Benefits of listening to music while you work

Lis­ten­ing to the right music while work­ing has been a tremen­dous pro­duc­tiv­i­ty boost­er for me over the past few years. I have found myself more focused, ener­gized, and optimistic—which allows me to get more done—and keeps me feel­ing relaxed and present.

While I under­stand there are musi­cal anhe­do­nics (peo­ple who are com­plete­ly unaf­fect­ed by music), a 2014 study shows that “the vast major­i­ty of human pop­u­la­tions find [music] plea­sur­able.” (Mas-Her­rero et al., Cur­rent Biol­o­gy)

Do you listen to music while you work?

I had nev­er real­ly thought about this until I inter­viewed film­mak­er Ryan Craig for a col­lege paper. He told me that when he writes, he lis­tens to loud music. I couldn’t believe this. I won­dered if he would “acci­den­tal­ly” write the lyrics of a song instead of what he was think­ing. It turned out that was not an issue for him. Instead, it helped to “put him in the zone” to get words on the page.

I also found out that Jony Ive (the design­er of the iPod, iPhone, and Mac) lis­tens to loud tech­no-music while he works. So I decid­ed to give it a shot.

Music improves focus

Music first start­ed mak­ing a pos­i­tive impact on my work when I was writ­ing my hon­ors the­sis for my under­grad degree. I need­ed to enter deep work, so I played Bon Iver’s For Emma, For­ev­er Ago on repeat. I found that I could lis­ten to that record indef­i­nite­ly with­out get­ting sick of it. And, since I can’t under­stand half the lyrics with­out look­ing them up, I didn’t get mixed up with the singing.

Accord­ing to Focus at Will,

Sci­en­tists have dis­cov­ered that depend­ing on your per­son­al­i­ty type, there is a spe­cif­ic type of “music” that when engi­neered just right, puts your brain into a “flow state” mak­ing you hyper-focused and expo­nen­tial­ly more pro­duc­tive.

This is def­i­nite­ly true for me. (And by impli­ca­tion, seems to be work­ing for bil­lion­aire Jony Ive!)

Your brain in a flow state

In Daniel Pink’s John­ny Bunko, the main char­ac­ter is intro­duced to the idea of “flow” in the work­place and is pre­sent­ed with a def­i­n­i­tion:

Flow, also known as the zone, is the men­tal state of oper­a­tion in which a per­son per­form­ing an activ­i­ty is ful­ly immersed in a feel­ing of ener­gized focus, full involve­ment, and enjoy­ment in the process of the activ­i­ty. (Wikipedia)

I don’t know about you, but FLOW and THE ZONE are very real things. When they’re not present, I’m not myself. I take cre­at­ing FLOW very seri­ous­ly, to the point where I’ll go to extreme mea­sures and buy real­ly nice stuff to ensure my envi­ron­ment is just right.

Why do I listen to music while I work?

  1. To focus. I’ve use spe­cif­ic songs and albums so when I hear the first few bars, I know it’s time to get to work.
  2. To mea­sure time. Most of the time while work­ing, I’ll lis­ten to one album on repeat. When I hear the first song again, I know that about 40–60 min­utes has passed. It’s kind of like Peter Bregman’s hourly beep.
  3. Set an atmos­phere. If I am feel­ing stressed, the right music can often change my mood. I keep a few relax­ing albums ready to play so that when I’m feel­ing anx­ious, I can calm down.

Strate­gi­cal­ly choos­ing music for blocks of your day can help to put you in the right frame of mind while work­ing. What fol­lows is a list of what I lis­ten to through­out the day.

Early morning music 5:00am — 8:30am

  1. Nat King Cole – The Piano Style of Nat King Cole I love Nat King Cole’s voice, but his piano play­ing is just as dis­tinc­tive and soul­ful. This record is relax­ing, pos­i­tive, and sets an opti­mistic tone for the day.
  2. Vince Guaral­di – The Very Best Of Vince Guaral­di Guaral­di is one of my favorite musi­cians. “Soft­ly, As In A Morn­ing Sun­rise” is one of the best to lis­ten to while I’m mak­ing break­fast and cof­fee.
  3. Lar­ry Carl­ton — Lar­ry Carl­ton This album rocks. It’s like instru­men­tal Steely Dan. Com­plex, yet smooth.

Morning music — 9:00am

  1. Jason Mraz — Yes! Hope and I lis­tened to this record a lot while we were away for our hon­ey­moon in Hawaii. I love lis­ten­ing to it because it brings back warm, fun mem­o­ries. It’s pos­i­tive, sil­ly, and authen­tic.
  2. Lake Street Dive — Side Pony I found this artist because their song “You Go Down Smooth” is used to sell BOSE speak­ers (you might hear it if you test a speak­er out at Tar­get). They are also excel­lent live. This song (Gaw­daw­ful Things) is my “work jam.” I’m also obsessed with this song.
  3. Bon Iver — Bon Iver For rainy, cold morn­ings, I some­times play Bon Iver. It depends on what kind of work I’m doing. If I’m writ­ing, I like to lis­ten to this because they lyrics are hard­er to under­stand.

Afternoon music 12:00pm

  1. John May­er — Con­tin­u­um Every song on this album has a spe­cial mem­o­ry for me. The over­all mood of the record is uptem­po and pos­i­tive. It helps me push through the after­noon.
  2. Bea­t­les — Revolver So many great songs on this one, too. Again, you’ll notice the trend: uptem­po, push­ing for­ward, ener­getic.
  3. Raelee Nikole – Answers I stum­bled on this artist on Spo­ti­fy. She has a warm voice and pos­i­tive spir­it. In the after­noon when I start feel­ing slug­gish, this record keeps me flow­ing.

Maybe in anoth­er post I’ll talk about the dif­fer­ences of play­ing music through head­phones vs loud­speak­ers. As a sneak peak, I some­times have a bet­ter lis­ten­ing expe­ri­ence when the speak­er is in a dif­fer­ent room and I’m lis­ten­ing to the “essence” of the music trav­el­ing to where I’m sit­ting. And in anoth­er post, I might dis­cuss how the vol­ume of sound con­tributes to pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. Until then, I hope you found this use­ful and can maybe try exper­i­ment­ing with dif­fer­ent styles of music in your work­place.

[reminder]Do you lis­ten to music while you work? Why or why not?[/reminder]