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.

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.

RELATED: 12 best lunch options for boosting productivity

12 best lunch options for boosting productivity
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12 best lunch options for boosting productivity

Peanut butter and jelly sandwich

"Believe it or not, a peanut butter and jelly on whole grain bread is a great choice," De Fazio says.

She suggests choosing all natural almond or peanut butter and all natural fruit preserves. "Pack some baby carrots and an apple, and you have a healthy vegetarian lunch that reminds you of your childhood," she says. 

Hummus and whole grain pita, string cheese, grapes, and cherry tomatoes

Hummus is a good source of calcium, iron, protein, fiber, and heart-healthy fats, which prevents blood sugar levels from rising too rapidly.

Burrito bowl

For those who prefer to order lunch, De Fazio says she prefers bowls to burritos because they're less messy, and she likes that restaurants like Chipotle let you personalize your burrito bowls with healthier options. She suggests ordering your bowl with rice, lettuce, chicken or beef, salsa, guacamole, and go easy on the cheese.

"The rice will give you just enough carbs to feed your brain without overdoing it," she says. "The chicken or beef give you protein to keep blood sugars steady, and guacamole is a healthy fat that keeps you fuller longer. If you want to order double protein, go for it."

De Fazio says you should skip the chips and beans. Fried carbs will only slow you down, and you don't want to be bloated and gassy at work, she says. 

Grilled chicken

And a trip to a fast-food chain doesn't have to completely derail things.

Even fried chicken joint KFC offers a healthier take on it's famous offering. A Kentucky grilled chicken breast, house side salad with light Italian dressing, and corn on the cob will provide you with a good helping of protein without all the fat and carbohydrates.

Teriyaki bowl

Another healthier takeout option, chicken or beef teriyaki bowls are offered in many Asian and sushi restaurants. "It's a balanced meal and easy to take out and eat at your desk or sitting on a bench outside," De Fazio says

Turkey or chicken sub

If you're heading to a sub shop for lunch, choose turkey or chicken breast, all the veggies you want, avocado, and go easy on the mayo, De Fazio suggests.

"Avoid high-fat, greasy subs like meatball or Philly cheesesteak," she says. "You'll be tired with indigestion by 3 pm, which is not a good feeling at work!"

Sandwich platter and fruit

And if you're snagging lunch at a conference or work meeting, De Fazio suggests skipping the high-fat croissants and opting for sandwich platters with basic white or wheat bread or wraps.

Again, opt for the leaner meats like turkey breast, or go vegetarian. If there are baked chips available, go for them. But always choose fresh fruit instead of high-fat potato salad, De Fazio says.


Whether you're heading to the corner pizza place for a slice or ordering for the whole office, there are, believe it or not, healthier pizza options that won't put you to sleep or give you indigestion later.

De Fazio suggests always asking to go easy on the cheese and opting for thin crust when possible. "This keeps the carbs and fat under control, which will keep you energized without making you sleepy," she says.

And feel free to load up on all the veggies you like, pineapple, and chicken. Just be sure to skip the greasy pepperoni and sausage. "Indigestion is not good for productivity," De Fazio says.

Entree salad

If you're out to lunch with a coworker or client, you can't go wrong with an entree lunch like a Cobb or seafood salad.

Grilled salmon, rice, and vegetables

Or you could opt for a grilled salmon or chicken entree with a side of rice and vegetables.

"These choices are balanced meals, higher in protein and vegetables, and are easy and neat to eat while discussing business," De Fazio says. "The last thing you want at a business lunch is to be eating a messy plate of pasta or a burger that gets sauce all over your face!"


Soup can be a healthy choice or a productivity disaster — it all depends on what you pick.

In general DeFazio says it's a good idea to avoid anything that is crispy, cheesy, creamy, greasy, or otherwise obviously high fat. Soups that contain lighter meats, lentils, chickpeas, and other pulses will pack more of a protein punch.

Plus, drink lots of water

Regardless of what you choose to eat for lunch, always accompany it with water.

Sometimes when you think you're hungry or crave sugar, you're actually thirsty, De Fazio says. Instead, staying hydrated keeps you energized and focused.

Skip sugary drinks like soda. They spike your blood sugar levels and, once they crash, make you sleepy, she says.


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