Want to Be More Productive? Here's What Can Help

Alex Boswell

A useful trick to get into the flow state.

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I come from a musical family, and though I was the only one to pursue it at university, most of us can play the piano to some degree and have basic knowledge of music theory. It was this background in music that taught me to appreciate it both emotionally as well as practically. One of the best lessons I learned while studying music was its ability to command emotion and states of mind (and how to manipulate them).

We all sort of know this anyway, right? Hollywood has taught us if we hear some slow piano and violin, something sad is happening. If we hear blaring brass, that typically means some adrenaline-pumping action is about to take place. There’s a whole body of knowledge and professional practice that studies and implements this area of research — music psychology.

The University of Oxford defines the psychology of music to be:

“Understanding the psychological processes involved in listening to music, playing music, and composing and improvising music, using empirical, theoretical and computational methods.”

There’s a lot of jargon there, but in the basic sense, it just means people like to look at what our brains are up to when we’re doing something involving music. We know from a wide body of research that music always has some effect on our psychology, but what makes the area so interesting is that no one brain is the same. As a result, researchers, and certainly us listeners, can often have surprises when we lend our ears.

Music and Productivity

Way back in the ’90s, Blood and Ferriss produced a paper with some interesting results when it came to background music and its effect on productivity. They said:

“While background music did not affect productivity relative to no music, those hearing background music achieved greater productivity when music was in the major mode.”

Major mode refers to the type of key the music was in — in this case major, which is the typically ‘happier’ music as opposed to the minor mode, typically ‘sadder’ music (though there are exceptions to these generalizations, Pharrell’s “Happy” is ironically in F minor).

A little later, in 2005, Lesiuk wrote a paper titled “The effect of music listening on work performance”. Sounds more up our street here, right? Better yet, the study was conducted using computer programmers.

I’ll be coming back to this study for advice on the ‘how’ element of this article. Still, for now, I can say the article results showed “the value of music listening for positive mood change and enhanced perception on design while working”. More recently, in 2019, Gonzalez and Aiello appropriately found that the level of task performance when listening to music depends on the music itself, the task, as well as the performer of the task.

How to Use Music to Boost Productivity Effectively

So we now know that music has the ability to alter our work performance, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. But how can we use this knowledge to give us a boost? Let’s go back to the papers and see what they say.

For simple tasks, go for loud or complex music

It seems a little strange to think about this one, surely loud and complex music would make things harder to do right?

Well, according to Gonzalez and Aiello, since “simple tasks tend to underutilize the performer’s attentional resources” salient distractions — such as complex or loud music have the effect of occupying some of those leftover resources and reduce the likelihood of “mind-wandering”.

For really complex tasks, don’t have music

To cater to the opposite scenario, the same paper as above also found there to be worse performance when participants tried to complete a complex task with music accompaniment, and that was regardless of its volume or complexity. Gonzalez and Aiello put this down to Baron’s distraction-conflict theory.

What about tasks that aren’t just washing dishes or brain surgery?

So, if you’re doing something relatively mentally taxing but not so complex that a mistake could cost a life, there are a few more options. But of course, there is one big catch. The level of productivity you experience largely relies on what kind of music you enjoy listening to.

For example, I have a crazy broad taste in music (seriously); my problem is narrowing the list of potential music down. But for many other people I know, the idea of working with something like Beethoven’s Symphony №7 in the background is nothing short of Hell despite the number of studies that say it’s good for you.

Lesuik noted in their study that “mild positive feelings can influence the way cognitive material is organized, thus influencing creativity” and further, “participants who experienced a positive mood as a result of music-film mood inducement demonstrated better creative problem solving than participants who had a neutral or depressed mood”.

Basically, when you are listening to something you enjoy, you feel more relaxed and productive versus the stress and distraction you feel when you’re listening to something you don’t like.

Across the board, don’t listen to lyrical music

This one mostly comes from personal experience, as well as the abundance of research in this field, researching the best kinds of music for productivity and performance.

Lyrical music, particularly the worst-top-40 (just kidding), tends to distract us thanks to it arguably causing us to multitask (remembering the lyrics, singing along, memory association, etc.). I have one exception to this rule, though, purely from personal experience. I’ve found that working with music with ‘foreign’ lyrical content served me just as well as non-lyrical content (as long as I didn’t start to learn the lyrics — whoops, looking at you Dimash).

If your musical brain gets too distracted, try ambient sound instead

Many a writer and entrepreneur have found themselves sitting in a cafe or otherwise bustling public place because the surrounding noise helps them get into a ‘flow’ state. There aren’t as many studies looking at sound and productivity (particularly vs music); however, I also have personal experience on this one. I spent a good portion of my Master’s degree using Noisli (not an affiliate link), instead of listening to music.

While I found listening to cafe sounds (I was in a silent library) was quite distracting, I did seem to get into a state of flow more quickly when I was listening to the more nature-based sounds like storm/rain/woodlands. After that, I discovered the whole genre of ambient music (where were you my whole life?). One of my personal favorites in this genre for getting into a productive mood is Marconi Union’s Weightless.

The Takeaway

Music psychology and the research behind the effects of music on productivity have been a fascinating refresh of the things I learned in undergrad. The body of studies available shows us that the subject is more complex than it seems on the surface.

Though to summarise, music affects us in different ways, and these differing reactions depend on a few factors including personal taste, mode of music as well as volume and complexity. But what are the things you can do now to boost your productivity with music?

  • If your task is simple (or repetitive), consider listening to more complex or upbeat music.
  • If you’re working on something creative or otherwise more mentally taxing, avoid music with lyrical content.
  • If perhaps any music is distracting for you, try listening to ambient sounds instead.
  • Listen to what makes you feel great. After looking through the research, the most common theme seems to be a positive relationship between ‘mood enhancement’ and productivity.

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