Music Vs Workflow

By | February 20, 2007

First of all, my disclaimer. Music is quite a personal thing. Everyone has their own favorites, what music helps them get through their workload. This article aims to contribute to your choices to possibly improve productivity through your music choices.

ipod headphones

iTunes has loaded and we’re going to start work. What album do you play? Does it really affect your performance in front of the computer? I think it does. Let’s take a non-work related example first:

Music Helps You Sleep

Last year a Taiwanese research group studied the affects of music on 60 elderly people with sleeping problems.

The music group were able to choose from six tapes that featured soft, slow music – around 60-80 beats per minute – such as jazz, folk or orchestral pieces.

Note the slow BPM [beats per minute]. Researchers found that the music lowered heart and respiratory rates, aiding in a more peaceful sleep. The group reported a 35% improvement in sleep, including a better and longer night’s sleep with less ‘dysfunction’ during the day.

Lower BPM lowers heart rate and breathing, and so calms you into a better sleep.
Let’s look at what you could call the opposite: music with an upbeat tempo.

Increase the BPM

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You instantly have more energy, right? Plus faster tunes are, generally, more upbeat in feeling as well. They are lighter and get you happy in what you’re doing. It’s common knowledge that a happy song will make you feel happy as well.

If you’re working, how about an instant lift?

So let’s take an example. When I started my work today, I was playing The Arcade Fire’s new album, Neon Bible. As good an LP as it is, it was completely wrong for working at the computer [for me]. Here’s why:

Firstly is the aforementioned tempo. It’s not particularly upbeat and has not so much uplifting sequences [in comparison to their previous album]. But there’s another problem with my choice.

Have I heard this before?

It’s new, I just picked it up and was breaking it in. Personally, I can’t listen to something new without really listening to it. Every so often I ask myself, ‘Do I like this? Why isn’t it like their other stuff? etc etc

So I’m distracted. And that’s a continuous 40 minute distraction that comes in and out of my head. It’s like no air conditioner on a hot day, I’m regularly interrupted by discomfort.

Album No.2 is The Red Chord’s first album. I know this one very well and it’s fast. It has energy that should get me going. It’s a fun album for me so I can enjoy myself while I work. So what’s the problem this time?

Too many changes. It’s a fairly very erratic record. I can’t get in a groove with this! I may be enjoying myself, but I’m constantly stopping to listen. We need a change.

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Before we do that, though, let’s look at classical music.

mozart plaque

I’m a fan. A casual but regular listener. So I have that option. But why classical?

Have you heard of the Mozart Effect? Scientists have generally disproven the significance of this phenomenon but we will humor it here, particular because this author believes there is some merit to it.

The term was coined by Alfred A. Tomatis, a French Ear, Nose and Throat specialist, whose experiments playing the music of Mozart to 3 yr olds found increase in brain development. That old chestnut about playing your unborn child classical music has scientific foundation.

It apparently increases spatial-temporal reasoning. Various studies using college students have shown improvements in test results as a result of listening to 10 minutes of Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major.

However, spatial reasoning is the brain’s ability to orientate shapes in space – relevant to higher mathematics, architecture, engineering, drawing and chess. Sadly, whether you’re working with shapes or not is irrelevant to this article. We’re looking at music for productivity.

Worth mentioning is how classical music can, in general, be calming and, because it generally involves slow phrasing, can aid with keeping you moving on your work tasks. This refers to that ‘groove’ I mentioned earlier.

Also there are, unless you’re listening to an opera, no lyrics. Words are distracting, especially when writing! But is this enough? Classical pieces can have sudden rises and many variations in feeling and tempo, so that distractionless groove I’m looking for is interrupted.

So I put on Brian Eno’s Discreet Music. The title track is 30 minutes of ambient-esque classical phrases. I’m not distracted and I become very peaceful. I can work well under this spell for a little while, but I usually become too calm to continue work for a descent period of time.

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My solution, Shpongle. I’ll confess, it’s psy-trance; but I’m not a hippie!

Again, I’ll reiterate that musical choice is based on your tastes. Everyone is different. Take this explanation of why I put trance music on while writing, and relate it to something that you like which has similar characteristics. I’ll have examples at the end.

As you know, trance has a continuous beat. “Doof Doof,” as they say here. It’s a groove, and because it is very up tempo it works really well with getting my energy level up and keeping it there. Many trance songs have lyrics, although minimal, it may help choosing albums with very little to none – usually LPs from the mid-nineties.

Also trance music has gradual climaxes and anti-climaxes. This is great for writing. You begin typing while the track gets started, and while it builds, you begin writing more profusely and with conviction. That epic feel in trance music helps you from dropping out and procrastinating. This work I’m doing is important!

Finally I would also like to mention that trance albums are generally on the long side, with tracks running at around 2-3 times longer than ‘regular’ songs. Sometimes the end of a song can feel like an interruption. If the songs are longer, you have more time of straight work.

When choosing music that you want to help you work, try thinking of these points:

  • 1. The groove. Upbeat tempos will help with your energy and, like a jogger, keep you going.
  • 2. Familiarity. This helps you fall into your work without thinking about the music.
  • 3. Continuity. Something with gradual or subtle changes will keep distractions at bay. Familiarity with the music helps in this instance also.
  • 4. Length. A long song means you have more time. Think of that 10 minutes of solid work you want to knock out. If you have a song that spans that time without interruption, all the better.

Now let’s look at some more examples, that I can think of, of artists who may work as well.

Slower, relaxing: Lee Perry, Horace Andy and other dub artists.

Slower, heavy: Graves At Sea, Jesu and other sludge bands.

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Faster, heavy: Slayer, Nile and other thrash or grind bands.

Faster, electronic: Goldie, Ram Trilogy and other drum’n’bass without lyrics.

Continuous, older: Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.

Continuous, newer: Meshuggah’s Catch 33.

Naturally, there is so much music out there that could improve your workflow. Why not think about what might be better than you’re regular listening habits? Maybe completely ambient tracks work for you, or talk radio is perfect, but thinking about your choices can immediately benefit your output.

What works for you?

Other tips:

  • Wear headphones. It’s better audio and privacy rolled into one. You are less likely to be disturbed by others if you’re wearing cans.
  • Don’t listen to records. I love my vinyl, but getting up to flip sides and change records every 15 minutes is a big workflow interrupter. Make a playlist on your computer that reflects your schedule. Same goes for CDs.
  • If you must, download music while you’re away from the computer. The temptation is too great to check download status, and if complete, listen to your new gems.

The Mozart Effect – [TheSketpicsDictionary]

At the start of the year, if you had asked anyone if they could do their work from home, many would have said no. They would have cited the need for team meetings, a place to be able to sit down and get on with their work, the camaraderie of the office, and being able to meet customers and clients face to face.

Almost ten months later, most of us have learned that we can do our work from home and in many ways, we have discovered working from home is a lot better than doing our work in a busy, bustling office environment where we are inundated with distractions and noise.

One of the things the 2020 pandemic has reminded us is we humans are incredibly adaptable. It is one of the strengths of our kind. Yet we have been unknowingly practicing this for years. When we move house we go through enormous upheaval.

When we change jobs, we not only change our work environment but we also change the surrounding people. Humans are adaptable and this adaptability gives us strength.

So, what are the pros and cons of working from home? Below I will share some things I have discovered since I made the change to being predominantly a person who works from home.

Pro #1: A More Relaxed Start to the Day

This one I love. When I had to be at a place of work in the past, I would always set my alarm to give me just enough time to make coffee, take a shower, and change. Mornings always felt like a rush.

Now, I can wake up a little later, make coffee and instead of rushing to get out of the door at a specific time, I can spend ten minutes writing in my journal, reviewing my plan for the day, and start the day in a more relaxed frame of mind.

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When you start the day in a relaxed state, you begin more positively. You find you have more clarity and more focus and you are not wasting energy worrying about whether you will be late.

Pro #2: More Quiet, Focused Time = Increased Productivity

One of the biggest difficulties of working in an office is the noise and distractions. If a colleague or boss can see you sat at your desk, you are more approachable. It is easier for them to ask you questions or engage you in meaningless conversations.

Working from home allows you to shut the door and get on with an hour or two of quiet focused work. If you close down your Slack and Email, you avoid the risk of being disturbed and it is amazing how much work you can get done.

An experiment conducted in 2012 found that working from home increased a person’s productivity by 13%, and more recent studies also find significant increases in productivity.[1]

When our productivity increases, the amount of time we need to perform our work decreases, and this means we can spend more time on activities that can bring us closer to our family and friends as well as improve our mental health.

Pro #3: More Control Over Your Day

Without bosses and colleagues watching over us all day, we have a lot more control over what we do. While some work will inevitably be more urgent than others, we still get a lot more choice about what we work on.

We also get more control over where we work. I remember when working in an office, we were given a fixed workstation. Some of these workstations were pleasant with a lot of natural sunlight, but other areas were less pleasant. It was often the luck of the draw whether we find ourselves in a good place to work or not.

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By working from home we can choose what work to work on and whether we want to face a window or not. We can get up and move to another place, and we can move from room to room. And if you have a garden, on nice days you could spend a few hours working outside.

Pro #4: You Get to Choose Your Office Environment

While many companies will provide you with a laptop or other equipment to do your work, others will give you an allowance to purchase your equipment. But with furniture such as your chair and desk, you have a lot of freedom.

I have seen a lot of amazing home working spaces with wonderful sets up—better chairs, laptop stands that make working from a laptop much more ergonomic and therefore, better for your neck.

You can also choose your wall art and the little nick-nacks on your desk or table. With all this freedom, you can create a very personal and excellent working environment that is a pleasure to work in. When you are happy doing your work, you will inevitably do better work.

Con #1: We Move a Lot Less

When we commute to a place of work, there is movement involved. Many people commute using public transport, which means walking to the bus stop or train station. Then, there is the movement at lunchtime when we go out to buy our lunch. Working in a place of work requires us to move more.

Unfortunately, working from home naturally causes us to move less and this means we are not burning as many calories as we need to.

Moving is essential to our health and if you are working from home you need to become much more aware of your movement. To ensure you are moving enough, make sure you take your lunch breaks. Get up from your desk and move. Go outside, if you can, and take a walk. And, of course, refrain from regular trips to the refrigerator.

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Con #2: Less Human Interaction

One of the nicest things about bringing a group of people together to work is the camaraderie and relationships that are built over time. Working from home takes us away from that human interaction and for many, this can cause a feeling of loss.

Humans are a social species—we need to be with other people. Without that connection, we start to feel lonely and that can lead to mental health issues.

Zoom and Microsoft Teams meeting cannot replace that interaction. Often, the interactions we get at our workplaces are spontaneous. But with video calls, there is nothing spontaneous—most of these calls are prearranged and that’s not spontaneous.

This lack of spontaneous interaction can also reduce a team’s ability to develop creative solutions—there’s just something about a group of incredibly creative people coming together in a room to thrash out ideas together that lends itself to creativity.

While video calls can be useful, they don’t match the connection between a group of people working on a solution together.

Con #3: The Cost of Buying Home Office Equipment

Not all companies are going to provide you with a nice allowance to buy expensive home office equipment. 100% remote companies such as Doist (the creators of Todoist and Twist) provide a $2,000 allowance to all their staff every two years to buy office equipment. Others are not so generous.

This can prove to be expensive for many people to create their ideal work-from-home workspace. Many people must make do with what they already have, and that could mean unsuitable chairs that damage backs and necks.

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For a future that will likely involve more flexible working arrangements, companies will need to support their staff in ways that will add additional costs to an already reduced bottom line.

Con #4: Unique Distractions

Not all people have the benefit of being able to afford childcare for young children, and this means they need to balance working and taking care of their kids.

For many parents, being able to go to a workplace gives them time away from the noise and demands of a young family, so they could get on with their work. Working from home removes this and can make doing video calls almost impossible.

To overcome this, where possible, you need to set some boundaries. I know this is not always possible, but it is something you need to try. You should do whatever you can to make sure you have some boundaries between your work life and home life.

Final Thoughts

Working from home can be hugely beneficial for many people, but it can also bring serious challenges to others.

We are moving towards a new way of working. Therefore, companies need to look at both the pros and cons of working from home and be prepared to support their staff in making this transition. It will not be impossible, but a lot of thought will need to go into it.

More About Working From Home

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