I have a teenage son who swears listening to music helps him pay attention during school. After doing some research, I'm not so sure about that.
There are some workplace distractions that we all know torpedo our productivity.
We don’t need an article to tell us that social media and break room chatter hinder us from getting things done. But what about music? Afterall, that’s what we use to block out distractions and get in the zone. Do our favorite tunes actually make us productive or do they slow us down? It turns out that the answer to that question depends on why you listen, how easily you get bored, and what you’re playing.
The goal: avoid multitasking
The golden rule of music and productivity is that you must avoid multitasking at all costs. There’s no better way to hamstring your productivity, torpedo your IQ, and potentially damage your brain than by trying to divide your focus between two tasks.¹ So if you’re listening to music to drown out your talkative co-workers or that weird noise the AC makes, you’re on the right track. If you’re jamming out to tracks that make you think about highschool crushes and epic concerts, you might be doing yourself more harm than good.
Complexity and distraction
But it gets more complicated. Some people respond better to working while listening to music than others. A study discovered that boredom-prone individuals performed both simple and complex tasks better in silence, while the opposite was true for the less boredom-prone.² The researchers hypothesized that the jobs at hand were engaging enough to keep the easily bored occupied. The music was unnecessary external stimulation that dragged their attention away.
This means that there isn’t a one size fits all solution for using music for productivity. If you’re easily bored and distracted, you might want to avoid music while you work altogether. Noise cancelling headphones might come in handy, but be sure not to pump music through them. By contrast, more naturally focused individuals might find soft background music helps them zone out the noise and laser in on what they need to do.
What makes good focus music?
So let’s say you’re not distraction prone and you like working to some tunes. What music should you listen to? Despite what your uncle in the orchestra would have you believe, there isn’t a single best genre of music to stimulate your brain (sorry, Mozart). What you’re looking for is music with certain qualities.
First, find music that’s the right tempo. You’re shooting for around 60 beats per minute to minimize stress and promote focus. No dance music or break-neck metal! Second, avoid words. You’re probably listening to music in an attempt to cancel out conversation, not distract you with lyrics chock full of hidden meaning and symbolism that may catch your curiosity. Choose instrumental music over your favorite lyrical genius next time you need to work. A third option is to find something to listen to that’s not even music: nature sounds. Weirdly enough, trickling streams and the soft fall of rain are all random enough sounds that your brain doesn’t even bother with attempting pattern recognition. It’s a great way to mask office noise if music just isn’t working for you.
Ultimately, you’re looking for music (or nature sounds or white noise) that reduces diversions without becoming a diversion itself. Make this an opportunity to explore new kinds of music and try listening to them next time you need to focus on a project. And let me know if you find any hidden gems of slow classical music being performed in front of a gurgling mountain stream!
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