict your mental state. It floats and bobs around the screen, changing color from grey to yellow, purple, blue, and red to show if you’re distracted, focused, fatigued, calm, or stressed. The fluctuations in your mental state are recorded, minute-by-minute, which the extra studious user can review and, ideally, learn from. Finally, an artificial intelligence “mind coach” gives personalized insight into your progress and focusing habits.

More than just a monitor, Foci’s creators say it has to potential to improve four types of focus: stimulus suppression (tuning out visual and auditory distractions), self-regulation (controlling procrastination and goals), fatigue tolerance (sustaining prolonged attention), and finding an effortless type of deep focus known as “flow.” These improvements don’t just happen spontaneously. Like any other behavioral change, they require practice, effort, and, well, focus.

More than just a monitor, Foci’s creators say it has to potential to improve four types of focus.

The end goal is not only to overcome trivial distractions but to achieve what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described as “when you’re completely involved in an activity with intense focus and creative engagement.” He’s termed that mental state, flow.

With Foci, you get into the flow when you achieve consecutive states of focus, i.e. when you don’t sporadically truncate your work to check your phone, use the bathroom, make a sandwich, pressure-clean the driveway, or feed leftover breadcrumbs to the scurry of squirrels outside.

Getting in the zone

Throughout my week with Foci, the app said I reached a state of flow twice. However, neither of those times was I in what I would call a deep state of focus. In fact, the app would sometimes say I was distracted when I felt like I was on a roll with my research or writing — errors that could be due to this being an alpha model of the device. It also took about five days for the Foci algorithm to “learn” my breathing patterns but, once it did, its interpretations of my mental state were more accurate. Foci’s creators say they hope to decrease the learning period to just a few days when the product is released to its backers.

Every now and then I’d end up checking emails or scrolling through Twitter, and the device would give me a little nudge to set me back on track. These nudges were helpful. But occasionally, when I was really deep into my work, the device vibrated and took me out of my creative flow. This happened less often the longer I used Foci (and the more time the algorithm had to learn my breathing patterns) but just one would be enough to make me abandon the tool all together.

There’s cause for pause here. If technology is the reason why so many of us have stunted focus in the first place, how wise are we to ask for help from to yet another A.I.-powered device? I think the key with Foci, as with any self-help tool, is to not just relying on the device to keep you on track, but to use the app to spot your own bad habits and form newer, better ones.

If technology is the reason why so many of us have stunted focus in the first place, how wise are we to ask for help from to yet another A.I.-powered device?

Foci has a slew of supporters already. Over 2,000 backers pledged more than $155,000 to fund Foci in a recent Kickstarter campaign. An Indiegogo campaign has been even more successful. Once launched in October, the device will retail at $109.

So, would we recommend one?

If you struggle with distraction, have tried simpler techniques (like disconnecting from your phone or the internet when you really need to focus), and have $100 burning a hole in your pocket — then yes. Foci will help. Even the alpha version of the product brought attention to my tendencies to kill time on impertinent things. But if you haven’t put in the effort to fix your focus in other ways, try those first before adding another gadget to your belt.

As touchstones for our personal and professional lives, tech tools have also become the source of our distraction. We’re so accustomed to being always on that it’s tough to ever turn off. Tech giants like Apple have caught wind, including new features in their products that monitor and moderate our digital time stamp, but it’s a shame it’s even come to that. We should really get a grip on our own distractions. After all, attention is currency of the Information Age. We’ll be paupers without it.

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