Everyone wants to be more productive–and we’re willing to try all kinds of hacks including working remotely, working four days a week versus five, or trying calendar management tricks.
It’s nice when you find a pleasant, low-effort option like listening to music. But not all music, at all times, for all occasions is created equal.
Listening to music you like causes the brain to release the chemical dopamine, which makes you feel good and eases stress and anxiety. A cross-section of 400 studies (conducted in 2013) showed that pre-surgery patients listening to music lowered their levels of the stress hormone cortisone more than those that took anti-anxiety drugs.
Music has the power to improve your mood, sharpen your focus, and improve mental and physical performance–but there are rules to using music for productivity. Six of them, specifically:
1. Music with lyrics kills your productivity.
This just makes sense, doesn’t it? How many times have you had the headphones strapped on while working on something and found yourself concentrating more on whether or not you could hit that high note in the Mumford & Sons song than on what you’re trying to accomplish? 2012 occupational therapy researchconfirms this phenomenon.
2. Familiar music is best for focus.
Neuroscience research (from 2011) shows that listening to music you’re familiar with is better for focus. Unfamiliar music causes you to lose focus as you try to take in the new sounds.
I’ve certainly noticed this, even with music with lyrics. If it’s a song I’ve heard many times, it can become relaxing background that helps me concentrate. (Still though, when I really need to get stuff done, I ditch the lyrics.)
3. Listening to music during repetitive tasks helps you complete them quicker, with fewer errors, and less boredom.
One classic,1994 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found surgeons who take on repetitive nonsurgical lab tasks all performed more quickly, accurately, and with less boredom. The study also confirmed that doctors listening to music while performing surgery experienced the same benefits. That might explain why one U.K. survey showed that 90 percent of U.K. surgeons jam out while they’re performing operations.
4. For cognitive tasks, no music is best, with one exception.
Research from Ohio Wesleyan University (1989) shows that relaxing, repetitive, low-information load background music improves concentration, focus and performance (while reducing stress) even more so than working in silence. Within this camp, natural sounds (like rain falling and ocean waves) and classical music are best.
A 2012 study in Learning and Individual Differences showed that students performed better on an exam while listening to classical music. There are, of course, tons of classical music playlists you can access on Spotify or Apple Music. As for sounds from nature, I use an app called RelaxMelodies when I need to concentrate and get articles like this one done. I’m a total machine to the “Urban Rain” setting.
5. Upbeat music can boost physical performance.
A 2010 sports psychology study showed that listening to motivating music improves your physical performance by increasing the capacity to exercise longer and harder while delaying fatigue. I can confirm this; it’s amazing how much more I can lift to “Sweet Child O’ Mine”.
Upbeat music has also been shown to increase alertness levels, incredibly important for the hard-driving entrepreneur putting in long hours.
6. Listening to music between tasks can boost productivity.
One study from the University of Toronto (2007) shows that if you can’t listen to tunes while you’re working for whatever reason, listening in between tasks can still help productivity. It helps you clear your mind, relax, and be better prepared for the tasks to follow.
The bottom line here is that music makes the world go round and productivity go up. Just follow these notes and you’ll be singing a more productive tune.