Whistle While You Work?

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What is the best choice of what to listen to while you work to increase productivity and decrease distraction?

The Atlantic (The Best Music for Productivity? Silence) and INC. (Neuroscience Says Listening to the Noise of Nothing Is Best for Productivity) have both run pieces this month re-visiting the debate over what is the best background sound to create a productive environment. Recent research suggests that silence is better than any type of sound if your goal is specifically to improve productivity.

But, if you are a knowledge worker, artist, or entrepreneur, your work day is most likely populated with a variety of different projects and tasks. And you probably have to perform them in all kinds of different environments with varying levels of ambient sound. So, maybe the answer to what you should listen to isn’t as simple as, ‘Quiet down and do your work.’

Most of the research in this area from the 70‘s and 80‘s focused on the so-called Mozart effect, which suggests that listening to classical music can boost spatial-temporal reasoning and may improve the ability to think out long-term, abstract solutions to logical problems.

Today, most people seem to agree that listening to music can improve the mood and productivity of individuals performing repetitive tasks they have mastered. However, when it comes to complex, cognitive tasks or deep thinking, silence is the best soundtrack.

Of course, most people’s day-to-day work reality is somewhere in between these two extremes – you might not be assembling widgets but some of your tasks are repetitive – and the idea of achieving true ‘silence’ in your workspace might be a fantasy. So, here are some real-world tips for what is best to listen to while you work.

There are really 3 choices when it comes to your audio environment: music, sound masking, or silence. Different choices might be suited to different environments or different tasks – you know your work style best.

What Type of Music To Listen To While You Work

Listening to music you like can improve your mood, but unfamiliar music may be less distracting if you are trying to focus. So, depending on the task at hand – you may want to opt for some elevator music instead of your favorite inspirational playlist.

Also, music without lyrics or sung in a foreign language you don’t understand are best for focus. If there are words involved your brain will spend energy and precious attention trying to figure out what they are – one of the reasons it is so annoying to hear someone else talking on the phone is that your brain will try to fill in the other half of the conversation.

So, unfamiliar music without lyrics is a good choice for blocking out distracting, environmental sounds (like a co-worker’s conversation) without competing for your attention.

Try to choose music with a steady tempo and volume. Tempo and dynamic changes can be distracting. Music that is too slow can make you feel sluggish, while aggressive music can make you feel restless. Studies have shown an increased sense of physical relaxation and mental acuity when listening to music around 60 beats per minute.

Research also shows that ambient noise at a moderate level (around 70 decibels) enhances performance on creative tasks but louder noise (around 85 decibels) reduces our capacity to process information and stifles creativity.

There are plenty of choices in classical music that fit these criteria, as well as a growing body of ambient music designed to keep your brain engaged at a lower, subconscious level.

Sound Masking In Work Environments


Wikipedia explains the process of sound masking with this analogy:

While music can technically be used for sound masking, a purer approach would be to use a noise generator which uses static or a generic sound to mask or lessen the sound distractions of your environment. You might even have some luck using a desk fan turned on high. Some sound generators have different generic sounds (a train, a fan, rain, the ocean, static) which you can blend together and make the perfect sound for your environment.

Research has also shown that sounds of nature can mask distracting sounds as well as white noise but may also enhance cognitive function, optimize concentration, and increase overall worker satisfaction.

Peace And Quiet While Working

If you prefer to work in silence, which is considered optimal for high-level tasks and functions, you might want to consider earplugs or headphones. Professional earplugs are available with filters that can let in a set decibel level, if you need quiet but also require some environmental sounds (like a phone ringing). Modern noise-canceling headphones are available which actively listen to the ambient noise around you and generate a noise-canceling wave which effectively cancels out much of the distracting sounds in your environment.

Other options for a quiet work environment might be soundproofing your office with acoustic tiles or noise canceling drapes. Of course, you can always go old-school and get some work done at the public library, where you can still count on the librarian to tell your neighbor to, ‘Shush!’

Current Research:

Can preference for background music mediate the irrelevant sound effect?
Study finds hearing ‘meaningful’ sounds decreases performance on cognitive tasks
Tuning the cognitive environment: Sound masking with “natural” sounds in open-plan offices
Effects of background music on concentration of workers.
Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition


Jason Montero

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