Sometimes, there’s nothing better than plugging in your headphones and turning on some music at work. Whether you tune in to a Pandora station, listen to your “Office Jams” playlist, or (like me) surf Spotify for a mish-mash of Motown, folk, and top 40 hits, you can tune out chatty co-workers or background noise and make the workday feel a little more fun.
But what if you could use your music to actually improve your productivity and focus?
According to the authors of Your Playlist Can Change Your Life, you can. In fact, you can even create strategic playlists that will ready your brain for specific tasks. This doesn’t mean that music is a magic bullet or that Mozart will make you a genius, but scientific evidence suggests that music has a profound impact on your brain chemistry.
“Next to the sense of smell, music is the fastest, most user-friendly way to influence and reset your brain networks without using an external substance or drug,” the authors explain in the book. “The effects are virtually immediate.”
So, if you want to channel the power of music for your workday, try these steps for crafting your perfect playlist.
1. Make a List of Songs That You Love
Because music is so personal, the first step in creating playlists that will work for you is to choose songs that you really enjoy. After all, while Coldplay’s “Fix You” may calm one person down, it might totally annoy someone else.
Scientists have even discovered that the chills you get from music you love are caused by dopamine—a pleasure chemical that, new studies show, regulates our motivation to act. “[Picking songs that you like a lot] is the most important thing,” the authors write. “When you like a song it activates brain networks and functions that will amplify and sustain whichever effects… you are working toward.”
So, make a list of songs that charge you up, give you chills, and make you feel inspired. Think of some of your favorite movie scenes. Remember Melanie Griffith in Working Girl? Maybe then, like me, Let the River Run will make your list. Think about your childhood, too. Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” hasn’t disappointed me since I was nine.
2. Notice Which Songs Facilitate Your Workflow
Dr. Joseph Cardillo relays a story in Playlist about how a microbiologist played classical music as a ritual before arriving at his lab first thing in the morning. Later in the book, he describes one of his students, who remembered listening to traditional songs with her mother when they did housework together. Years later, she plays the same songs when she wanted to get work done around the house because they put her in the right mental state.
At the office, play the list of songs you made so far, and notice which ones facilitate “flow” for you. If you notice that one song enhances your workflow on any particular day, you can then use it again when you want to achieve that same mental state. For example, if you notice that you get into a great brainstorming groove when you hear The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony,” play it the next time you have to come up with a bunch of ideas. “Play your song over and over and specifically within or in very close proximity to the exact time and situation you are trying to enhance with your playlist—like the scientist clearing his head with Mozart first thing upon entering his lab, every day,” the authors write.
Start to see what works and what doesn’t, and create different playlists for different work tasks. I can’t write when I am listening to music with lyrics, so my “writing” playlist is populated with classical music. While in the past I’ve saved upbeat playlists for the gym, I’ve now created an office power mix for those days when I’m feeling a little defeated by the challenges of the day.
3. Be Willing to Mix Things Up
As important as it is to pick songs you like for your playlists, you should also be willing to step outside of what you usually listen to and discover something new.
For example, a recent study has shown that uplifting concertos from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons may boost mental alertness. In Playlist, the authors mention Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major as being a great tool for focus. I’ve since been listening to this composition over and over when I’m writing. I don’t believe I’m experiencing what some scientists have labeled “The Mozart Effect” exactly, but as the notes spin out over the eight minute piece, the melody keeps me feeling upbeat. When my brain starts to wander, I tune back into the spirited song, and then get back to tapping out my own composition.
While you not be in the habit of listening to classical music, take it from me: It can be extremely effective for focus.
A great tool for discovering new music tailored for certain tasks is Songza. Just choose the task you’re working on and the genre you want (for example, “Classical for Working” or “Morning Inspiration”), and you’ll get a list of playlists curated by users. As you listen, bookmark the songs that help you to focus and return to them when you want to get flowing at work or on any kind of creative project.
None of this means you’ll be replacing your afternoon coffee with Mozart anytime soon. But if you pay attention to how songs you love impact your productivity at work, you might find—throughout your day—that you’re plugging into headphones, clicking on a playlist, and perking yourself up to get your work done.
Tell us! What are your favorite songs for the office?