A great part of what hinders our productivity is our tendency to become distracted and lose our focus on what we are supposed to do. Did you know that music can actually help you solve that problem? Focus@Will is a new neuroscience-based tool that uses sequenced instrumental music tracks to increase your attention span up to 400% when working and studying. The mind behind this incredible invention is Will Henshall, a musician, scientist, songwriter and technology inventor. After a successful seven-year run with Londonbeat, a British-American dance-pop band who scored two number one hits in the early 1990s, Will turned to entrepreneurship, starting a number of startups in the digital recording industry. Listen as he describes the amazing benefits of Focus@Will in this interview with John Livesay.
Listen To The Episode Here:
Focus@Will With Will Henshall
Our guest on The Successful Pitch is my friend, Will Henshall, the Founder of Focus@Will. He and his team have created a way for us to find the right music to play at the right time to make us all more focused. Not only does it make us more focused and gets us in the zone faster, but keeps us there longer and makes us happier. We do a whole in-depth conversation around how boredom at work stems from not feeling productive Focus@Will can help you solve that problem.
Our guest is Will Henshall, who is the Founder of Focus@Will, which is a new neuroscience-based web/mobile tool that especially uses sequenced instrumental music tracks to increase your attention span up to 400% when working and studying. Will is a musician, scientist, songwriter, technology inventor, working with audio to find the right music at the right place at the right time. He was the Founder of the British pop-soul band Londonbeat and had two Billboard number one hit records. He went on to found Rocket Network, a Paul Allen/Cisco-funded San Francisco company in 1995. Afterward, he created a professional audio media transfer system, DigiDelivery, which he sold in 2003. Will has achieved notable global success as a technical inventor. Will, welcome to the show.
Thank you, John. That was quite an intro. I was worried you were going to say, “It’s 400 times more productive.”
If your productivity is ten, we get you to 40% or something like that. I have always admired you. We’re personal friends. The concept of having you share your wisdom about entrepreneurship and, more importantly, about life in general. You’ve also had some certainly challenging obstacles, let’s say. We’ll leave that as an open loop. Would you mind taking us back to childhood a little bit? Many people have a dream of being a rock star, movie star, or author. You certainly were able to fulfill, in a big way, one of those dreams. I’d love to hear the story of when that dream started.
For me, it was not wanting to be a rock star. It was about wanting to be a composer and songwriter, and not even wanting to be because I was. I would have been 3 or 4 years old and I can remember sitting at my folks’ piano and playing the black keys. If you play the black keys, it’s a pentatonic scale. It sounded like something from the South Pacific. I remember doing that at the age of four and going, “This is nice.” That got me intrigued with the way that the sounds all fit together.
At the age of 4 or maybe 5, I remember thinking, “If I made each one of these notes go up one, does it sound the same?” I was playing a pentatonic scale in the key of G major. I’m now telling you, but at the time, I didn’t know. That’s what got me fascinated by the math of music. I was always fascinated with getting a sound and looking for a grid and a method and different instruments. I had many instruments as a kid. I got a trombone and I was like, “Here are the partials.” You play octaves. As soon as I learned something, I put it down and not want to do it anymore. Music is in the blood, 100%.
Did you come from a musical family?
No. I have no idea why that happened. I often wonder whether the Milkman was musical or not. My dad plays piano a little bit by ear. There’s nobody else in my direct family that plays. My grandfather on my mother’s side was an artist. He was a technical drawing artist. He wrote books on steam engines and did all of the photographs and pictures. He was a visual artist.
Even though you didn’t have dreams of performing in front of thousands of people, you still found yourself on stages.
I did. Was that a cue to do this? Here’s something I wrote. Here’s one I made. I was the founder and the guitarist in this band, Londonbeat. This was in 1990, 1991. It’s the most played song in the world on the radio by a British writer.
You wrote the song. You played the guitar on the song. I’ve seen a video of you singing as part of that.
I wish was. No. I co-wrote the song. I was the main writer, but I wrote the song with the three singers, who are African American living in the UK, in London. I’m playing everything on the record apart from the drums and some of the bass parts. I can sing well enough to do backgrounds, but no one would ever pay me to sing lead. I’m a songwriter. As long as I can go, “Da da da,” someone who can sing can make what I mean. It was an interesting collaboration. The guys were much older than I was. I was in my twenties. They were in their 40s. They were soul brothers from the ‘70s. They were American. I was British. They were black. I was white. It was this fascinating hybrid of British pop music and American soul. It was successful. We were together for seven years, signed to MCA Records and RCA Records outside of the states. We sold a lot of records.
How have you parlayed that experience and success into being successful as an entrepreneur as part of working for a startup that raised a lot of money? Tell us about that experience, some of the challenges, and the highs and the lows.
I tell people that I’ve done seven startups, which is true. The first real startup was the band. The band, Londonbeat, how it works is similar to starting up a startup. What used to happen has changed a lot in the last few years. What used to happen is you write some songs and you’d finish them and you’d demo them. You’d take those demo recordings to a label and then the label, if they’re interested, would either sign you to a development deal to write some more songs or they would sign you and then you would find a producer. They would fund your startup. What happens then is that you run this little intrapreneur business within the major labels.
I’d been running a recording studio in my early twenties. I got a handle on how to survive and pay the rent and to be self-sufficient. Forming the band, I was lucky. I was introduced to the Eurythmics Management, Sandra Turnbull. At the time, Eurhythmics was one of the biggest bands in the world, Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This), and so on. They were signed to RCA Records. I had these songs that me and the singers, Jimmy Helms, Jimmy Chambers, and George Chandler, had written. All four of us had careers where we made a living independently in the business. We understood what mattered. What mattered was being careful with the cash, testing the songs, testing the product, finding the direction. We were the first MTV Unplugged band. We were the number one.
We used to go out all the time with me playing acoustic guitar and these three guys singing and then I join in and do the background. We did that a lot promoting the records that we made. MTV called up and they said, “Would you come and do some of your songs without the band?” We’re like, “Of course, we will.” I said, “Yes, but I want you to make a big huge TV set. I want us to be on TV.” Bless them, they did. They made us this cheesy cartoon-like TV, a big one, and then we stood inside it. It was the early wacky days of MTV. That was with a guy called Ray Cokes, who was in the MTV Europe. Ray Cokes had a show called Most Wanted with Ray Cokes. He was one of the first shock jocks. He used to do a live show to 220 million people every night without a delay on it. No profanity delay or anything.
Let’s talk about that company you’re working with in Silicon Valley and what that experience was like.
After I was in Londonbeat, I got interested in digital recording. I’ve always been a recording engineer and back in the day, it was tape machines going round and round. You would record on multitrack. That was an early convert to digital recording, particularly with the Avid Pro Tools system, DigiDesign Pro Tools. With three other guys in 1995, we created something called Rocket Network, which was an audio collaboration system that allowed you to network recording studios. We got funded by Paul Allen, by Cisco, by a number of other investors back in the early days before there was an internet, and startup scene. It started in London, in the UK, and then moved it to San Francisco in the end of ‘96, early 97. We raised about $50 million. We created the technology, which is available in Avid as Avid Cloud Collaboration, the first iteration of that. We sold the company to Avid in 2003. That was a rapid and vertical lesson on how to manage and how to build and grow a company. I went from being a guitarist and a songwriter to being a Tech CEO almost overnight.Running a development team was like being in a band with fifteen drummers. Click To Tweet
What was the biggest challenge during that? Managing people?
Not the tech. That’s what’s always interesting.
It was the fact that many developers are socially awkward and that’s part of the reason why they end up as developers. I’m painting a broad stroke here, but it’s fair to say that most of the incredibly talented developers I’ve met have been atypical. I knew about that because drummers are similar. Drummers are atypical. We have a common friend, Kenny Aronoff, who’s one of the most famous drummers in the world. For a drummer, he’s a good guy. He strings a sentence together and he’s funny, but he’s still a drummer. I should say that many of my musician mates are professional drummers, Mark Schulman, and a bunch of them. They’re atypical. They think about different things. I found that running a dev team was like being in a band with fifteen drummers.
It took me a while to figure that out.
Everyone is on their own rhythm. You have to deal with each one slightly different. There’s a reason the band usually has one drummer as opposed to fifteen. Herding cats, a little bit, could be a reference.
Herding drummers and herding cats are similar.
You’ve started Focus@Will, which is a play on words about willpower and your first name. It’s the story of origin of the company.
It wasn’t my idea to name it. We were looking for a name and one of my investors, Salim Ismail, came back and he said, “Focus@Will, that’s the name.” I was like, “Yeah.” Do you know how he sold it to me? It was not my name. He has a strong spiritual outlook on life, similar to my own, and he said, “Will is Prana. Prana is Will, which is the will to live. It’s the will and it also means universal source. It could mean God, too. It’s that thing that is outside of you.” I was like, “That makes sense because it’s a play on words in multiple ways.” It’s been successful. People like it and it makes sense.
The big problem you’re solving is that a lot of people have trouble staying focused, especially if they’re students and they’ve got many distractions going on. Most people don’t take regular breaks and their retention goes down the longer they try to retain things. That concept of solving that problem through music, you’re uniquely qualified to run it. What I find fascinating is a lot of businesses have a narrow niche, but this is for anyone who is both creative and logical. It’s not mutually exclusive. It’s for people who are students and entrepreneurs.
It’s not like you get out of college and you’re done, you still need to focus. Even if you’re a tech person or you’re someone who’s an artist, the need to focus on is something that changes throughout. The fact that you’re using science and math with music, which goes back to your childhood story, is something that I found fascinating when I took a deep dive into this. Would you mind describing some of the distractions? People might say, “I get distracted if my doorbell rings or there’s noise outside.” There are many other distractions that we may not even be aware of. Let’s talk about that.
You know how when you’re sitting down at work and, in theory, there’s no chainsaw outside and there’s no one distracting you and still, you can’t seem to get in the groove. You can’t get your flow going. There are two types of distractions. There are external distractions, which are the ones I talked about. By far, we are more limited by our internal distractions. We have two types of attention. We have our exogenous and our endogenous, our external and our internal. I learned a lot about this through the science team we have at Focus@Will.
Evolutionarily, our non-conscious minds pay attention to certain things that are keeping us safe. For instance, right now, if you smell smoke, you’re going to be like, “I need to check that. I need to pause.” If you smell burning, but it’s toast, you’re going to be like, “That’s toast. It’s not burned.” Your nonconscious attention, your exogenous attention, is constantly monitoring your surroundings. Your internal attention, which is me talking to you, you can concentrate and focus on what we’re talking about.
It was described to me beautifully by Dr. Ed Hallowell, who’s one of my science team. He’s a psychiatrist. He has written some bestselling books. Driven to Distraction that’s the one, which is about being distracted at work. He said, “Your nonconscious attention is like the kids in the backseat when you’re trying to drive somewhere and they’re like, ‘Are we there yet?’” What you can do is you can give them a book or put a video on or give them a Game Boy or whatever the kids are using these days. You can have them be quiet so that you can drive the vehicle.
If you think about, “I’m sitting on my computer and I have a spreadsheet. I have a piece of creative writing. I have some coding to do. I have to look at some QA on a science project.” What you want to do is have the kids in the backseat be quiet. What you’ve found you’re able to do is to play specific types of music. It has to do deal with how easily distracted you are, the types of music. You can play in your unconscious mind a music that soothes it, that makes it calm. It’s like having the kids in the backseat be quiet so you can concentrate on driving.
What a great analogy. One of the things you talk about on the website is that boredom is a distraction. If you’ve ever had to try and tackle something that you’re having trouble remembering, you don’t particularly it’s interesting and you’re like, “I’ve read this. I don’t remember a thing I read. How am I going to pass this test?” About blockchain, I was like, “This is not my idea of fun.” If we’re listening to the right music, science proves that even if something is boring to us, it somehow goes down like the Mary Poppins’ Spoon Full of Sugar concept.
There is a fascinating link between boredom and or lack of happiness. We did a survey with 25,000 of our most engaged users. We have a couple of million people on the system regularly. We asked these 25,000 and we said, “What is your single biggest challenge at work?” We’re like, “I know that’s something to do with productivity.” The answer came back from everybody first was happiness, “I am not happy at work. My challenge is being happy that work.” Second question is, “How do you manage that?” They say, “We like to listen to music when we’re working.” You’re like, “Why do you listen to music while working?” “It’s because it allows me to focus and concentrate and that makes me happy at work when I’m being productive.”Boredom is not the problem. Boredom comes from not feeling productive. Click To Tweet
If I can turn around your question, is being bored a problem? It’s not being productive is the problem and that often creates boredom. If you’re able to manage this process, which is your non-conscious attention, it’s your limbic system. It’s the fight and flight reflex that’s spin all of our brains. If you can manage that response, what it gives you is this sense of peace and calm. It’s a flow state. Even if you’re doing something that is repetitive and is not particularly rewarding, if you’re able to get into a flow state doing that, you will find that there is a pleasure in it and you will be happy at work. Cue the music.
That’s going to be a great Tweet, “Boredom comes from not feeling productive or not being productive at work.” That’s a big a-ha moment for me, certainly. You also have a quiz that I took and I was fascinated. The question that made me laugh was, “Are you considered ADD or OCD?” I meant to check no and I checked yes and I was like, “I’m not exactly paying enough attention to the answer. That’s the wrong outcome. Let’s start the quiz over.” It asked a lot of different questions that I’ve never been asked before. I thought it was a fascinating process in that premise around distraction and focus and work and the combination of questions. You have twelve different options, at least.
There are 36 different options on the main because there are three flavors of each one.
They said, “You would be most productive listening to Electro Bach.” Since you know me, I thought, “Is that a surprise? Does that seem to be much in sync? Did I answer the questions wrong?”
Electro Bach is a unique channel that we created originally for a TV show called Genius on Nat Geo. It’s about Einstein. Einstein used to play the violin to get himself into a flow state. He had some specific pieces he used to play. The producers of the show said, “Is there a link between the pieces he used to play and the research that we’ve done in focus?” We said, “There is.” If anybody is reading and is musical, you’ll know there’s something called a sixteenth note. If the beat is going 1, 2, 3, 4, a 16th note is dividing each one of those up into fourths. You can see there’s a musician going, “Diga, 2, 3, 4 diga.” That is a pulse. Those pulses have been shown to help put you into a flow state. If you listen to Bach, in particular, any of the things that Einstein used to play, they are similar. Techno music is similar. Let me play a little burst of some of Electra Bach. This is what it sounds like.
Would this be something I would listen to on my phone while typing on my computer?
Yes. Listen to it on your computer while you’re working. Eighty percent of our users listen on their laptop because you’re working on your laptop and your phone is a distractor. I talked about the, “Diga.” There’s a pulse intrinsic in this.
How long does it take for the average person to hear that customized choice of music before they feel like they’re in a flow state?
There’s a timer on the app. Most of our users, the average session length is 80 minutes, which is a long time. That’s an hour and twenty minutes. That’s a long time. If you’re working without music that’s helping you focus, you can usually do about twenty minutes before the internal distractions kick in. The reason why we’re able to say that the Focus@Will system increases your focus state and your productivity by 400%, four times, is because instead of working in a twenty-minute chunk, you can work in 80-minute chunks.
Would it be fair to say that the monkey mind that we’ve heard about, conscious conversations with people, it’s quieting?
The kids in the backseat are another way of looking at it. It’s the monkey mind of like, “I need to go. Am I hungry? Am I this? Why haven’t I heard back from that person?” Your mind starts going crazy.
All of the things that you’ve talked about are evolutionarily helpful to us as humans. You and I are in a cave back in the day and we’re drawing on the cave wall, doing some pictures of some tigers and stuff and we’re drinking a cave beer. Our backs would be to the entrance of the cave. What happens is there’s this timer in our brain that goes, “I can’t hear anything outside.” Your nonconscious attention is listening to the sound of the forest, the jungle. After a certain amount of time, you have this urge to check that there isn’t anything dangerous outside the cave.
It makes sense because you can’t assume that something safe now will be safe twenty minutes from now.
We all have this timer, about 20, 25 minutes. When that thing, in our brain, goes, “Did I lock the door? I think I left the oven on. I forgot to do that thing.” When you’re wired into a flow state, that timer is running. There is something called the Pomodoro Technique. You may have come across that. It’s a technique where you work hard for twenty minutes and you take five minutes off. Why is it twenty minutes? It’s called habituation. Our brains work with something called habituation and novelty. We’re always getting used to the sounds around us. If you’re interested in this, anybody reading, you can go to the Focus@Will site. There are articles about this.
You created a little bit of an open-loop saying there are three kinds of flavors once you’re inside a choice. What does that sound like?
It’s a little counterintuitive, but it makes sense if I quickly explain how this works. The quiz, that’s free, you can check it out and it’ll recommend a channel or a type of music that works well for your brain type. Our quiz, you said they’re weird questions. They’re based on a standardized psychological model called The Big Five. They’re weird questions. There are double negative questions in them after thinking them through. What we’re trying to do is to figure out, on your brain type, how easily distracted are you.
We’ve all got friends who are easily distracted. They are like hyper monkeys the whole time. Elon Musk, ADD. He’s not a friend of mine. You can see him and you’re like, “That guy is ADD.” Here’s another one, Jeff Bezos. Look at him. Steve Jobs. They’re all tech guys. What about Oprah? She’s got to be super hyper all the time. The more hyper you are, you might think, “I want to play someone some gentle music to calm them down.” That’s not going to work. It’s the opposite. The more hyper you are, the more energy you need in the music to calm you down.We are soul beings in human bodies. Click To Tweet
This is similar to the fact that kids with ADD are often prescribed stimulants. You probably heard of Ritalin and Adderall, all the other drugs that kids are doing. Weirdly, if a kid is hyper, it calms them down. It’s to do with the way that your nonconscious mind is active if you’re ADD. The stimulants around you, including the music, are able to have you focus. Perhaps I should play you a little burst of this. There’s a channel on the system called ADHD Type 1. About 5% of our users listen to this and find it relaxing and they’re able to work.
I would not be in that percent.
Isn’t that crazy?
If you are ADD, that is good. It sets you on a groove and helps you get into a flow state. Most people in our system come up with either the Electro Bach or there’s a downtempo channel called Alpha Chill. Here’s a typical track from that. It’s like musical and easy going.
One of the things that I wanted to talk to you about before I let you go is you experienced a life-threatening heart attack and did a little bit of a recovery period. My first question is, what music did you listen to deal with the pain and the boredom of being in the hospital after your heart attack?
I had never been in a hospital before. In June 2018, I had an out of the blue widowmaker heart attack. I had no idea I was at risk. They said, “Look at your father.” My dad is in his late 80s and still causing havoc. I had this heart attack and then I woke up eight days later. My life was saved by my wife who gave me CPR and then the medics came, but I had no recollection of any of that. I started to regain consciousness over the next 8 or 9 days. The hospitals are noisy, pokey, prody. You can’t sleep. Every three hours, they wake you up. The music is awful, generally. They have music on the TV. I was in a hospital in Santa Monica, in California. The music that helped me was Baroque string music, Vivaldi, Four Seasons, music that I knew as a kid growing up. I trained as a classical musician so I had to learn some of this stuff.
Are you finding yourself more focused not just at work but being more present in life and not sweating the small stuff after this life-changing event?
I’m more still, generally, than I was. I found peace. I died and I described it as I shook God’s hand. There was no white light tunnel for me. Everything went off and I had a widowmaker heart attack experience. I was aware that there is this beautiful and loving energy. I was always coming back to consciousness. Every time you breathe in, you connect to this beautiful loving energy. It’s like loving awareness. It’s like a familiar love you have from your mother. It’s the love you have from people you know. It’s the love you feel when you see something beautiful. You see a beautiful nature scene or you’re in a forest. Every time we breathe, we connect to that. I was taken off the ventilator. You’re on this breathing tube, which is gruesome. The first breath I took after they took me off the ventilator was the sweetest, beautiful breath. I remember connecting to the source, to Universal Power, to God. Whatever you want to call it, there’s this loving awareness. There’s this beautiful, loving energy that we’re all part of. It’s simple. We are soul beings in human bodies.
Music is a way. Focus@Will is a way to get the right music to get us into that state as much as possible. That’s why you’re reinforced and you’re doing the right thing, even before you had the heart attack. It’s even a bigger mission for everyone. Will, I can’t thank you enough. If everyone wants to know more about you and Focus@Will, the website is FocusAtWill.com. Any other last thought you want to leave us with?
The whole heart attack and coming back to life, it’s made me conscious of wanting to make a difference and be of service. Entrepreneurial Men’s Group based out of Los Angeles is called METAL International. It’s a group of entrepreneurial thinking, heart-centered men. We represent all kinds of men. I’ve become the CEO and co-leader of this group. Since I came back from the dead, a big part of my life has been wanting to serve and to make sure that the elders of the tribe are passing their wisdom down to the younger members who have a fresh and different view on it. Reply with the favor back. Men’s work and leading men’s work is an important part of my life.
That’s where we met, at that METAL organization. Now that it’s virtual, it’s global. It’s another wonderful way to get back and connect and learn. You’re certainly loved and admired as a leader. I’m honored to have some time to ask you some questions and get some insights into what makes you that we can all aspire to be the best version of ourselves.
Thank you, John.
I got a soundbite for you, you know how you’ve got special friends in your life and then any your special friends, you have someone else who accepts you and loves you exactly as you are? These are the special, few humans in my life and you, John Livesay are on that list. It’s a small list. Thank you.
I was honored to speak at your virtual wedding and have to visit me in Austin here. It’s likewise, equally, reciprocal. If you can find friends that become your family, you have a lot to be grateful for. That’s for sure.
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