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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

The Music Lover’s Guide to Knowing When to Hit Play (and When to Work in Silence)

For the longest time I was convinced that I couldn’t get anything done without listening to music. I considered it a replacement to my aversion to coffee (I know, I’m an anomaly). I imagined I was like Michael Phelps before a big race—headphones on, flapping my arms, and cracking my neck.

And for a while it helped. I’d blast my Discover Weekly playlist on full volume and tap my foot while I banged out articles and organized spreadsheets—killing it productivity-wise. But eventually, it became distracting. I couldn’t focus, and worse, on rough days, it’d even annoy me to be surrounded by pounding basses.

So, I tried alternative routes. I began playing around with the kinds of music I craved, gave ambiance noise a shot, and experimented with no background noise at all, instead settling for moments of undisturbed silence—which, as Muse Senior Editor Stacey Gawronski points out, is great for your brain.

Now, I don’t always listen to music while I work, nor do I always sit in complete silence. What I’ve discovered is how important it is to understand when background noise is beneficial for you—as well as what kind. Translation: Be honest with your work self and its needs at any given time. You might love music, but listening to it might be holding you back.

As you work through your to-do list this week, ask yourself: What projects require my complete attention? What responses would benefit from zero distractions? What needs to be done fast and efficiently, and what needs to be fleshed out and looked over several times? Is this song motivating me or pulling me out of my zone?

Let me explain: I’ve learned to never listen to music when I write emails. That’s probably surprising, as this task seem like one of the easier things to do while surrounded by noise. But I always like to send respectful, well-thought out, spell-checked emails, and that really takes my full concentration.

Not everyone’s like this, and some people can even write awesome emails blindfolded with one hand behind their back, but that’s something I know about myself. I also know I could never write an article with Beyonce in the background, yet I crave it when I’m proofreading. In the morning I like to work in silence, which is why I try to arrive at work earlier than everyone else to get through the work that requires that.

This isn’t everyone’s strategy, but you owe it to yourself to figure what makes you tick, and what gets you pumped up. Figure out what noises work well with the projects you tackle throughout the day and craft your own sound space—whether this means making playlists for each part of the day, coming in early to do tedious work if it requires silence (or, alternatively, staying late if you’re a night owl), or investing in quality headphones. This way, no amount of noise—a building fire alarm test, a loud co-worker across from you—can throw you off your game.

Photo of woman with headphones courtesy of Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Getty Images.