Let me start with a caveat: this article is not going to prove that music is going to make you more productive. Based on all my research, the only concrete thing that can be said about the topic is that it’s different person to person. Instead, what I’ve done here is put together a template to help you figure out whether music should be a part of your daily work routine or not.
There has been a lot of research on the relationship between music and productivity in the workplace, and the results are murky. The semi-famous neuroscientist Daniel Levitin says it’s helpful with monotonous tasks, but not memory-building ones. A study from way back in 1966 at a skateboard factory concluded that music made employees feel more productive but there was no measurable uptick in actual results. Dr. Amit Sood links listening to music you love to the release of dopamine in the brain, which can help you mitigate stress and increase your happiness at work. In theory, this music-fueled dopamine release will help you make better decisions and perform better over time.
Music is enjoyable to listen to, but in the context of your office, and not your living room, you’re asking a different question of music than you normally would. In this context you want to figure out if music helps you be more effective, not just whether you like it or if it moves you. During your workday, music is another tool for you to use, not necessarily an oasis or a journey like it is in other contexts. Let’s use myself as an example of what I mean.
I co-founded and run a music company called Vinyl Me, Please, so it’s literally my job to listen to music at work. For a long time, though, music was also a huge distraction for me. I needed to be able to digest a lot of new music week in and week out for my podcast shows or our newsletter, but I found myself using music as an escape or quick vacation and I wasn’t being all that productive. I needed a change. So, starting 6 months ago or so, I began rethinking how music related to my workday and doing so has been a huge help for me.
I started by paying closer attention to how many times a day I zoned out while listening to music, and how many times I put off a task in favor of listening to something or watching a music video I liked. After a few weeks of that, I realized I was wasting a scary amount of time. To stop that trend, I came up with a structure around what I was listening to and when. Here’s what my office days look like now:
- Email (1 hour): I listen to fun stuff to hype myself up and get me ready for the day
- Admin Tasks (2-3 hours): No music. These type of tasks are challenging for me and music makes me way worse at it, no matter what genre it might be.
- Email (30-45 minutes): More fun stuff, though usually something low key.
- Brainstorming and Creative Work (3-4 hours): Focus music. Typically downtempo electronic or classical. Has to be wordless and calming or else my focus is sunk.
- Email (30-45 minutes): Usually more fun or hype music to help get the last few drops of brain power out before I head home.
You need not follow my schedule. The idea here is to use music to help you hone your own workflow. When it comes to work, music should be something that empowers you and makes you more effective, not the opposite.
Noah Kagan said in one of his weekly newsletters (which you should read) last year that there is no app, website, system, or tool (or playlist, I would add) that can stop you from being lazy. You’re the only one who can do that. In that list of categories he gave, however, there are plenty of things that will help you along the way if you actually commit to them. For example, being honest with myself about when music helped or hindered me has boosted my effectiveness at work. Going through that process of self-reflection will do the same for you, wherever you end up at the end of it.
Keep this in mind: you have all the nights and weekends for the rest of your life to let your favorite albums burn you to the ground or take you back to a time that keeps tugging at your heart. While you’re working, treat music as something that can help make you more awesome, and use it accordingly.
I’ve put together two playlists full of hype music and focus music that I use during my days (some of the lyrics are best listened to on headphones, not blasted throughout the office). These might be full of stuff you hate and that’s fine. I want to give you some examples so you can make something similar for yourself if you feel so inclined. Happy listening (or not).
Illustation by Tin Nguyen