Why music can be a good work companion

Writing this post I am sitting in a coffee shop at the airport, immersed in a cacophony of sounds; bossa nova music from the speakers and the almost rhythmic repetitive voice of the waitress saying hello and asking the customers what they would like. Some people are having conversations and the guy next to my table is playing on his iPhone creating the characteristic descant and bouncy gaming sound. On the other table a woman is watching a Chinese movie on her iPad with the volume out loud. There is the regular sound of coffee beans being grinded, the click clacking of the coffee dispenser and the loud noise from the espresso machine steaming milk. Wooden chairs are being moved back and forth as people come and go and as the waitress cleans the tables. Someone coughs, and someone else slurps the last sip of ice coffee through a straw.

It is very easy to get distracted by all the sounds.

Not a surprise if you ask sound consultant Julian Treasure who says, in his TED talk, that we are “one third as productive in open-plan offices as in quiet rooms”. He gives a basic rule of thumb: move away from unpleasant sounds and towards pleasant sounds. However, sometimes we can’t change the environment we have to work in. So his advice is to carry headphones, and whenever we have to work in spaces with lots of noise; like open plan offices or a noisy coffee shop like the one I’m sitting in, we should plug in the headphones and play soothing sounds such as birdsongs or ocean waves.

I like to listen to music while I work.

Reading on the topic I’ve found that there are different views on music and productivity and basically the effect of using music to increase productivity is still inconclusive. However my experience is that music can energize me; I like to start the day of with happy, upbeat music that helps spark my mood, and it’s a great companion to making to-do lists. I can’t listen to that kind of music for too long, because it takes up too much of my attention span. Instead of supporting the work I’m doing it will become a distraction. Listening to music is basically some form of multitasking, since the brain is aware of the music and is working on the task. For some tasks I prefer silence; if I have to come up with new solutions, when I brainstorming or during heavier tasks that require a larger amount of brain capacity.

Most times smooth and soothing music provide me with a nice backdrop of calm while writing or researching – the rhythm of the music helps me work in a steady and productive pace.

MusicTo pin it out, I find that music

  • is useful to drown out distracting background noises
  • has a positive effect on my mood
  • can help me get into a state of flow
  • is better when simple, not too complex or loud in its expression
  • without lyrics is better, when I have to write or do other word related tasks
  • has to be turned off once and a while

To make sure music doesn’t become a burden, you have to choose the right kind of music for the different modes of work.

These are my top 5 albums to listen to while working:

  • Sigur Ros “Takk”
  • Andrei Krylov “Sky Lake. Classical Guitar. Zen. Mediation Music”
  • Steve Reich “Music for 18 Musicians”
  • The Album Leaf “A Chorus of Storytellers”
  • Miles Davis “Kind of Blue”

What are yours?


Timing is everything

I recently read a post by the author Elizabeth Gilbert, describing how she grew up with a mother that would schedule her days into 30 minutes activity slots: piano practice, homework, softball practice etc. As an adult and writer she has taken this element of timing with her; everyday no matter where she is, she sets the timer on her phone and works on her book for 30 minutes.

I got inspired – Inspired to think about how I manage my work, what works and what doesn’t work.

If I’m not conscious of how I work, I tend to do everything at once. Making to-do lists on paper, checking facebook/twitter/instagram on my phone, writing emails on my laptop, listening to music, clicking on links and reading blog posts and making tea/snack/lunch. It’s no wonder I end up feeling overwhelmed and stressed out after a couple of hours working like that.

Learnt through trial and error, I’ve started setting up time slots for specific tasks. What it actually does is it gives the mind the required focus to work, and it takes away the pressure of being in a hurry, since the timer will let you know when time is up. You can allow yourself to be fully focused and present with the task that you are working on.

There are four essential ways I time my work during the day:

Make a plan
To work efficiently, stress-free and actually get things done, I start the day by making a prioritized list. Which tasks are must-do, and which are could-do? Which are fast to do and which take longer time? Then I plan the day into smaller time slots.

I set the clock to 30 minutes and start working on one thing at a time. I allow for small interruptions like looking up words in a dictionary. I also make sure, I have a pen and paper next to me where I write down things that pop up in my mind; new ideas, emails I have to write, stuff I have to RSVP, or whatever that is important, but has to wait for later so it doesn’t steal my attention now. Maybe you don’t need 30 minutes for a single task, but what is absolutely key is to do one thing at a time. I work concentrated for 30 minutes, and then I take a 5 minutes break and do another 30 minutes.

Embrace social media
I allow myself to go with the somewhat scatterbrained nature of social media; to browse through updates, click on links that take me to blogs, that take me to new sites, to comment and like, to read a lot in a short time. I gain new knowledge, it sparks inspiration and I cultivate my network. By doing it in a limited amount of time where my only focus is on letting the hungry mind get fed, it doesn’t stress me out as it did when I mixed it with all the other work.

Take breaks
Every two hours I take longer breaks. I stretch, go outside, do the dishes, move, listen – really listen – to a song or eat something. I make sure my body is nourished and I wipe the mental board clean, so I am ready for another time slot of work.

What kind of time management tools work for you?