Anyone who has ever seen a movie montage knows the importance of a motivating soundtrack. We may not have a professional editor to splice together footage of us training for a boxing match or studying for the bar exam, but we can pick our own music to help with our productivity.
There is plenty out there on how and why listening to certain types of music allows us to get more work done, but I took things one step further and trained my brain to associate certain music with work time. Technically, this isn’t something I initially did on purpose, but it worked, so I’m going with it.
The year was 1996 or 1997, and I was browsing the discounted CD bin at my local Half Price Books. I came across a Baroque classical music compilation CD for $1 and decided to invest. I’m not sure what prompted the purchase, but I started playing the CD whenever I was studying or writing a paper. It came to college with me and performed the same function.
One day, a commercial came on that featured one of these Baroque songs, and I immediately started thinking about what I needed to get done and how I was going to do it. I had, I realised, inadvertently trained my brain to shift into work mode upon hearing this genre of classical music, making me both Pavlov and his dog in this scenario.
I did this again, though more intentionally, while working on my Ph.D. My funding was only for three years, so in order to finish in that period, I had to maximise every minute. The Baroque compilation—now in playlist format—still worked to an extent, but I wanted something that moved a bit faster.
I played around with a few other musical options before I rediscovered George Gershwin’s 1928 jazz-orchestral piece, “An American in Paris” —it was the perfect blend of urgency and focus. Other Gershwin arrangements also worked, and to this day, Gershwin remains my productivity music of choice.
Why this works
This isn’t just something that worked for me—there is plenty of science to back up the practice. For starters, listening to music can help reduce stress, tension and anxiety.
In addition, there’s something to be said about sticking with familiar music. According to a 2011 study, specific regions of our brain which process emotions and allow us to concentrate are more engaged when we listen to music that we already know and like.
In fact, in her 2013 book On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind, psychologist Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis makes the case for listening to one song over and over as a way to improve your focus and keep your mind from wandering.
And it turns out that initial choice of Baroque music was a good one: a 2009 study found that radiologists who listened to Baroque music experienced improved mood and productivity, and made more efficient and accurate diagnoses.
How to find your own productivity song
If you’re looking for your own productivity song or genre, the process is pretty straightforward. First, shop around for music that motivates you to get stuff done, but won’t distract you. Once you’ve selected a song or genre, listen to it whenever you’re in “work mode”—whether that’s paying bills, doing your taxes, or writing your to-do list.
Make sure this music is accessible either on your phone or computer—ideally downloaded and not streaming, so you don’t need to be somewhere with internet access to use it. Then put it on when you need to be productive, and transition into “work mode.”