For most people, it’s hard to imagine working without music.
Actually, doing almost anything without a good BGM sounds boring – from driving to household chores, a catchy tune can make any obligation so much more fun.
But when focusing on important tasks at work, music can become a burden on your mental resources.
Working without music is far from simple, especially if you’ve conditioned yourself to nice tunes at work.
Today, I’ll tackle a quiet topic – how to get down to work and be productive without music.
So, take off your headphones, and read on!
Can Music Improve Your Work Performance?
Music is powerful.
It can make you feel awake or sleepy, help you run faster and work harder, dramatically influence your emotions and mood, and make a horrible day so much better.
But it can also send you down the daydream path when you really should focus on that work project.
Known as the irrelevant sound effect, the way background music influences your busy brain can make you less effective at your work.
It’s quite similar to people chatting around you or your pesky neighbors doing construction work – it’s simply distracting.
Sounds that are not related to the center of your focus can make your memory worse, or completely take over your attention once that enchanting guitar solo comes up.
Some people claim that music helps them focus on their work, and sometimes, it might really be true.
For example, some highly skilled surgeons famously listen to rock classics in the operating room, and athletes and manual workers feel upbeat music increases their endurance and energy.
Artists may get a creative boost from this classical piece, and designers frequently blast their favorite tunes while working. But it doesn’t work for everyone.
Specifically, how much music puts you in the zone depends on:
- Your line of work
- Your skill level
- The type of music you listen to
When Music Makes You Crash (Your Car)
When drivers need to park, figure out the best route or avoid traffic, they often turn down the music volume “to see better”.
This sounds weird, but the effect is very real. Instead of “seeing” better, what actually happens is that drivers can devote more mental resources and focus on the problem at hand when the music’s no longer there to distract.
A 2012 music science research paper by Warren Brodsky explored the effects of music on the behavior of drivers.
The results were clear – playing the drivers’ favorite tracks in the vehicle has caused every single one of them to commit different levels of driver deficiencies.
Out of 85 participants, 17 required a steering or a braking intervention to prevent a crash – all because they had their favorite tunes blasting on the stereo.
Not All Tunes Distract
Not all is bleak for music aficionados – you can still listen to music while working, but only if you pick a non-distracting tune.
In their attempt to reduce the distraction rates among drivers, Brodsky and Kizner designed a few music pieces that would provide all the benefits of music without taking the drivers’ attention away from the road.
If you listen to the samples (presented under no. 30 here), you’ll see these attention-friendly compositions sound like lounge music, or perhaps something you’d hear in a relaxing video game, The Sims.
The balanced music contains no vocals or sudden tempo changes, and its instrumental ranges are conservative.
It’s not a shocker that these tunes don’t distract – similar mellow compositions have been a part of hotel lounge ambiances for decades.
The researchers found that these well-balanced pieces have this effect because of their low perceptual complexity that doesn’t occupy a big part of your mental resources.
So, if you find yourself unable to work with your favorite music because it’s too interesting, save those tunes for your leisure time.
Play something neutral at work, or better yet, avoid music altogether.
Now let’s get to the crux of the matter – how to unplug and still focus like a pro.
How to Focus Without Music
If you find it hard to imagine working without your favorite songs blasting from the speakers, chances are that you’re conditioned to this modus operandi.
Like Professor Pavlov’s dogs got hungry when they heard the bell, you might be preconditioned to get in the zone when you hear music.
It might be a part of your work ritual, and music is the cue that you need to get started.
Once you decide to “quit music” at work, it might be hard to do it cold turkey – just like it’s hard to drop any habit.
The easiest approach to it is replacing the ritual – so here are some suggestions.
1. Listen To Ambient Sounds
Ambient sounds are neutral, repetitive sounds that have immense power.
Whether you prefer the sound of rain, the soft purring of a cat or a combination of fire cracking and coffee shop ambiance, the internet has got something that you’ll enjoy.
Many of these sites let you curate your own ambiance with an assortment of sounds you can mix and match.
If you’d like someone else to curate nice sounds for you, check out ASMR videos on YouTube – but make sure you pick the ones without talking!
Test how working with these soothing sounds works out for you. Some people, like yours truly, are really put in the zone by the sounds, while others get sleepy!
2. Cancel Noise
If you work in a noisy environment, music might be your way of isolating yourself from the world around you and immersing yourself in your work.
Earplugs or noise-canceling headphones might be the perfect pick for you – these muffle surrounding sounds even if you don’t have any music playing!
Fidgeting is a common, innate method of regulating attention that could replace your music habit.
If you need something to keep your attention on the task, try a tactile experience like a stress ball, fidget spinner, doodling on a piece of paper, or even a repetitive craft like knitting.
4. Saturate Your Senses
Last but not least, you could try to occupy your senses and re-condition yourself to be productive when you feel a certain taste or smell.
Always chewing the same brand of gum, drinking the same tea, or lighting a particular scented candle can become the perfect trigger that gets you in the zone.
5. Enjoy the Silence
Whether you’re forced to work in silence because you’re sharing your workspace, or you simply realized you can’t focus on your work effectively when your favorite tunes are playing, quitting music during work can be difficult – but it’s totally worth it.
Once you get used to working with ambient sounds (or no sounds at all), you’ll likely realize you haven’t been using your full mental capacity working with music on.
I gave my best to bring you the best alternatives for music that will help you focus on your work.
If you have any tips to share with me and other readers, I’d love to hear from you.