Tips gleaned from successful individuals who use music to boost their focus and productivity.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

I am on a constant search to find new ways of using music to lull myself into working. I know that Spotify playlists such as “Chill Tracks” or “Atmospheric Calm” offer me beats that are mellow enough to keep me focused, but only work some of the time. If I’m feeling demotivated while writing, I’ll transport myself to a fictitious noble estate via the Downton Abbey soundtrack, whereby I harness the sweeping orchestra melodies into momentum; but after my third repeat, the effect wears off. 

Surely, there must be a better method for finding the right music to work to, than my flustered attempts of trial and error? Eager to find tips from those wiser and more successful than I am (currently), I decided to research highly successful individuals who I admire, to find out their methods:

Gifting Your Work A Soundtrack 

Michael Lewis, author of bestsellers including Moneyball and Liar’s Poker, curates a new playlist for each new project. When being interviewed on the Tim Ferris show, the author revealed

“…whenever I’m writing, I have headphones on and I have a soundtrack I write to and the soundtrack changes; it changes book to book and it’s got to the point where both my wife and my kids will recommend songs for the soundtrack for whatever the next project is.”

Just like having a dedicated workspace to get you in the zone, I can understand how having a specific soundtrack can trigger the brain into work mode. Lewis is not alone. Mary Pilon, author of the Monopolists, uses a similar approach but takes it a step further. Much like a method actor immerses themselves in a role by living their character, Pilon chooses a playlist of music from the era the characters she’s creating are in, drawing upon music to bring them to life. She revealed to Forbes:

“When I was writing The Monopolists, I listened to music from whatever time period of the chapter I was working on…I wanted to evoke the mood as much as possible, even if only in my subconscious.”

The Vibe Without The Distraction 

Listening to one song on repeat can provide a hypnotic effect to ease you into work. It makes sense that without change or novelty your brain may find it easier to focus. Author and marketer, Ryan Holiday, is a prime believer in the one song technique. On his blog, he wrote

“I think melodic music, played on repeat, puts you in a heightened emotional state–while simultaneously dulling your awareness to most of your surroundings. It puts you in a creative zone. The important facilities are turned on, while all the others are turned off.”

The goal of the one song technique is to encourage you into a workflow. WordPress founder, Matt Mullenweg, is also a fan of this method and claims the song will eventually fade into background noise if you do it for long enough.

The Superhero Approach

You may have heard of “the Mozart effect” which refers to the claim that listening to Mozart’s music can increase your general intelligence. This has since been hotly contested by researchers but many individuals do find listening swear to classical music while they work to be helpful. If you’re considering abandoning lyrical novelty while working, but still crave an element of fun, there is another option to consider — movie instrumentals. 

Film scores are designed to set a scene and heighten emotions without detracting from a movie storyline, so it makes sense they could also be used to set the scene in everyday life also. Productivity expert Mark Struczewski told HuffPost one of his go-to work playlists is a selection of instrumental movie scores:

“The reason why I like these types of music is because they are sans words and they are not familiar so my mind won’t hook onto the melody…”

If it’s working for a productivity expert, it has to be worth a try, right?

Final Thoughts

Before collecting the above tips I had begun to worry that music was a crutch for me, a way for me to avoid making peace with silence. I’ve since decided that like silence, music can be a powerful tool. We can use it in many different ways to help us reflect or to more easily draw out emotions, energy, and thoughts that already exist within ourselves. On that note, I’ll finish by leaving you with a quote from author Haruki Murakami who spoke to The New York Times about his writing process. Murakami not only uses music to heighten his ability to get into flow but he also uses it to help him understand storytelling on a technical level:

“I learned the importance of rhythm from music — and mainly from jazz. Next comes melody — which, in literature, means the appropriate arrangement of the words to match the rhythm. If the way the words fit the rhythm is smooth and beautiful, you can’t ask for anything more. Next is harmony — the internal mental sounds that support the words. Then comes the part I like best: free improvisation. Through some special channel, the story comes welling out freely from inside. All I have to do is get into the flow.”