AirPods Pro Can Help You Hack Your Brain

How to use Apple’s signature noise-canceling earbuds to drop into a creative flow

Photo: Daniel Romero/Unsplash

I am always looking for hacks that allow me to get into the zone faster, stay there longer, and increase my creative output. Here’s a new trick that has been working for me lately.

You may recall my previous advice on how to trigger flow with coffee. The idea here is the same. Our bodies are programmable, and if we are intentional about the inputs we allow into our system, we can optimize how we experience the world. Sound is a critical ingredient of our mental interface, and using it to your advantage should be a part of your flow-hacking strategy.

For Christmas this year, I got a pair of AirPods Pro. I was expecting them to be an upgrade to my aging first-generation AirPods, but what I experienced was something unexpected. When I first inserted the AirPods Pro in my ears, the sensation was disorienting. I’ve heard other people describe it as adding a soundtrack to your life. Others call them Apple’s first augmented reality device. That’s not what it feels like to me. The closest thing I can compare it to is flow, that euphoric feeling when the world disappears and you are alone with your work. It feels like an altered state. This makes it an ideal tool for flow hacking.

If you doubt my experience, I should probably mention that I am not new to noise-canceling headphones. I have over-the-ear Bose noise-canceling headphones that I use at work. I love them. For me, they are the only thing that makes working in an open office space tolerable. And while my productivity has improved because of the Bose headphones, they don’t automatically trigger flow.

But AirPods Pro are different. The sensation is deeper, almost inside your skull. I especially notice it when I pull the AirPods Pro out of my ears and re-enter the real world. It is like the first steps as you exit an escalator, where the world slows down and it takes you a moment to reorient yourself. Why not use this sensation to your advantage?

Here are four suggestions for how to control flow using AirPods Pro.

1. Only use AirPods Pro for creative work

The first recommendation is disappointing, I know. AirPods Pro are expensive, and you want to get as much utility out of them as possible. Unfortunately, if you use them all the time, you will deplete their ability to consistently trigger flow. If you also use AirPods Pro when you run or while you clean the house, you are giving your body mixed signals. By isolating your usage exclusively to times when you are intentionally doing creative work, you are training your mind to associate the AirPods Pro sensation with flow. Like Pavlov’s dog, every time AirPods Pro insertion is followed by flow, the trigger is strengthened.

If you decide to use your AirPods Pro to hack your flow, you might find you aren’t fully using their transparency mode. While the transparency feature works as advertised, this function is counterproductive when the goal is flow. We don’t want to make it easy to break out of flow — we want to stay in the groove as long as possible. Interruptions happen, however, so it is handy to be able to turn off the noise-canceling with a gentle squeeze of the AirPods stem. If you find yourself toggling it too often, this might be a sign that the environment you have chosen isn’t ideal for creative work.

2. Ritualize the process

Perhaps you already have a creative ritual. If so, incorporate AirPods Pro into your ritual. If you don’t have a ritual, consider starting one. Everybody is different, and you should personalize the ritual to suit your preferences. It doesn’t have to be fancy or time-consuming. You are simply defining a series of actions that you perform in a prescribed order.

Here’s what my ritual looks like. My Saturday mornings are holy. I wake up, prepare my coffee, wrap myself in a blanket, and write. Location is important, and for me, that means being in the office in my basement, surrounded by books, toys, and records. I try to avoid using this space for anything but work to prevent creative contamination.

How do AirPods Pro fit into your ritual? Adding AirPods to your routine might be as simple as storing them on the charger on the table next to where you do your creative work. Let that be their home. When you are ready to work, open Apple’s pure white shell, pause to appreciate the pearls nestled in their bed, note the pleasing confirmation of the green light, then put them on. Feel the world disappear as you slip into flow.

3. Pair with the right music

Songs have the power to be more than just background music. Like an athlete selecting the tracks for the playlist that pumps them up before a game, music can elevate your mental state. You probably already know what type of music pairs best with the type of work you do. Some people reach for classical music, others for metal or techno. Some people can work to music with vocals, but I find lyrics to be distracting. I default to electronic music, movie soundtracks, or a playlist on Apple Music called “Classicaltronics.” The genre you choose matters less than the intentionality of your music selection.

One thing to avoid, however, is fiddling with your playlist while you are working. Hunting for music is procrastination. You want to be able to turn the music on and let it play, preferably without ever having to skip a track or switch albums. Apple Music’s radio stations or playlists are nice because they outsource the music selection process so you don’t have to think about it.

4. When the magic stops, pull the plug

Despite our best intentions, we can’t stay in the flow indefinitely. Eventually, the magic will wear off. When you get to that point, don’t force it. Remember, we want to associate AirPods Pro with the deepest moments of flow, so if you are grinding through unproductive periods with your headphones on, you are reinforcing negative feedback. It is better to stop. When writing, I tend to max out around 1,500 words. Once the inspiration stops, I have learned it is better to walk away rather than force it and get frustrated.

Ideally, as your system gets better, you will be able to stay in the flow longer and longer. Inevitably there will be days when you just can’t find the groove. When that happens, forgive yourself. Take comfort in the fact that you showed up and did the work but the muse didn’t appear. It’s not your fault. You will show up again next time because that’s what artists do.

I hope you find my AirPods Pro hacks helpful. I am a single data point, so I am curious to know if my story matches your experience. Are you able to achieve the same effect with non-Apple headphones? What type of music works for you? If these suggestions work for you, let me know. Or if you have other tricks that work for you, please share them. Message me on Twitter (@ade3).

One final recommendation

I believe that part of the reason the AirPods Pro hack works so well for me is that I have always struggled with sensory issues. Aside from the carefully controlled environment of my home, most other places are uncomfortable for me. I don’t talk about it much because it just sounds like I am complaining. But honestly, public spaces have been a lifelong obstacle because my senses are easily overwhelmed by sound, movement, light, smell, temperature, and people. If you can relate to that feeling, I recommend a book called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. It is easy to feel like sensitivity is a flaw when in reality, it is more like a superpower. And just like the origin story of a superhero, you have to go through a training phase where you learn how to use your powers. The book Quiet is the guide I wish I’d had earlier in life when I was still figuring out how to function in a noisy world.

Author of User Zero: Inside the Tool that is Reshaping Dystopia

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