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The Secret Sounds of Productivity

Don't be so quick to dismiss the co-worker who spends every day listening to music on his or her headphones. They may just be working more productively than you.
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WORKetc music for productivityt

A laptop, a smartphone, and a pair of headphones—these three items have become the new essentials in almost every modern office in the world.

Noise-cancelling headphones have become particularly ubiquitous, especially in open-plan offices or coworking spaces like WeWork, where the ability to drown out background noise is a must.

It’s not just about getting a much-needed break from noise, though. There’s a mountain of evidence out there suggesting that listening to music while working can actually help you do your job better and more efficiently.

Music for Repetitive Tasks

Some studies have found that when we have to do clearly defined, repetitive tasks, listening to music can help increase our efficiency and concentration.

A research group from the University of Birmingham in England conducted a study focused on the effects of background music in an industrial setting. The results showed that the presence of music effectively increases efficiency, even under “unfavourable conditions” produced by background machine noise.

These results can easily be applied to a more modern office setting. Just replace machine noise with the typical sounds you hear in an office, such as clacking keyboards, one-sided phone conversations (which are, incidentally, more distracting than overhearing actual conversations), and idle chatter around the water cooler.

As for the repetitive tasks? While they’re nowhere near assembly line work, we still face a host of repetitive tasks every day, such as entering data in a spreadsheet or marking a ton of emails as read.

The study linked above was first published in 1972. If you’re looking for something more recent, a 2012 study from the University of Windsor in Canada also found similar results. Data gathered by evaluating 56 software developers showed that quality of work was lowest and time on task was longest when music wasn’t present.

Skip Your Favorites

Of course, there’s a pretty big caveat here: not every type of music is conducive to concentration. Music with lyrics, for instance, can be a double-edged sword.

A study conducted by Cambridge Sound Management focusing on sound masking in offices found that background speech intelligibility played a big part in increasing participants’ ability to recall a series of words and numbers.

If you’re listening to a song with lyrics, especially one you’re familiar with, your brain can’t help but shift its focus to remembering and processing those lyrics. You end up multitasking; you might have fun singing along, sure, but your concentration may suffer.

Fortunately, it’s easy to find instrumental playlists on Spotify or YouTube. Other services, like Focus@Will, offer “scientifically optimized music” to help you focus on your work. It’s a paid service, though, and costs $9.95 a month.

Speaking of instrumentals, there’s one genre that some people may not even think about trying: video game soundtracks. Companies spend lot of time and money to specifically engineer these songs to be unobtrusive and help players focus on gameplay, so it makes sense that they’re usually more conducive to increasing efficiency and focus than, say, the latest Taylor Swift track. This Reddit thread is a good starting point for recommendations.

Because they are mostly unfamiliar with these songs, non-gamers may get even more mileage out of them than people who can, for example, hum every single song from any Final Fantasy soundtrack note for note.

According to a group of researchers from Fu Jen Catholic University in Taiwan, the more you either like or hate the background music, the more you can became distracted by it. They recommend listening to something that you’re either unfamiliar with or ambivalent about.

Genre Matters

There’s also some evidence that the genre you listen to can have different effects depending on the task you’re working on. A recent study by Mindlab International found the following results:

  • Classical music helps increase attention to detail. It improved participants’ accuracy when solving mathematical word problems by 12 percent compared to when they didn’t listen to music at all.
  • Pop music is a good soundtrack for data entry work, with participants completing tasks 5 percent faster than they did when they didn’t listen to music at all. It also helped them cut spell-checking mistakes by 14 percent.
  • Ambient music is great when you’re solving equations. This genre helped participants post the highest accuracy levels for tasks involving equations.
  • Dance music should be your go-to genre when you just want an overall boost in speed, accuracy, and performance.

A quick Spotify search should bring up a host of playlists full of songs that fall into each of these specific genres. Here’s a 9-hour playlist to get you started:

You can also check the r/musicforconcentration subreddit for even more recommendations, a lot of which are tagged according to genre.

Useful Ambient Noise

What if your job requires more than a dash of creativity? Let’s say you’re writing a 2,000-word blog post or you need to produce multiple logo design drafts for a client. That’s when you should skip the Spotify playlist and turn up the ambient noise.

The volume can be extremely important as well. A paper published in the Journal of Consumer Research suggests that a moderate level of noise is the sweet spot. The results showed that this volume level more effectively promotes abstract processing and higher creativity, even more so than ambient noise at low volumes.

Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute also found that ambient noises with natural elements can boost your mood and focus better than plain white noise can. The clip they used in the study, which was the sounds of a mountain stream, was also random enough to keep it from being distracting.

Personally, I use Noisli whenever I need my ambient noise fix. You can mix and match the type of ambient noise you want to hear (I like my campfire, rain, and coffee shop combo), set the volume levels, save your combos, and put everything on a timer.

A Soft Murmur is another free ambient noise website, although it doesn’t have a “save” option. There’s also no iOS app, unlike Noisli, which has Android and iOS apps as well as a Chrome extension.

What kind of music do you listen to when you’re at work? Share your experiences and song recommendations in the comments.

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