Is Your Work Playlist Helping Or Hurting You?

You’re already putting your headphones on to block out your coworkers. So what should you listen to?

Is Your Work Playlist Helping Or Hurting You?

Unfamiliar music makes you more productive–no, wait, it makes you less productive.


Which one is it?

Depends. As SoundCloud has said, since sound is fundamental to humanity, its possibilities are infinite. One of those possibilities is helping to mitigate the distractedness of the open office–where all that yabbering pulls you away from the work you’re doing. But the right music can pull you back in, as Michele Hoos observes for the Daily Muse.

She cites Your Playlist Can Change Your Life, a pop psych book that explores how music affects us. Soundwaves are potent stuff, the authors explain: After smell, music is the “fastest, most user-friendly way to influence and reset your brain networks without using an external substance.”

Trippy. So how do we use it?

To prime our activities

As Annie Murphy Paul writes for Time, music improves performance, but only in certain situations. She says it’s most suited to when an experienced expert needs to “achieve the relaxed focus necessary to execute a job he’s done many times before,” like if you’re stuffing envelopes, folding shirts, or manhandling nukes.

The effects of musical priming are seen elsewhere: A Playlist author mentions a student of his who would listen to traditional songs with her mother when they were doing housework together. And so years later when she needs to do similar chores, she listens to those same songs to put her in the right mental state. Music can be part of a working ritual.


To elevate our moods

As the New York Times has reported, listening to the right music has helped technologists to quickly complete tasks and generate better ideas. This is because, as music therapy professor Teresa Lesiuk observes, your favorite music makes you feel better.

“When you’re stressed, you might make a decision more hastily; you have a very narrow focus of attention,” she says. “When you’re in a positive mood, you’re able to take in more options.”

Positive emotions broaden your awareness–both literally and figuratively. As research psychologist and author Barbara Fredrickson notes, it leads to better peripheral vision and can more readily make connections between ideas.

Listening to your favorite songs is a transactionless kind of positivity–but it can have its costs.

But not as a distractor

Though I never thought I’d write these words, it does seem that there’s such a thing as rocking too hard. Paul, the Time writer, mentions a study in which folks operating a driving simulator sang along with Smashmouth to the detriment of their driving–and, we can assume, to the ears of those around them.

Why? The cognitive overhead incurred in singing: Our serenaders found themselves focusing more on what was directly in front of them instead of scanning their field of vision. This suggests that if you get too into a song, you’ll get distracted–or, in other words, you’ll start multitasking.


What do you listen to to get work done? Sing us your serenade in the comments.

Pump Up the Jams: How to Create the Ultimate Work Playlist

[Image: Flickr user Chris Brown]

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.