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We all know about streaming ‘lofi beats to relax/ study to’, and I’d wager opinions are pretty divided on whether or not background music or ambient noise actually helps or hinders your productivity.
Fortunately, there is science behind using audio to focus, and I think a lot of people who dislike ambient audio when concentrating have either used the wrong material, or tried it at the wrong time in their workflow.
At our core, we have two different types of attention: conscious and unconscious . When we have a task at hand, and want to get it done, we give it our conscious attention, and work to focus on just that task while ignoring other external distractions.
But while this is happening, our unconscious attention is still at play, and is constantly looking for other things to latch onto - be it a sound in the room, an advert on the side of the page, or a distracting recommendation after an educational YouTube video.
The point at which your conscious attention gets fatigued from trying to ignore these temptations is when that lack of focus occurs. Researchers think that ADHD could be caused by a malfunctioning area of our brain which controls our conscious attention.
Audio, of the correct variety, can help to keep that unconscious attention satisfied and stop it overriding our specific intention to concentrate on that key task. It does this by cutting out a whole area of distraction possibilities and replacing it with something just enough to keep our unconscious attention satisfied.
Lots of research into using music for studying and working has shown that if a person likes the style of music, it will boost their mood which in turn helps them to stay motivated on a task. This is a subtle difference but one which can be hugely beneficial when on a cornerstone between becoming distracted, and entering into a flow state. Positive emotions facilitate learning and contribute to academic achievement, being mediated by the levels of self-motivation and satisfaction with learning materials.
Audio can stimulate your brain, in the same way that exercise can stimulate your body. Two recent studies have shown this can not only help on the recalling of long term memories, but also on the formation of new ones meaning audio can aid both current and future tasks.
The main way this is theorised to work is similar to another method some people use when trying to commit things to memory - colour-coding. People find that organising things by colour helps their brain to form a connection between memories (such as using different coloured highlighters or sticky-notes for different topics). This same phenomena occurs with music.
Certain tracks can create a link with the content you are trying to commit to memory, and when it comes to retention, your brain can think of the audio track to remember said content. Pretty cool.
From my research, this part seems the most subjective. Studies seem to directly contradict each other on when exactly it’s best to be listening to audio.
The two main times during a workflow can be broken down to ‘intense, creative’ work and ‘flowing, doing’ work. To explain using an example: first, a software engineer will likely sit and plan out their solution to a problem. This will involve heavily intaking new information and coming up with a new creative plan for the upcoming work. Then, they will put in the time afterwards to write the code for that solution, which is something more standard, routine, and aligns more with ‘doing’.
I personally find that audio helps me most when in the ‘doing’ phase, and silence helps when in the ‘creative’ phase. But this is purely anecdotal, and I have also come across opinions online of the exact opposite. So I would say it’s best to try it out and see for yourself, while keeping these two work states in mind.
There is something to consider on the positive effect of silence here - how often can we achieve complete silence? As mentioned, audio can be used as a tool to block out distracting sounds from areas in which we cannot get complete silence.
Notice throughout this article I’ve been saying ‘audio’ rather than ‘music’ or ‘songs’. This is because as well as music, you can use almost anything else you like, such as the ambience and background noise of a coffee shop or library for example, as long as it fits a few criteria. It should be:
You want audio which repeats the same kinds of sounds over and over, rather than consistently introducing new and varied material. Slow, instrumental music works best. This helps it to fade into the background, rather than take centre stage in your mind.
Big leads and memorable moments in songs are going to pull you away from your work. Abrupt changes or a lack of fixed rhythm can work to distract us. Stick to softer and less experimental audio. Existing studies primarily use classical music, but any soft electronic or ambient music / background sounds can also work well.
I guess this leads on from the last point, but vocals are made for you to sing along to. No need for that when trying to focus.
Quieter audio can help blend itself into the background easier than music which takes centre stage. This can be tricky when using audio to block out other sounds around you, but try and get the balance right.
Something you actually like
Which is a bit of a no-brainer, but as mentioned above, the dopamine release from hearing sounds we enjoy can boost our motivation to get work done. Pick something which contains sounds you like, e.g. some classical music if you like the sound of the piano, but don’t just throw on your favourite pop bangers.
Avoid sources which are likely to be interrupted
Any audio source which has adverts or will proceed to a recommendation algorithm when finished should generally be avoided. While focus playlists on Spotify & similar music services can work well, their recommendation algorithms are often tuned to what we normally listen to in our spare time. This can lead to shuffles to songs which are way outside the realm of which we discussed above and will require you to shift your attention back to the streaming service in order to get the audio back on track.
Now that you know the criteria behind what makes good focus audio, you may also want to know I am building something which helps alleviate the pain points which other audio sources have when it comes to concentration. Flowful.app is a collection of infinite-length audio and music generators which have been specifically designed to aid your productivity.
Generators remove any interruptions, allow for repetition while never being quite the same, and they have been coded by me (a human), which means I can pick sounds that fit perfectly into the above described criteria.