Neuroscience says listening to the noise of nothing is best for productivity


Olga Khazan's day-to-day might sound a lot like yours. She's a journalist who works in an open office, so the din around her includes a mixture of colleagues conducting interviews and the usual chit chat. She's even lucky enough to be surrounded by "the pounding and drilling of seemingly endless renovations."

Like many of us, Khazan turns to headphones to create her own soundtrack. And like many of us, she wonders if the music she listens to is the best for her productivity.

In a recent piece for The Atlantic, Khazan explored much of the research that's already been conducted on this topic. After digging into study after study, she came to a very clear conclusion: For office workers, no music is best for productivity. Here's a quick recap of some of the research Khazan dug into in her piece.

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Music is good for some jobs, but not all

Several studies praise the effects of music on productivity. But it's important to look at which types of work were being studied.

Usually the research subjects work in monotonous environments, like assembly-line jobs in factories. For these types of jobs, music can help boost productivity because they make the work less boring and keep workers more alert. If your work entails putting on your thinking cap, stretching your cognitive muscles or solving complex problems, then the productivity-boosting effects of music are not the same.

Your favorite upbeat music is the worst

You may think listening to a familiar and upbeat tune is best. If it's music you already know and love, which makes your work more enjoyable, thus making you more productive, right? Wrong, according to one study Khazan found.

Subjects were asked to perform a series of complex tasks. One group got to pick their favorite, upbeat music. The other group worked in silence. People who listened to their favorite catchy tunes did worst, and people who listened to nothing did best.

If you must listen, go wordless

Whether it's one of your favorite songs or not, the most distracting component of any type of music is the lyrics. Lyrics force your brain to focus on the words, pulling your attention away from the task at hand.

It's the same reason that listening to music with lyrics while you read is so challenging. Your brain can't focus on both the auditory and written words. If you're trying to accomplish a task that requires verbal skills -- such as writing -- listening to music with words will make it all that more difficult.

Take listening breaks

Khazan concludes her piece by acknowledging many of us will likely still continue listening to music while we work. Even if we know it's probably better and more productive to work in silence, we can't resist our favorite tunes. Music makes us happy. It energizes us and motivates us. So why stop?

Case in point: I've been listening to Christmas music for the last hour. The irony is not lost on me. I wrote while listening to music. While writing a piece about how you shouldn't listen to music while you write.

There is a happy medium, kinda. If you want to try to maximize your productivity and listen to your favorite music, Khazan spoke to a neuroscientist who recommends taking 15-minute music breaks every few hours. These breaks can allegedly boost your productivity, another study.

And if you're ready to give silence a chance but still have the problem of sitting in a noisy office, try this. Go to a bustling coffee shop. It won't be silent, but it will be less distracting than hearing office gossip.

Check out the full article in The Atlantic to read more about research that's been conducted on silence and productivity.

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