White Noise vs. Noise Isolation vs. Playlists: The Best Sound for Focus
When you want to be focused and productive, what is the best thing to listen to? It’s one of those questions where you can’t get an answer that applies to everyone. So MakeUseOf talked to a few people who actively put on their headphones when they want to focus on work, to find out what’s playing, why it’s helpful, and who it’s helpful for.
The Internet has a lot of advice on the best music to boost your productivity , but if you have tried some of these suggestions, you know that it’s not as simple as the article makes it sound. It may not always work; and if it does, you might still need to tweak it to your requirements.
The best learnings come from people who practice ideas, not preach. So let’s see what they have to say about the different philosophies on what you should listen to at work.
The dulling sound of white noise has been a popular productivity hack for those who want to cut out distractions. MakeUseOf spoke with Pranav Dixit, who oversees technology coverage at The Hindustan Times, and someone who has seen his productivity spike since he started using white noise.
Productivity hack: plug in your earphones, and listen to white/brown/pink noise instead of music!
— Martin Sweeny (@martin_sweeny) June 30, 2015
Using For: 3 years
What’s Your Work: Writing
Workplace Setup: I work in a newsroom with lots of people. I have a basic desk and chair, with a laptop.
What’s Playing: I use brown noise, not white noise, to be specific. White noise is a little too “hissy” for my liking and brown noise works better for me as it is more “muffled”. I’m not sure I’m using the right terms to describe this, but I think you get the idea. Head to www.SimplyNoise.com (also a great app for white noise ) to hear all three noises—white, brown and pink.
Why It’s Useful: It blocks out all external distractions (like people talking to you or phone calls) and also helps with my ADD and writer’s block. It’s also useful for research, like reading long articles where you need to absorb the information. Plus, when I finally take my headphones off, it’s like waking up from a dream and coming back to the real world. It’s actually really refreshing.
Disadvantages: I cannot hear anyone calling my name and people have to usually tap me on my shoulder to get my attention — not always ideal in an office. Also can’t hear phone calls.
I didn't realize how much the open office was distracting until today when I brought my good headphones + put on white noise. Productivity!
— Meredith Rich (@MeredithRich) June 29, 2015
Who It’s For: Writers, editors, researchers, coders — basically anyone who needs to focus on a particular task without being constantly distracted. If you tend to focus on the lyrics and the instruments when you play music, white noise is a better alternative.
Pro Tip: Use it sparingly, only for those hours of focused work. Remember, the idea is isolation and focus, so also switch off Twitter, Facebook and turn off all tech distractions .
While a lot of research suggests music or white noise or other such audio to drown out distracting sounds, some people prefer to keep it simple: Just shut out all noise altogether. Silence can be unnerving at first, but if you get used to it, it can hone your focus. MakeUseOf spoke to Harshawardhan Sabale, CEO of Ogle, who swears by this productivity technique.
— MnMmom (@MnMmom) October 7, 2014
Using For: 9 years
What’s Your Work: Coding, design
Workplace Setup: I work alone in a room at home. I’ve set up a TV running Windows and I sit on a couch with a wireless keyboard. And of course, my trusty in-ear electronic noise cancellation headphones. (Check out the best noise cancellation headphones on a budget )
What’s Playing: Nothing. I tried soundtracks and other stuff, I found it too distracting.
The impact of my noise cancellation @nokia / Monster Purity Pro headphones on my productivity cannot be overestimated
— 'LocalJoost' [)-) van Schaik (@LocalJoost) January 28, 2014
Why It’s Useful: Total noise isolation lets me shut out everything else. Coding and design requires focused, intense concentration on what your eyes are processing alone, so this is a good way of shutting out distractions processed by the ears.
Disadvantages: You cannot hear anything else at all.
Who It’s For: Coders and designers.
Pro Tip: Use it only for peak focus. Also, I use it primarily at nights which, in any case, is the most productive time for any work requiring concentration, in my opinion.
You can only actively pay attention to 1.6 conversations at a time, says Julian Treasure in his TED talk. If your work is writing or researching, or anything else to do with words or numbers, then you don’t want things you listen to adding to the information overload. The solution, some researchers say, is to just take the words out of songs and listen to instrumental tracks, which you can even download for free . MakeUseOf’s own Matthew Hughes swear by this.
Using For: 3-4 years
What’s Your Work: Coding, design
Workplace Setup: I’m a remote worker with my own, secluded space at home. I use an Ikea Gallant desk with a standard leather office chair. I have a dual-monitor setup, with an Apple keyboard and an Anker three button mouse. And my trusty noise-cancelling A-Audio Legacy headphones (which I reviewed ).
What’s Playing: Usually jazz (from Miles Davis to Brad Mehldau) and classical (from Philip Glass to Ryuichi Sakamoto).
My productivity has increased since listening to soothing instrumental music while I work
— Manda (@Slamanda3) August 4, 2015
Why It’s Useful: The tempo is right for what I do — primarily writing and sometimes coding. I believe that slow and steady, not fast and chaotic, wins the race. I used to use Focus At Will, which Justin wrote about in 2013 , but I wasn’t that much of a fan.
Disadvantages: Honestly, I haven’t found any. If it didn’t work for me, I wouldn’t use it.
Who It’s For: Writers and creative folks, mainly.
Pro Tip: Quite often, I’ll spend the day listening to Spotify’s “Coffee Table Jazz” playlist.
A new school of thought says that video game soundtracks are great for concentration, such as when you’re studying. There’s no research to back this up, but you’ll find several people online claiming its benefits. Philip Bates, a writer at MakeUseOf and Doctor Who fan site Kasterborous [No Longer Available], thinks TV show soundtracks are even better.
Using For: 8-9 years
What’s Your Work: Writing
Workplace Setup: I’ve a PC in the lounge, with a television off to my far left, and before that, a player that does vinyl, CD, radio, and even tapes. I’ve basically got everything I need in close proximity.
What’s Playing: Usually TV show soundtracks , specifically the fantastic Doctor Who ones that have been released since late 2006. Most of it is instrumental, that creates a sense of mood and a great atmosphere.
Not only is #Downton smashing Sunday eve tv, the soundtrack is also productivity-boosting. Reckon I owe my delivering on time to Downtown!
— Liz Morray (@lizmorray) October 20, 2011
Why It’s Useful: They’re a great accompaniment whether you’re working on fiction or non-fiction, journalism, or novel-writing. Probably the most effective use is when screenwriting (along with other tools ). The tracks were crafted to television or film and despite being essentially classical music, they’re often more succinct. This music also helps you get into the mood for a fictitious environment quickly, like listening to a Christmassy soundtrack to feel festive in July.
Disadvantages: The mood-creating ability is a double-edged sword, so be careful. If you’re writing a very dramatic scene, you don’t want a quirky oddity playing. And associations can be strong if you know a show inside out; certain music can take you back, and you’ll be thinking about scenes and speeches when you should be concentrating on work instead.
Who It’s For: Writers — fiction or non-fiction. In fact, anyone who’s trying to portray strong emotion in their work should listen to soundtracks.
Pro Tip: Use soundtracks to go from one extreme emotion to another quickly. An exhilarating song can make an article oddly more exciting. If you’re stuck with something – whatever the subject, whatever you’re doing – a fast-paced track can spur you on.
The thing about listening to music while you work? It can distract you with the words or tunes. So let’s try listening to music which you know intimately, so that your brain doesn’t need to process it. At least that’s what MakeUseOf’s Andre Infante thinks. Catchy pop music is his thing because he knows the words, he knows the tunes, and he doesn’t have to deal with surprises.
Using For: 3 years
What’s Your Work: Research and article writing. I track down sources, synthesize information, write and edit articles, and add links and images.
What’s Playing: Any pop music which I know well. I find silence distracting, and new music also tends to pop into my conscious awareness too often to be productive, so I try to stick with songs I’ve already heard a million times.
Why It’s Useful: Pop has the benefit that it’s engineered to be pleasant, and you’ve heard it so many times that it doesn’t even engage the language center of your brain any longer. Looping the same song over and over helps to emphasize this effect.
Disadvantages: I blast my speakers at the loudest volume. One of these days, my downstairs neighbor is going to poison me. Aside from that, it’s all smooth sailing.
Who It’s For: People who find that they keep thinking about the music they’re listening to, instead of the work they’re trying to do.
Pro Tip: Use it for writing, but not for programming or other focus-heavy difficult tasks. For example, programming is difficult enough that I find that it doesn’t really matter what I listen to.
What Music Works For You?
So, let’s hear your views on music and productivity. Here’s a quick template, fill it up and share it in the comments! Let’s learn from each other…
- What you listen to:
- How many years you have tried it:
- Why it’s useful:
- Disadvantages, if any:
- Pro tip:
Image Credits:Woman with Headphones by Volt Collection via Shutterstock
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