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The perfect playlist for productivity: Can music affect your focus?

Barnaby

Barnaby Lashbrooke

Founder and CEO of Time etc, author of The Hard Work Myth

6 minute read

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When you’re trying to get your head down and work through tasks that will grow your business, do you work in silence, or with background noise? Some prefer the simple sound of the keyboard when typing away, but there’s always been a debate surrounding music and whether listening to it can either be beneficial or distract you from the task at hand.

Some studies claim music isn’t the best for productivity. A Lehmann and Seufert paper suggests that people who don’t have an excellent working memory can find it harder to focus while there’s music playing in the background.

But others suggest the complete opposite, with some examples claiming that music engages the brain to help it absorb and interpret new information quickly.

So it seems there are two sides to the story, with experts finding both to be true depending on the individual. If you are looking for ways to optimize your productivity as an entrepreneur, here’s how you can use music as an effective tool to keep you focused during deep-work sessions, or to get you in the zone to meet those deadlines.

Music with no lyrics works the best

When searching for the perfect playlist to keep you productive and maintain focus levels, music with no lyrics is widely accepted as the best for this purpose. Plenty of studies indicate that listeners end up focusing on the lyrics rather than the task at hand, as it re-prioritizes the information you’re trying to process.

The reason why is almost identical to why some people find office environments to be distracting. In the office, you’ll naturally find your focus shifting to conversations between colleagues. The same concept applies to song lyrics. If it’s a song you know, you’re inclined to sing along, even if it’s in your head. If it’s a song you don’t know, your mind will be focused on anticipating what comes next or deciphering the messages.

With no lyrics, there’s nothing to dissect.


Classical music

You may have heard of the “Mozart effect”, the idea that listening to music by classical composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart can make babies and children smarter (the notion was so prevalent in the 1990s that in 1998 the Governor of the state of Georgia allocated over $100,000 in the state budget to send newborn babies home with a Mozart CD or cassette tape), but this has never been proven.

However, researchers at the University of Maryland studied the effects of Baroque classical music on adultsand saw a positive impact on their mood and the efficiency and accuracy of their work.

If you choose to listen to classical music to help you focus, we recommend opting for something gentler and calming, such as Anything by Einaudi, rather than more dramatic pieces like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, as these can be more distracting due to their intensity.


Electronic lo-fi music

There’s a reason you’ll come across thousands of multi-hour lo-fi electronic music mixes on platforms like Spotify and YouTube.

A lyric-less mix of jazz, soul, and ‘80s and ’90s hip-hop combined with ambient sounds of vinyl records crackling or water dripping, the music is not so boring that you’ll tune it out completely, but not interesting enough to distract you from your work.

Electronic lo-fi music is often full of looping or sustained sounds. This, according to music professor Victor Szabo, makes it easily predictable subconsciously, so your attention can stay on the task at hand without being surprised or thrown off by the music. He also describes it as having a “cocooning” effect, creating a protective, relaxing space to keep you productive.


Binaural beats

If you are not familiar with binaural beats, it is defined as an auditory illusion created by the brain when you listen to two tones with slightly different frequencies at the same time. Your brain then interprets these two tones as a whole new beat with a different frequency. When you listen to binaural beats, your brain activity matches the frequency of the beat, known as the “frequency-following effect”. This means, in theory, binaural beats can help your mind reach a certain mental state just by listening.

Although more studies currently exist for actual music and other sound types, the limited research into binaural beats does look promising. For example, one study found that specific binaural beats positively affect attention and vigilance, and another reveals binaural beats can reduce levels of fatigue, confusion, and tension.

For example, delta binaural beats (between 1 and 4 Hz) are said to work best for relaxation, whereas lower beta frequencies (between 14 and 30 Hz) are linked to improved concentration and alertness. With so many options available, you can try out multiple binaural beats to find out exactly what works for you.

For this to work, you need to work in a comfortable place where there are no distractions. Otherwise, you won’t experience the full effects.


Video game music

It might sound silly, but video game soundtracks are designed for this exact purpose. The music is thoughtfully composed to help keep players focused on the game’s objective, without disrupting their concentration.

Those who have played video games, past or present, will know that for some games the victory music can enhance your sense of achievement when you complete a mission. This positive association can help you to power through your workload and move on to the ‘next level’.


Ambient noise

Although not technically music, ambient noise certainly deserves its place in this list.

While researching our article discussing the benefits of working outside your regular office set-up, we found numerous studies that show low-level ambient noise can boost creative thinking and improve cognitive flexibility, which subsequently improves diverse thinking, problem-solving, and learning.

Playing ambient music has also been said to reduce stress and anxiety while improving brain function, performance and focus. This is due to the minimal beats and rhythms being able to put the senses at rest, lowering blood pressure and heart rate.

Most major music platforms offer multiple different types of ambient songs and playlists, ranging from “coffee shop vibes” to calming nature sounds, so there is something for everyone to help get into the zone.


Your favorite music

As previously mentioned, music can have different effects on different people. If none of the above suggestions sound remotely appealing, then your well-known, familiar songs are your best bet.

Listening to your preferred music has been shown to boost moods and increase task performance, but familiarity is the key as listening to new music makes your mind more inclined to wander and listen out for what comes next rather than focusing on your work.

Music also activates reward centers in the brain, so even if you find any and all music to be too distracting during work, the promise of listening to your favorite music afterward is an effective motivation to get things done.


It could be argued that your choice of music to be productive may well be irrelevant if you aren’t working on the right tasks, to begin with. If you’re too busy with things that aren’t adding value to your business growth, then you’re wasting your precious time and energy. This is the point where a virtual assistant becomes vital. They can take those repetitive executive or administrative tasks off your hands so you have more freedom to focus on the big picture. When you’re working on high-impact, business-critical tasks, then your choice of music as a productivity tool is even more important.

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About the author

Barnaby
Barnaby Lashbrooke is the founder and CEO of Virtual Assistant service Time etc as well as the author of The Hard Work Myth, recently recommended by Sir Richard Branson. Barnaby is a Forbes Columnist on productivity and is also an accomplished entrepreneur, selling more than $35 million worth of services.

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