Once upon a time, I was great at ignoring distractions.
Loud music didn't diminish my concentration. Noisy restaurants didn't make it hard for me to engage in meaningful conversations. Having music on in the background actually helped me study.
Or so I thought.
In some cases, music can improve your performance:
- Listening to this song for just 15 seconds can make you more creative.
- When you already possess considerable skill, listening to music can help you relax and improve your focus. (Think surgeons who listen to music during operations.)
- Listening to fast-paced music can increase pace and endurance without making you feel more tired. (Which is great if your job is largely physical in nature.)
But then there's this: When you need to learn something new, when you need to develop or improve a skill, when you need to synthesize information, when you need to solve a problem... research shows that listening to music makes your performance suffer.
The problem is what scientists call "irrelevant sound." (You may think that music is highly relevant to making your work less boring, and maybe it is, but still.)
When certain tasks are performed in the presence of background sound -- music, conversation, construction, etc. -- the performance of that tasks automatically suffers.
Like when the people around you are chatting about something and you wish they would be quiet so you can concentrate. Or when your neighbor is cutting the grass and you wish they would just (freaking) so you can concentrate. Or when the guy (it's always a guy) next to you on a plane is humming loudly because his headphones mean he can't hear himself and you wish he would just shut the (heck) up.
Or when you listen to music when you need to learn, analyze, or decide.
Even if you think listening to music helps.
Because in those cases, it doesn't.
Especially if you sing along: Research shows that singing along increases your mental workload, which means the brainpower you apply to what you're working on naturally decreases.
Even without research to back it up, that rings true. I can think of times I was driving and singing... and realized I wasn't paying nearly enough attention to driving.
So the next time you're tempted to listen to music, first think about the work you'll be doing. If it's a relatively mindless task, or one you can do so well that it's basically automatic, then by all means crank it up.
But if you need to learn, or evaluate, or make decisions, or apply all your mental effort to whatever is in front of you... then make sure your environment is as quiet as possible.
It may seem boring at first, but your effectiveness and performance and will definitely benefit.
And when you're working on something important -- which, if you think about it, is everything that you do -- what you achieve is what matters most.