Background Noise

What media or music helps you work efficiently and stay focused?

There are probably as many features about productivity advice on the internet as there are stars in the sky, grains of sand on the beach, or Kelly Clarkson repeat counts in your music library. So we thought, what the heck, why not add ours? Thus “Background Noise” was born, and we surveyed volunteers from the team to see what sorts of music and media helped them get to and stay in a productive mood.

What sounds do you listen to, to help you focus?

Amy Lynn Taylor, Art Director
For me it really depends on the task at hand. I either need lots of sound or none at all. If I need to focus on any writing or complex problem solving, I might gear up for it with really loud, energetic music (and caffeine) but to actually do the work, I often need pure quiet. I switch off everything other than white noise, so I can hear my thoughts clearly. If I listen to anything, it would be something instrumental like soft ambient music or classical strings.

Elliott McNary, Front End Developer
This is actually something I think about a lot. Within the past year I’ve really started to focus on what kind of environment keeps me focused on the tasks I need to accomplish and what doesn’t. I’m very sensitive to audio so it plays a really big role in how I work.

Eric Zanol, Operations
I’ve found that music I’m pretty familiar with is the most helpful to me in being productive, and for some reason, music with singing is better too. The type of music doesn’t seem to matter, I just need to know it well already.

Elliott
I’ve also noticed that my music choices are very mood-based. While I can listen to most everything, during the work day there are two key factors to the tunes that keep me focused.

  1. If it’s a new song that I haven’t heard before it can’t have words/lyrics.
  2. If it’s a song with lyrics I need to have them memorized.

When I listen to music while I work I’ve noticed that I am both actively listening and working at the same time. It’s not passive. Music without lyrics enables me to focus on just beeps, boops, clicks, and clacks instead of language and the meaning of that language. Songs with lyrics that I’ve memorized don’t take my mind off a task to think about what the heck the artist said (I listen to a lot of “mumble rap”) and/or what they meant by it. I can just sing (yell) along and not think about it.

Lynn Fisher, Designer, Developer
When I’m working on an illustration or writing CSS, I find I’m super productive when I listen to soundtracks for stage and movie musicals or my Disney songs playlist. I need something upbeat and poppy to get the creativity going. I’m not sure if I need songs that tell stories, but I do like songs I can sing along to while I work.

When in writing mode though, I need it to be pretty quiet. I’ll play and pause reruns of some of my favorite shows in between bursts of writing.

Amy
However, if I’m focusing on something purely visual, like an illustration, I’ll often throw on a long podcast or audiobook to keep me focused. With visual work, I’m using a different part of my brain that involves a lot less verbal processing, so in the silence, my own internal dialog starts to take over. And I have a lot of internal dialogue. Listening to someone tell a story helps keep that in check and prevents my overactive mind from wandering all across the internet.

If you’re interested in a couple of slightly science-y deeper dives into how our minds work with what we listen to, I recommend:

What have you tried that hasn’t been particularly helpful?

Eric
Instrumentals and music I’ve never heard before is usually not helpful in getting me to focus or be productive. I’m also not very productive in busy coffee shops or hanging around friends, I usually have to put headphones on to be useful in those scenarios.

Kate Farrar, Designer, Developer
Ambient noise is very distracting for me, but I like to work in coffee shops because it helps me to get out of the house (and into pants).

I’ve noticed that even if the overhead music playing is pleasant, I am way too distracted by all the people and things going on around me to concentrate. I have to put on headphones and crank up my music so I basically can’t hear anything else and then I’m able to focus. That gives me a good mix of a new environment but also blocks out noise distraction.

Amy
If I’m working on anything that requires any sort of linguistic processing (reading, writing emails, mentally trudging through a complex problem) I can’t listen to anything with lyrics or people talking. It overloads the language processing areas of my brain and I feel like can’t get anything done.

Elliott
There are also times when I work really well in silence. The problem is that it needs to be pretty much absolutely silent. Unfortunately there’s been construction near my house lately which forces me to have some audio going.

If I’m working out of a coffee shop I need to have my over-ear headphones on. Earbuds just don’t cut out enough background noise for me to focus. If I’m at home I’m pretty much always playing out of a nice pair of speakers I have on my desk.

Lynn
I’ve tried those “calming” playlists when I’m feeling stressed about something, but it seems to have the opposite effect. They make me want to sleep and then I get more stressed.

Amy
I strongly avoid anything that I suspect might make feel sad or depressed, I know that those moods are not a productive headspace for me.

Also YouTube. Therein lies the “Up Next” suggested-video-rabbit-hole that —no matter the original video’s topic— always ends with me tearing up to videos of Ellen Degeneres giving people giant checks to follow their dreams. So touching, but not productive.

What music recommendations do you have for getting “into the zone”?

Elliott
I’ve become really in to the non-stop “live” YouTube techno channels because there aren’t words, it’s pretty much always four-on-the-floor, there’s no break, and I like techno. My go-to techno artists for productivity are Deborah de Luca and Boris Brejcha, while my go-to rap artists are Bladee and Nav.

Kate
These a few of my favorite playlists / albums when I need to go “heads down”:

Film scores are some of my favorites because there is usually a good amount of diversity in sound.

Amy
When I need to be in a place of hyper focus, I look for something with a lot of raw power to it, like classic rock. ACDC’s Back in Black is one of my all time productivity favorites. It will make you feel like a bad ass who can handle anything. I also really find a lot of electronic music great for focus. I either gravitate to something a little big and moody like Justice or something chill and steady like Air or Tycho. If you really want to chill out and listen to something that’s prettier than white noise, but equally soothing, I highly recommend Moby’s Long Ambients1: Calm. Sleep.

Finally, sometimes, in order to be productive, you just need a break. In times that require something a little goofy to break up the tension, I usually go pure 80’s guilty pleasure and dance with my dog to early Madonna.

Lynn
Maybe a bit weird, but listening to the rooster whistling song from Disney’s Robin Hood (the animated fox one) helps me get into the zone for sure. There’s a ten hour loop of it on YouTube.

We’d love to hear your tips and tricks to achieving productivity zen. Reach out on Twitter at @andyet and tell us your favorite songs or link us to your favorite playlists for staying focused.