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Listening to music while working can affect your focus
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Listening to music while working can affect your focus

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Sometimes science only confirms what you already know. For example, stress negatively affects performance, resulting in poorer quality of work, decreased leadership effectiveness and increased error rates.

Or listening to music. Research confirms what surgeons already know: When you already possess considerable skill, listening to music can help you relax and improve your focus. Research also confirms something else we all know: Listening to up-tempo music can increase your pace and endurance without making you feel more tired.

But sometimes, science points out what we don’t know. Like when listening to music can negatively affect your performance.

Learning something new? Turn music off

When you need to develop or improve a skill, to synthesize information, to solve a problem, to rehearse a presentation or sales demo — basically learn anything new — research published in 2014 in PsyCh Journal shows that listening to music causes your performance to suffer.

Why? When certain tasks are performed in the presence of background (“irrelevant”) sound — music, conversation, construction, etc. — the performance of those tasks automatically suffers.

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While music can make work or studying less boring, it also makes the time you spend a lot less effective. Your brain still processes the music, even if you think it’s in the background. That’s especially true when music includes lyrics.

And that’s even more true if you sing along.

A 2012 study published in Accident Analysis and Prevention shows that singing along increases your mental workload, automatically decreasing the brainpower you can apply to whatever you’re trying to learn — or analyze, assess or determine.

And then there’s this: Listening to new music causes your body to automatically release a burst of dopamine, a feel-good chemical messenger that naturally draws some amount of attention away from whatever you’re trying to learn or do.

When not to listen to music while working

  • When you need learn, analyze or decide.
  • When the music you’re listening to is new to you.
  • When you know the music so well you’ll be tempted to sing along.

How music can help

So when should you listen to music at work? Here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • When you need to perform a relatively repetitive task, especially if you’re already good at that task.
  • When your workspace is already noisy, which forces your brain to multitask. A University of California study found that multitasking impedes the brain’s ability to absorb information.
  • When you need to relieve stress. A study presented at the American College of Cardiology conference shows listening to “soothing music” for 30 minutes a day can lessen your anxiety.

Sound advice

The next time you’re tempted to listen to music, think about the work you’ll be doing.

If it’s a relatively mindless or automatic task, then by all means crank it up. But if you need to learn, evaluate, make decisions or apply all your mental effort to whatever is in front of you, make sure your environment is as quiet as possible.

While that might “sound” really boring, your effectiveness and performance will definitely benefit.

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