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We Found The Exact Music To Break Through Open-Office Distractions

Listening to music can help you find focus, but exactly what you listen to makes all the difference.

We Found The Exact Music To Break Through Open-Office Distractions
[Photo: Flickr user Vikramdeep Sidhu]

If you work in an open office and aren’t wearing headphones right now, chances are you’re focusing more on your coworkers’s conversations than your work.

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In fact, recent survey data from Cambridge Sound Management reveals that nearly 30% of office workers are distracted by coworkers’ conversations.

“The simple fact is this, open offices are distracting,” says senior editor Jason Feifer, in his rant against open office layouts. “We’re told they’re designed to increase collaboration, and foster “serendipity”—those moments where colleagues collaborate in a way they wouldn’t otherwise have, because they overheard each other. But rather than overhear each other at all, they all put on headphones to block each other out. That’s the only way to get work done.”

According to the research, noise in general isn’t to blame when it comes to lost productivity. What’s distracting about our neighbors’s conversations is their intelligibility—and because of this intelligibility, our focus shifts from our work to processing what they are saying.

In our own open office here at Fast Company, many of us find our focus consistently competing with side conversations between coworkers or on one side of a phone interview.

So for last week’s habit challenge we attempted to block out distractions with music, but what we listened to mattered just as much as the noise we were trying to block out.
Research shows that music with lyrics is just as distracting as overheard conversation.

Here are the different ways we integrated ambient sounds and different types of music without lyrics into our workflow last week and some tips we learned along the way:

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Music Tempo Makes A Difference

Overall we found that listening to music without lyrics helped us focus more than when we listened to music with lyrics. But the impact depended on what kind of lyric-less music we listened to.

For example, one study by Canadian researchers found that up-tempo music can help get you pumped up for work.

Feifer finds fast, upbeat music works best for him in part because he wants his work to be high-energy. “I like to think of my writing as fast-paced, and want to be in that state of mind. So, I can’t do slow Charles Mingus. It slows me down.”

Co.Exist assistant editor Jessica Leber, on the other hand, enjoyed the tempo of slow piano jazz. “It put me in this very calm state and made me feel as if I were in a lounge, not an open office.”

I found mid-tempo ambient/chillout music to be my sweet spot. The beat would keep me awake and energized, but it wasn’t amping me up so much that I couldn’t focus.

Noise Level Is A Tricky Thing

Other studies have shown that moderate noise levels are just right for creative thinking. Ambient noise gets our creative juices flowing and doesn’t put us off the way high levels of noise do.

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The issue I had with moderate noise levels, though, is that they often weren’t loud enough to completely drone out certain people’s voices, but the louder I turned the music up the more distracted I got by it. It’s a bit of a catch-22.

Listening To Familiar Tunes Can Help

Feifer finds it helpful to listen to the same lyric-less music. “Once I’m really familiar with a tune, it becomes like background noise,” he says.

“The goal is to find something that blocks input, basically. I want my brain to be focused on the task, not on the things coming into my ears. So I have a bunch of go-to music that I’ve been listening to for years,” he explains.

Ambient Doesn’t Just Mean Music

While ambient music often refers to instrumental, electronic music that’s meant to evoke an “atmospheric” quality, ambient noise accomplishes this by replicating surrounding noises like rainfall, ocean waves, the “office hum,” or even sounds of the coffee shop.

When Feifer is distracted even by lyric-free music that he’s listened to a million times, he turns to the white noise app Simply Noise. “Actual white noise can be too mechanical to listen to, but I love my app’s sound of a river. It sounds natural, but there’s no pattern to recognize—it’s just burbling. And it blocks everything out.”

I found ambient noise to be extremely helpful when I worked from home on Tuesday. My apartment was so quiet that it was noticeable—and eerie. Every time I heard the snow plow drive by, I was distracted by that sound.

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I chose to play some coffee shop background noise from Coffitivity, which made my apartment’s quiet less deadening. I soon realized, though, that noise was missing the usual coffeehouse music, so I threw a coffeehouse music mix of ambient and chillout tunes in the background–very softly–which added to the experience a bit.

Ad-Free Apps Are The Way To Go

Both Leber and I used Spotify to listen to music for some of the challenge, and we found the incessant ads were killing our focus. A lot of Spotify’s playlists were great, but being interrupted in the middle of focused work was too much and defeated the purpose.

“Spotify and Pandora ads are really amazing in their terribleness,” Feifer says. “What I hate most is the fake peppiness in all of them. It’s so jarring and inauthentic. When I used Pandora, I’d literally rip the earbuds out of my ears and just wait 30 seconds until the horrible offensiveness stopped.”

Feifer strongly recommends using Songza because they don’t run ads. “Hours and hours of listening, with no ad interruptions,” he says.

I created this playlist as a sample of the kind of music we listened to this week. Give it a listen for some distraction-free work.

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For the full live chat conversation, check out the transcript from Friday’s chat.

And don’t forget to try next week’s challenge with us, putting our phones down and embracing boredom.

About the author

Rachel Gillett is a former editorial assistant for FastCompany.com’s Leadership section. Her work has been featured on PopPhoto.com, AOL.com, and elsewhere.

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