Smarter Working

Music to Your (Career) Ears

Listen correctly and you can amp up your productivity. Listen improperly and you can damage your career.

The last decade has brought enormous change to corporate workplaces: cubicle walls came down, messaging platforms came up, and flexible work options proliferated.

But a subtler trend also has taken hold: it’s become totally normal for people to have earbuds in, nearly all day, at work. Today, more than 80% of workers say their employer allows them to listen to music at work, and nearly three-quarters of workers say doing so makes them more productive, according to a survey by the staffing firm Accountemps.  

Research shows that listening to music during complex cognitive tasks can actually be distracting.

Indeed, music has always been known to have profound effects on our mood, and can help minimize distractions in the modern open-office plans in which so many of us now exist. But, as with most habits, turning up the tunes can also work against you—becoming a distraction itself or giving you a not-so-great reputation among your colleagues. If you find yourself listening to music at work, here’s how to keep yourself on track.

Keep an ear to the ground.

If you’re constantly wearing earbuds, you’re missing out on opportunities to engage with your coworkers and chime in on important impromptu conversations. People around you may also find it frustrating that they have to raise their voice or wave to you to get your attention, says Karen Huang, senior manager of search assessment at Korn Ferry.

To avoid this perception, kill the headphones during natural times of transition—when people are arriving at work and during lunchtime—as those are key moments for interaction. Another solution is to wear only one earbud so that you can hear what’s going on around you. “I had a busted set of earbuds where the left one didn’t work,” says Michael Jacobs, an advertising executive. “It was the best set of earbuds to bring to work because when important conversations were happening, I knew exactly what was going on.”

Skip the lyrics during tough tasks.

What you listen to should suit the task at hand. If you’re set for a day filled with administrative, repetitive tasks, then upbeat music might improve your mood and keep you going.

But research shows that listening to music during complex cognitive tasks can be distracting. Lyrical music is especially so—a 2014 study from Cardiff Metropolitan University in the United Kingdom shows that people performed worse on reading-comprehension assessments when they were listening to music with lyrics. So when you need to focus, go for instrumental or classical music.

Don’t expect your productivity to double.

Music doesn’t affect everyone equally. According to a study by Teresa Lesiuk, a professor at the University of Miami, people who were considered experts in their field didn’t show any real uptick in productivity when listening to music. The same went for novices, who lacked the skills needed to be more productive in their job. But those who were moderately good at their jobs saw a marked increase in productivity. Luckily for people at all expertise levels, music improved mood—which may be reason enough to turn on some tunes. 

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