I know a prominent family law attorney in Michigan who swears she is more productive when working at her local coffee shop than in her office. When work needs to get done, and get done now, she grabs her laptop computer and flees the distractions of her office to what many would deem to be the even more distracting environment of a crowded coffee shop. Is she alone? (Let’s find out by completing the survey HERE and we will reveal the results in an upcoming blog post.)
Why does this work for her? Does it work for other lawyers desperate to simply get things done without interruption from colleagues, staff, clients, the office phone, etc.?
A post to the always interesting Lifehacker blog attempts to answer this question by examining whether sound can increase productivity, and if so, what sounds help or hurt your work. It is actually a repost from 2009, but the information remains useful today.
As described in the post, there is conflicting research on whether music increases productivity. The much touted “Mozart Effect” which suggests that listening to certain kinds of classical music, particularly works by Mozart, impacts and boosts one's spatial-temporal reasoning, is overblown if not flat-out refuted. The truth, if one can be discerned from the conflicting evidence, is music might make your more productive when you work. It may depend on whether the music is preferable to the normal collection of noise going on around you. Some offices are horribly loud while others are peacefully quiet.
The Classical Approach
There are several approaches to music/noise you might try to test if they help your productivity. The classical music approach may be the most common. Not just any classical music will do. Look for Baroque era music by composers such as Vivaldi and Bach. Look for pieces paced at about 60 beats per minute. Fortunately, because if its age and lack of popularity amongst paying customers, free Baroque era music is easy to find on-line. You can check Wikipedia for hundreds of freely-licensed files. There are also public domain search sites like Musopen.
But I think the easiest way to pump music into your office is to create an account (often free or less than $10 per month) to a music streaming service like Google Play Music, Spotify, Rdio, Pandora, Rhapsody, Beats Music, etc., and search for the classical or baroque genre “stations” those services pre-configure for you. I typed this article while listening to Spotify’s preconfigured Mozart playlist set to shuffle play. With most of these services, you set a preference for a particular composer or custom-create your own station or playlist. Note that the free subscriptions to these streaming services will often include disruptive commercials. Your best bet is to try them all, select the one you like, and pay for the premium commercial free version.
You can play the music directly through your computer speakers, nearly all of which are low-fidelity, or your can upgrade to higher-quality desktop speakers from companies like AudioEngine or M-Audio. For even more pristine sound, bypass your computer’s onboard digital to analog converter (DAC) and buy an outboard USB model. I use the HRT Music Streamer II (now replaced by the II+), but it is now several years old and lacks a headphone amplifier. There are other alternatives with built-in headphone amplifiers if you want to put on a set of “cans” for more complete isolation from outside noise. MacWorld has a nice summary of what is available, nearly all of which work with both PC’s or Macs.
The Ambient/Electronic Approach
Ambient music, usually generated electronically, is designed to engage your brain at a lower almost subconscious level. According to the Lifehacker post, music of this type will relax the mind and allow it to roam, while providing just enough stimulation to register as inspiration.
You can find this type of music on all of the major streaming services. Use search terms such as chillout, downtempo, ambient house, and IDM (Intelligent Dance Music). I tried a Chillout-Ambient-Lounge playlist on Spotify and found it pleasing.
The Noise Approach
Our brains are not all the same and music simply doesn’t do it for some people. It may be too engaging and therefore distracting. But the sound of co-workers and office machines is equally distracting, if not more so. So what is the answer? More Noise!
Not just any noise will do. We’re talking about colored noise. There are white and pink and brown/red noise generators that will help mask the distracting noises in your workplace. These generators can come in the form of software you install on your computer or via web sites.
Web sites to try include Coffitivity or Rainy Cafe to replicate the masking noise my famiy law colleague in Michigan finds so useful at her local coffee shop. I’ve used Coffitivity for the last couple of years and find it useful.
If you just want to generate some pure white, pink, or brown noises, try the SimplyNoise site. If you need masking noise, but are not connected to the Web, download and install the Chatterblocker software for Windows or Mac.
Not all of these approaches will work for everyone. But the odds are good that at least one of them will help you push aside distractions and settle down to productive work.