Personalizing Your Music for Productivity

Can listening to music while you work make you more productive? Could it make you smarter, or at least look that way? It depends. It depends on your personality, your energy level, the kind of music you’re listening to, the projects you’re doing, and your music-listening habits.

Online services like and Pandora suggest songs based on artists, songs, and styles you say you like, on your listening patterns, and on what your friends or people similar to you like and listen to. But those services don’t do any industrial engineering of the web worker mind, observing your work habits and how they interact with your music listening, then playing music designed to help you work better, faster, smarter. If you want that kind of personalization, you’ll have to do it yourself.

While we’re waiting for Web radio to see the possibilities of productivity-oriented personalization, try these tips for choosing music to work by:

Go for less distracting music when you need strong focus. “Low information load” music–songs with little variety and complexity, those with few or no lyrics–allow you to concentrate better. I listen to SomaFM’s Groove Salad ambient music station when I’m researching complex topics. Alternatively, pick music that you’re familiar with when you need to concentrate. The more you’ve heard a piece of music, the less it will distract you. When you’re cramming to get a project done and don’t feel like the drone of ambient tunes, you might try old favorites from your iTunes or emusic library.

If you’re feeling sluggish, listen to something new and different. Music you’ve never heard before, music that introduces new demands on your brain can raise your energy level. When you’re dragging, that’s the time to try a recommendation service like MyStrands or Yahoo! LAUNCHcast that will play something other than what you already own. Or try Musicovery, where you can enter the style and mood of music you want to hear.

Keep your temperament in mind. Introverts perform less well than extroverts when listening to background music. Choosing music for optimal productivity means getting yourself into your energy sweet spot, where you’re alert and motivated but not anxious and tense. Introverts reach sensory overload earlier than extroverts. On the other hand, highly extroverted people sometimes focus better with music than without–they feel most comfortable with their senses fully engaged.

But don’t despair if you’re a music-loving introvert. People who regularly listen to music while they work or study perform better while listening to music than people who usually work in silence. So you may be able to train yourself to work well with background music, even if you’re temperamentally suited to a more quiet environment.

How do you use music to help you work better? Share your ideas here.