How to use music, sound & silence to boost your productivity

August 21, 2021 | FF Daily #455: FF Recommends tools, resources and playlists

Founding Fuel

[Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash]

Good morning,

We pay a lot of attention to how our workplace looks. We pick the right coffee mugs, we pay a lot of attention to which photographs we have on our tables, the posters on the walls. 

But, some of us don't put in enough effort on the ambient sounds that are just right for us, even if most of us are aware of our preferences.

The idea behind this week's FF Recommends is twofold. 

  • To urge you to deliberately think about what works best for you. 
  • To share with you tools, resources and playlists we found useful. 

This is not exhaustive, but it will help you to eventually arrive at the ambient sounds that make you super productive.

Have a great weekend.

The first step is to know your style.

Different people have different preferences.

  • Some like to work in absolute silence.
  • Some like background music.
  • Some like white noise.
  • Some like silence, but want to take music breaks.
  • Some like the buzz of offices and cafes. (Malcolm Gladwell writes his books sitting in New York cafes).

Second, pick the right tools.

Silence: If you have no choice but to work amidst noise, get good noise cancelling headphones—turn on active noise cancelling, but not music.

Music playlists for productivity: Scott Doorley, the creative director at Stanford d.school (and a music lover) has done some cutting edge research on what soundtracks are best to aid creativity.

“Using music in class is one of the secret weapons of a d.school learning experience—it sets the tone and can shift the energy of a room in a heartbeat. During a generative moment, music distracts the inner critic. During a reflective moment, it can focus the mind.” 

Doorley has outlined a few principles for putting together a playlist. 

“Creating a soundtrack for a learning experience has a few nuances. Namely, it should support, and not distract from the task at hand. We’ve found the best background music has few or no lyrics (or singing in a language other than that spoken by students works well too), is familiar but not too catchy and is a bit repetitive.”

Finally, to get us started, Stanford d.school has curated two playlists.

The first playlist, ‘Active’ is designed to support making and physical activity. It’s meant to occupy that part of the brain that is bent on blocking creative flow. It’s bouncy and upbeat. 

The second, the ‘Reflective’ list features quieter, lower key tunes that can act as background music for small group discussions or individual work.”

Closer to home, Founding Fuel contributor Shlok Paul has a unique suggestion too. If you recall, he was in conversation with his father Josy Paul, in Season 2 Finale of Talkin’ ’Bout My Generation, where they both spoke about how music has impacted their lives.

During the conversation, Shlok spilled the beans about his favourite go-to music while studying.  

“One thing that was huge for me this quarantine was listening to lo-fi music. Lo-fi music is calm, melodic beats you can focus to. The YouTube sensation Chilled Cow Lo-Fi girl plays it 24x7. In addition, the background includes an animated girl who is studying with her headphones on with the cityscape visible through the window. 

“This creates a shared companionship between you, her and the entire audience in the comment section, that’s listening to the same music and working/studying at the same time as you.”

Then there is white Noise. We define this as ambient sounds that play in the background and drown out other distractions. We think this is particularly important because many of us are at work remotely and it may not not be possible to have a sound-proof workspace. And not everybody may be comfortable with music playlists. This is where white noise generators come in handy. 

A Soft Murmur has worked very well for those of us on the team who don’t like to play music on the one hand, but get distracted by other sounds on the other. You can play it on a desktop/laptop, a phone, or tablet and stream to connected speakers or headphones—whatever works for you. Pre-loaded mixes are available. Or you can create your own playlist. A favourite for some of us on the team is the sound of the ocean and the wind. There are many permutations and combinations possible.

For those at work from home and missing the buzz of the office, we recommend a white noise generator such as Sound of Colleagues. The outcome of collaboration between a Swedish ad agency audio studio in response to the pandemic when offices were shuttered, this can be streamed off the desktop or Spotify.

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