Listening to music in the office may not help your productivity as much as you imagine. There is no harm in plugging in to iTunes to get you through a boring task, but two new pieces of research suggest that when it comes to complex work, you could be better off removing your headphones and reaching for earplugs.

Apps that promise to boost your creativity or concentration through specially designed music tracks are a dime a dozen. And while there is a growing body of scientific research that proves music can help you get into a particular mood — power ballads before a job interview, for example — the advantages when it comes to productivity are largely subjective. Some people think listening to ambient café sounds via an app such as Coffitivity gets their creative juices flowing, while others prefer listening to their favourite playlist.

Other apps claim to use neuroscience to coach the mind into better habits. Focus@will claims it can extend your concentration span through specially devised 100-minute instrumental music tracks. It says it does this by “subtly soothing the part of your brain, the limbic system, that is always on the lookout for danger, food, sex or shiny things”. Sophie Hackwood, founder of Wired Consulting, names it as her top productivity hack: “It really gets you going.”

However, a new study by psychologists at Northwestern University in the US suggests that naturally creative thinkers find it more difficult than others to block out distractions when trying to concentrate on their creative work. It may be their reduced ability to screen out stimuli that gives them extra material to play with. “If funnelled in the right direction, these sensitivities can make life more rich and meaningful, giving experiences more subtlety,” says Darya Zabelina, lead author of the study. But the downside to this is greater difficulty in blocking out distractions.

Researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology in the US asked participants of varying ages to memorise names and faces, sometimes while listening to music and at other times in silence. College age adults showed no difference in how many names they remembered, but older adults recalled 10 per cent fewer names when there was background music. “Both age groups agreed that the music was distracting,” says Sarah Reaves, who led the study. “But only the older adults struggled while it was playing in the background.”

If you need to knuckle down on a complex piece of work, you might be better off opting for silence. Find an empty meeting room, insert earplugs or if you are a tech junkie, select a “white” or “pink” noise app to cancel out unwanted noise. As Michael Ives, a senior developer at a London fund manager, says: “If I really feel I need to concentrate I’ll listen to pink noise, it sounds a lot like a waterfall . . . you don’t notice it after a while.”

What is more, wearing headphones ensures a belt and braces approach to finding uninterrupted silence as colleagues will think twice before disturbing you.


workingsmarter@ft.com

Get alerts on Managing yourself when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article