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I have always loved music (doesn’t everyone?), and one of the things I love about programming is that you can listen to music while you do it. With most professions it is impractical or impossible. But for many programmers, including myself, listening to music can really help with focus. But why is this the case, what type of music works best, and are there any reasons why we should not listen to music while we work?
Why does listening to music help us work?
Plenty has been written on the effects of music on productivity. But from my experience, the effect can be summarised as follows:
Listening to music helps us to relax and it reduces distractions.
Being relaxed is often not associated with being productive, however it is very important for our productivity. The opposite of a relaxed state is a tense state, and when we are tense we find it more difficult to think clearly and sharply. If we are not relaxed, we are more likely to feel anxious, stressed, frustrated or angry, all of which impair our ability to see and implement solutions. Some confusion can arise when people think of relaxation as having a snooze, daydreaming or laziness, but the kind of relaxation I am talking about here is flow.
On Wikipedia flow is defined as:
…the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.
We’ve all been there. When you achieve a state of flow you lose sense of time, hours pass quickly, and you produce great work. But you can’t achieve flow if your mind and body aren’t relaxed, and the right kind of music can help you relax.
In addition to relaxing us, music can reduce distractions in the workplace. When we are trying to focus on a task our minds have a great capacity to wander off to something or someone seemingly more interesting. When I listen to the right kind of music while I work, I find that I am far less likely to be distracted. James Clear has talked at length about Environment Design as an approach to encouraging positive behaviour. Think of it as tricking yourself into behaving in a certain way. Once my headphones are on and I am listening to music, I find myself naturally focused on the task at hand. It is almost as if the music keeps our subconscious entertained while we consciously focus on our work. On a more physical level, having your headphones on in the office removes your attention from other things and people in the room. It is just you and your machine.
What type of music works best?
Obviously you need to find what works best for you. I listen to various types of music while working, but over the past few months my preferred choice has been Spotify’s Music For Concentration playlist, which is what I am listening to as I write this post. In general anything which is ambient and mellow works well for me, and probably for most people. Music with lyrics can be a distraction in itself, although listening to my favourite lyrical music can provide a pick-me-up when required.
There are also alternatives to music when it comes to listening while you work.
A recent discovery of mine is Coffitivity, which streams the sound of a bustling cafe and claims to boost creativity and focus. I was sceptical at first, but it does seem to work, and is backed by research.
Another option is binaural beats. The first time I listened to binaural beats, I found them to just be an annoying buzzing sound, but again I have found them to be an effective aid to focus and productivity. I have also found binaural beats to an effective headache remedy, and they have been known to help people sleep.
The disadvantage of listening to music at work
While some might suggest that listening to music or other sounds while you work may be a distraction, I have found that in reality there is only one real disadvantage to listening through your headphones while you work (assuming that you like it).
It can be seen as antisocial.
Programmers tend to work in teams, and regular communication is often required between team members. If you have a question for a colleague, and you look over to them and they have their headphones on, you may be put off from disturbing them, which is probably not a good thing. I have personally battled with this on numerous occasions, and ultimately you just need to balance the good with the bad and make a decision. I try to remain approachable, even when I have to take my headphones off to answer a question. In this way I hope that team-mates are not discouraged from approaching me when required.
This also depends on the nature of your work. At present I am working on a project in which there is not a great need for regular interaction with others, therefore on most days I will work with my headphones on. However if you are leading a team, it may not seem appropriate. Some might actually like the idea of deterring people from constantly disturbing them, but if this is a problem for you then there are probably more constructive solutions than wearing headphones and sighing every time you have to take them off to speak to someone.
In summary, I find it helpful to listen to music, or some other background noise, through headphones while I work. I am certain that the best code is written when the coder is in a state of flow, and anything which helps you achieve that state has to be a good thing.