A Music Lover's Guide to Productive Listening

Photo credit: M Car/Flickr

Photo credit: M Car/Flickr

As a music lover, I’ve been very intrigued by different music streaming services and the playlists they provide for different moods and activities, such as getting ready for bed or working out. Being that I work for a productivity company, I was even more intrigued by these services’ work playlists -- collections of music and sounds that are designed to keep you focused and, in some cases, even give your creativity a little boost. I decided to put a some of them to the test and learned a few things about my own music-listening preferences along the way.

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Firstly, these curated playlists are not my cup of tea. Music deemed appropriate for work, creativity and productivity are super boring. They tend to be more on the mellow side with a lot of instrumentals, which really just makes me feel lethargic and annoyed.

After exploring what was available on services like Songza, Spotify, focus@will and Coffitivity, I realized a few things about my own listening habits:

Choose an album or playlist full of songs you already know, and know them well. These are the songs you can sing every lyric to and can describe every nuance. If I don’t know the music that well, every new sound or lyric I hear will distract me. I’ll have to listen to the song again (possibly several times more) to hear that new thing again and decide if I like it or not. With songs I’ve heard dozens of times before, I can concentrate solely on work and won’t get so distracted.

If I’m listening to a playlist, I have to stick to just one genre. Pop serves me best while working, with hip-hop and r&b coming in a close second. It really depends on my mood, but whatever album or playlist I am listening to has to be all one genre. The switch in sounds becomes too jarring and pulls me out of my “zone.”

Pop albums work best. If I really like an album, I can listen to it over and over again without getting tired of hearing it. Listening to full-length albums while working also helps me gauge my own productivity -- when the album is complete I will either feel a sense of accomplishment or disappointment, depending on what I did in the last 45 to 60 minutes. This also helps me remember when it’s time to take a short break, step away from my computer and recharge my brain for a few minutes. I find that pop albums serve me best, as they are usually upbeat, a little danc-y, and mostly pleasant to listen to.

If I like the artist/song/album too much, I can’t listen them them while working.  This isn’t going to stop me from trying, but it always ends in an unproductive day. Michael Jackson, for example, is a big no-no for me. I can listen to him to calm me down, to amp me up, or for any other reason except when I need to be an efficient person. I just get too into the music and forget all about what I should be doing. Certain songs by Notorious BIG, Justin Timberlake and a few other artists have also been banned from my work playlists (unless I want to have a midday solo dance party).

If I start the workday listening to music, then I will want to hear music all day. However, if I start the workday with mostly silence and no background music, I’ll tend to stay in this quiet mode. It seems I get into a rhythm and a change, even as simple as music, can throw me off.

Some tasks require total silence. There are occasions when music because much more of a distraction than a productivity booster. This is especially true when I'm editing. I can't read over copy, no matter how long or short, with any kind of background noise. It becomes hard for me to focus on the flow of words and the structure of sentences and paragraphs. But when I'm in writing mode, music is fair game.