As part of my ongoing work on a personal operating manual, I’ve been thinking a lot about what Tyler Cowen would call the “Julian Production Function”. Namely, a list of all the habits, routines and things that make me more productive.
One element of my personal production function I find particularly interesting is the impact of music (or audio more general) on my productivity.
Based on almost 15 years of Last.fm data, I know that music consumption overall is a pretty good proxy to measure my productivity. The graph above shows the number of songs I listened to on a monthly basis (the gray bars) as well as the monthly average per year (the black line).
My music consumption peaked in years where I did lots of deep work such as studying, writing or coding (2008, 2010, 2013, 2017-2018). Years with less screen time correlate with a lower number of songs I listened to (2014-2016, 2019).
Of course not every type of music is necessarily great for productivity. When I dug a little deeper into the data I found another interesting trend: Over the last ~10 years, I have increasingly listened to ambient music and soundtracks. These two graphs essentially represent my efforts to optimize my music consumption for further productivity improvement.
The problem is that I haven’t found a good way to measure if (or which of) those attempts to improve my productivity have actually paid off. More music consumption tells me that I worked more – but it doesn’t tell me if I worked better or more efficiently.
It’s hard to quantify actual productivity or focus work: I’ve tried using productivity proxies such as RescueTime, number of emails sent and GitHub contributions – but all of those are pretty vague. Rating each day with a “perceived productivity”-score also hasn’t really produced any meaningful data.
Nevertheless, I will continue to experiment with different music to improve my focus. Here’s a list of music apps and playlists I’m currently using:
Brian Eno’s Music for Airports is great for productivity – I especially like this 6 hour time-stretched version. Someone put together a fantastic Spotify playlist of similar airport music. Max Richter’s Sleep “is meant to be listened to at night” but I find it perfect for focus work. (I also tried listening to it at night to see if it would improve my sleep. It didn’t.) If you like Richter’s work, you might also enjoy Nils Frahm and Jóhann Jóhannsson.
I can recommend pretty much everything by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (the new Watchmen OST is particularly great). The Black Mirror soundtracks have a similar dystopian feel – Jason Kottke compiled all of the songs in a playlist here. Hans Zimmer’s Interstellar and Dunkirk soundtracks are also great for productive work.
You can find endless nature sound playlists on Spotify and YouTube. I prefer thunderstorm and rainforest sounds. Noisli is great to mix and match different sounds.
FOCUS MUSIC APPS
My go-to productivity app these days is a service called Endel which “creates personalized, sound-based, adaptive environments that help people focus and relax” based on a variety of inputs (including time of day, weather, heart rate and location). I have also heard good things about Brain.fm and focus@will.
Last but not least, Flow State is an excellent newsletter that sends you a daily focus music recommendation.
Do you have any other recommendations?
Please let me know on Twitter!