Headphones at work are more than just a universal “Do Not Disturb” sign: They’re a must-have accessory for those squeezing as much productivity as possible out of the day. An extensive body of research shows what headphone wearers have known for years: When wielded the right way, music and noise can increase your output and make the workday go by faster.
Research dating back decades has shown that listening to music can make repetitive boring tasks more enjoyable—and make workers tackling these tasks more productive. In a study done in 1995—well before the birth of the iPod—researchers at the University of Illinois found that listening to music with headphones made workers more effective, with the biggest jumps seen in simple, repetitive tasks such as data entry, where productivity rose by about a full 14 percent, while lifting workers’ moods.
For other highly-specific office predicaments, science can help you optimize your sound selection.
For decompressing after a tense meeting
It sounds obvious, but research backs up the fact that music can have profound effects on your emotional state—and can be used as a tool to calm you down when you’re feeling anxious.
According to Costas Karageorghis, Ph.D., a sports psychologist at Brunel University London who has studied the effects of music on performance, workers looking to calm down should put on rhythmically simple music that falls between 70 and 90 beats per minute (he suggested easy-listening artists like Enya).
For powering through the post-lunch slump
If you’re looking for a noncaffeinated way to stay alert, Karageorghis suggested hitting play on something with a rhythmic structure between 120 and 140 beats per minute. Karageorghis’s picks: “The Black Eyed Peas’ Boom Boom Pow, which is right in the sweet spot of 130 bpm, or Move On Up by Curtis Mayfield, which is 136 bpm and has a funk-soul groove with a good syncopated beat, which gives us feelings of movement and vigor.”
Karageorghis’s research also suggests that lyrics can have a real impact on your performance. He suggested pumping jams with positive, affirmation-filled lyrics before a big presentation or interview. “This has a potent effect in terms of reinforcing somebody’s identity and bolstering their ego,” he said.
For keeping your spirits up as you crank out code
If it felt like that Python script you were banging out got more beautiful—and made you happier—when you threw some T-Swift on, it wasn’t your imagination. Research by Teresa Lesiuk, Ph.D, a professor at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, has found that when workers are engaged in complex, brain-intensive tasks, listening to the music of their choice can improve their mood and productivity.
The musical advantage is greater for some workers than others, however. For folks who were either complete novices or experts in their field, Lesiuk found little change in productivity. It was the moderate-skill workers in the middle who got the greatest output bump from listening.
So if you need to keep your spirits up because you’re a middling coder who’s been tackling a tough script for hours, the right music to choose is, simply, your favorite music (study participants had their choice of song to listen to).
A note to any bosses tempted to put the kibosh on their employees’ headphones habit: This is one area where you may not want to intervene. In a study that looked at computer programmers (a group that’s used to listening to music while they work), Lesiuk found that, after several weeks of being allowed to listen to whatever they wanted to, turning off the tunes caused a noticeable dip in both mood and productivity. “I had one participant tell me he couldn’t continue the study because he had an important project due that week and couldn’t do it without music,” Lesiuk said.
For designing the company logo
The power of sound extends past your playlist. Moderate background noise—the chatter of a busy cafe or open office, for example—was found to make people more creative in studies done by Ravi Mehta, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the University of Illinois College of Business. What’s more interesting is that distraction—the very thing we blame for killing our workflow—may help us work in this case.
“What we think is happening is that these moderate levels of distraction break your thought process, and when your mind breaks way from a problem, you tend to think more creatively,” Mehta said.
Mehta cautioned that this distracting background noise may not help for tasks that require deep focus and that, as you might predict, too much noise is probably not the best path to productivity.