Luckily, music can help put us back on a more productive track.
Studies out of the University of Birmingham, England, show that music is effective in raising efficiency in repetitive work — so if you're mindlessly checking email or filling out a spreadsheet, adding some tunes will make your task go by that much faster.
But when it comes to tasks that require more brainpower, finding that perfect playlist is not so easy.
Luckily, we have science at our disposal to help.
Based on some of what we know about how music affects productivity, you should try funneling this kind of music through your headphones the next time you're feeling unproductive:
Songs that include sounds of nature.
Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute recently discovered that adding a natural element could boost moods and focus.
Sounds of nature can mask intelligible speech just as well as white noise while also enhancing cognitive functioning, optimizing the ability to concentrate, and increasing overall worker satisfaction, the researchers found. The mountain stream sound researchers used in their study also possessed enough randomness that it didn't distract test subjects.
You could try simply listeining to recordings of nature sounds, or check out this tranquil background music that incorporates sounds of water:
Songs you enjoy.
Listening to music you like can make you feel better.
Teresa Lesiuk, an assistant professor in the music therapy program at the University of Miami, found that personal choice in music is important, especially in those who are moderately skilled at their jobs. Generally participants in her studies who listened to music they enjoyed completed their tasks more quickly and came up with better ideas than those who didn't because the music improved their mood.
"When you're stressed, you might make a decision more hastily; you have a very narrow focus of attention," she told the New York Times. "When you're in a positive mood, you're able to take in more options."
Songs you don't really care about.
Different research suggests, however, that music you're ambivalent about could be best.
Researchers from Fu Jen Catholic University in Xinzhuang City, Taiwan, studied how listener's fondness for music affected their concentration. They found when workers strongly liked or disliked the music they heard in the background they became more distracted by it.
Songs without lyrics.
Words are distracting.
According to research from Cambridge Sound Management, noise in general isn't to blame when it comes to lost productivity — it's how intelligible the words are that forces us to shift focus from our work to figuring out what someone is saying. Speech distracts about 48% of office workers according to Cambridge's 2008 study.
When masking your neighbor's conversation with music, it follows then that you not do so with music that has lyrics — your focus would simply shift from the conversation to the words in a song.
This playlist of lyric-less music may provide the productivity boost you need:
Songs with a specific tempo.
Music tempo can have varying affects on your arousal.
One study by Canadian researchers found subjects performed better on IQ tests while listening to up-tempo music. If your work requires you to be more upbeat, you could try listening to music that matches this tempo. Baroque music, for example, is a popular choice for many needing to get work done.
In fact in a small study by researchers at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, Harbor Hospital in Baltimore, and the University of Pennsylvania Health System in Philadelphia, the radiologists they studied reported an improvement in their work and mood when they listened to baroque music. This playlist offers a nice sampling:
Another study by researchers from BMS College of Engineering in Bangalore, Malaysia, saw subjects report a dramatic reduction in feelings of stress and an increased sense of physical relaxation when they listened to music that played around 60 beats per minute. In classical music terms, you would refer this as "larghetto," which translates to not very fast or somewhat slowly.
If you prefer to feel more relaxed while you work, you could try one of Focus @ Will's playlists dedicated to concentration:
Songs played at medium volume.
Noise level matters.
Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, and the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, found that moderate noise levels are just right for creative thinking.
While both high and moderate noise levels have been found to open people's minds to more abstract thinking, high noise levels decrease the brain's ability to process information.
If you like to listen to music while you study, choosing the right type can be vital to your overall productivity level.
Listening to music can calm you down, leading to more conscientious studying, elevating your mood, motivating you to stay focused and studying for longer periods of time.
While it can be a challenge to stay away from the hottest hits, selecting the wrong type of music can distract you from your studies and become counterproductive.
So, what type of music is considered “music for the mind?”
The following types of music are recommended for studying, along with tips to help you choose which genre will keep you most focused on your objective – studying.
Below each genre there’s a recommendation so that you can test out the genre and discover which type of music works best for you.
1. Never underestimate the power of classical.
Classical music is known for being both peaceful and harmonious, creating a calm and serene study environment for the listen.
It’s recommended as one of the best studying genres for students, because listeners report side effects like better mood and increased productivity. As far as side effects go, those aren’t too shabby!
Recommendation: Brandenburg Concerto #3 – Bach
2. Timed Tempos
Studies have shown that music timed at 60 beats-per-minute can help put people’s minds into ease; putting brains into a more productive mode where thinking are creativity are easier.
Recommendation: Concertos for Recorder – Telemann & Vivaldi
3. Instrumental Ambient Sounds
If you prefer a more modern flair, this may be the perfect option for you. Relaxing sounds of instruments can be paired with modern tunes to get the best of both worlds – so you don’t have to sacrifice a thing.
Recommendation: VSQ Performs the Hits of 2013, Volume 2 – Vitamin String Quartet
4. Nature Sounds
This type of “music” is perfect for those not so into classical music. It’s known for increasing concentration levels and keeps the listener’s mind engaged at a more subconscious level.
It also can be very calming, which is why many use it to help with meditations and to fall asleep.
What falls into this category are soundtracks of nature like waterfalls, rain or the sounds of the seashore rolling in.
5. Modern Electronic
Modern electronic is also commonly referred to as “chill out” music. The genres include Ambient House, Ambient Trance, New Age and Trip Hop.
They are known to relax the mind, encouraging it to roam. Be careful not to let it roam too much, however – you want to stay focused on the task at hand!
Recommendation: Music for Airports – Eno
6. Volume control.
Make sure that your background music is, indeed, in the background and is not distracting you or any of the students around you.
Think about it: it’s nearly impossible for you to be completely focused if your head is about to, um, explode. Keep the noise level to a minimum so that the study level is at a maximum.
7. Plan out your playlist.
Don’t wait until the time you’ve set aside for studying to create a playlist. Create it on your downtime so that, when it’s time to study, studying is the only task at hand and all you need to do as far as music is concerned is press play.
That way, you’ll be able to stay focused and won’t take any time away from what you should be accomplishing.
If you forget to plan ahead or don’t want to create your own playlist, don’t sweat it! There are some great resources that will do it for you, like the Study Music Project, which gives you a playlist of free study music each time you press play for more than an hour.
8. Break it up.
Plan your playlist so that, when it ends, it will be an indication that it’s your break time.
It’s helpful for you to not have to shift modes and have to worry about changing your music and you have the added benefit of never having to look at the clock because your playlist will function as a built in timer.
9. Studying is more important than music.
Avoid spending hours creating your playlist. After all, it should essentially just become background noise. What you should ultimately focus on is your studies.
You can spend hours on playlists for your road trips in the summertime when school is out!
10. The bottom line.
Whether you listen to any of these recommendations, Miley Cyrus, Tupac, or whatever else, it really doesn’t make a difference – as long as it works.
Remember: what’s most important – what actually matters is that whatever you’re listening to doesn’t distract you, calms you and truly puts your mind into study mode so that you can be productive and retain as much information as possible.
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