Most knowledge workers you see grinding in coffee shops will be completely deaf to the world. Their headphones welded to the side of their skulls, blasting all manner of genres into those eardrums. The same is increasingly true in the cubicles and open offices the world over.
But mostly gone are the days when managers thought that an employee listening to music is an employee not giving their best. It’s now widely accepted that in many cases listening to music actually enhances productivity, or at least doesn’t make us less productive.
In an article for The New York Times, Amisha Padnani explains: “Some workers like to listen to music when they find themselves losing focus. They may also plug in their earbuds to escape an environment that’s too noisy — or too quiet”.
Music can help us to both alter our mental states and distract us from the physical world. Whether that’s to help us unwind, save us from unbearable boredom, focus on deep work, or just drown out the incessant chattering of our colleagues.
But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. You can’t just press play and become a productivity black belt. Some music is great for some things but utterly terrible for others.
In the case of work, this is generally split into two camps: mundane work and focused work. Listening to the right kinds of music when you’re struggling to focus on one of these kinds of tasks can have a profound effect on your productivity.
The Best Music for Mundane Work
Like it or not, we’ve all got mundane, repetitive tasks to do. Hammering through emails, data entry, copy-pasting. It’s all pretty dull.
When facing these mundane tasks, music can really help you get through the trough of despair.
Interestingly, however, the benefit doesn’t come from the music itself, but from the way the music alters your mood. Researchers at the University of Windsor call this “positive mood alteration” [PDF].
Basically, a miserable, bored worker will slow down and become less productive. But with the right kind of upbeat, up-tempo music, they’ll find renewed energy, and productivity will increase. Provided they don’t need to use their brain too much, in which case, this kind of energy-enhancing music will just be a distraction.
The Mundane Work Playlist
Ok, you got me. There isn’t one. There is no set playlist to help you get through your long list of boring tasks. The basic rule (and good news) is that you should simply listen to what makes you feel good, keeps you focused, and your energy levels up. Naturally, something up-tempo usually works pretty well, but it’s all subjective.
Whether you listen to some James Brown, Rammstein, or Lady GaGa, it doesn’t matter. As long as the music keeps your mind off the tedium of your work, and helps you to stay in the zone, you’re good.
The Best Music for Focused Work
When tackling tougher tasks that demand your full concentration, the rules become more stringent. That’s unless, of course, you find yourself being most productive while in complete silence.
But if you’re finding it hard to concentrate on tough work, the right kind of music could help. What you need are songs that cause a “positive mood alteration” that helps you to truly focus on your work, rather than forget about its dullness.
That essentially rules out the distraction of the up-tempo music required for mundane tasks. According to research from the University of Cardiff, the music we use to accompany mundane tasks usually contains lots of acoustical variation. This impairs your ability to recall information, which is vital to doing good, focused work.
What you need, instead, is music without those big melodic and acoustic variations. You need to be on the lookout for ambient music with a focus on repetition. Research also shows that you should also be avoiding music containing lyrics, as these activate the linguistic areas of your brain, thereby pulling attention from the task at hand.
Whatever tracks you choose to listen to, make sure you enjoy the music. Research from the University in Xinzhuang City, Taiwan found that if you dislike the music, your productivity will only be hampered. Even if it fits every other requirement in this list.
The Focused Work Playlist
There are plenty of categories of music where you’ll find tracks that fit these requirements. The most common being classical, ambient chillout, video game soundtracks, and natural sounds.
Ambient chillout was the top choice for anyone working with equations. A lot of programmers also swear by ambient chillout to help keep their focus while at work. This is largely due to how easy it is to essentially ignore this kind of music. There’s a decent selection of ambient chillout on MusicForProgrammers.net.
Video Game Soundtracks
Video game soundtracks have also been shown to help improve productivity. This makes a lot of sense. Game developers purposefully produce soundtracks that add emotion to a game, without distracting from it. This is exactly what you need when you want music that won’t distract you from your work. We’ve included a list of these in an article on the best game soundtracks for studying.
And finally, natural sounds. Research shows that sounds from nature help to mask distracting noises, and therefore increase concentration. There are plenty of places to find this kind of background noise.
What Will You Listen To?
To sum up, if you’re finding it hard to get into the mood to do your work, music could well be the answer. It’s also likely to help if silence or annoying background noise is taking you away from your work.
But the kind of music you should be listening to is dictated by the kind of work you need to do.
If you’re facing a backlog of mundane work, anything that increases your energy, and takes your mind away from the tedium of your work will likely help. It doesn’t matter what genre you pick.
If you’re tackling much harder work, you need to pick music that helps to keep your mind off distractions and on your work. Search any music streaming service, including YouTube, for the genres mentioned above, and you’ll easily be able to find fantastic playlists that meet these requirements.
Which music helps you stay productive at work?
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