Does Music Help You Focus?

Skull Music Sketch

I’ve always been the sort of person who works with music in the background. Ever since I was a little kid writing code in my bedroom, I’d routinely listen to my favorite music while programming.

Over the last 12 years, as my responsibilities have shifted from purely writing code to writing articles, recording videos, and participating in meetings, my habits have changed. Out of necessity, I’m unable to work with music most of the time, but when I have an hour or so of uninterrupted time, I still prefer to put music on and use it to help me crank through whatever it is I’m focusing on.

However, I’ve been doing some experimentation over the last few months. My goal was to determine how much music helped me focus. I didn’t have a precise scientific way of measuring this except to track whether or not I felt my Pomodoro sessions were productive.

To keep score, I kept a simple Apple Notes file that contained a running tally of whether or not I felt my recently finished Pomodoro session was productive or not. And while this isn’t the most scientific way to measure, I figured it was good enough for my purposes.

Over the last three months, I logged 120 completed Pomodoro sessions. Of those, roughly 50% (58 sessions) were completed while listening to music, and the other 50% (62 sessions) were completed without music.

To my surprise, when tallying up the results, it appears that listening to music is a distraction for me, causing me to feel like my sessions weren’t very productive. Out of the 58 Pomodoro sessions I completed while listening to music, I noted that ~20% were productive (12 sessions) vs. ~60% (37 sessions) without music.

60% vs. 20% is a significant difference, which is especially surprising since I genuinely enjoy working with music. When I started this experiment, I expected that music would make me more, not less productive.

So what’s the takeaway here? For me, it’s that despite how much I enjoy listening to music while working, it’s distracting.

Am I going to give up listening to music while trying to focus? Not necessarily. As I mentioned previously, I still love working with music. But, I’ll undoubtedly turn the music off if I’m trying to get something important done and need my time to be as productive as possible.

In the future, I’m also planning to run this experiment separately to compare the impact of instrumental vs. non-instrumental music on my productivity. I typically listen to music with lyrics (hip-hop, pop, etc.), which makes me wonder if the lyrics are distracting or just the music itself.

I’m also curious as to whether or not lyrics in a language I don’t understand would cause a similar level of distraction or not (for example, maybe I could listen to Spanish music without impacting my productivity since I don’t understand the language).

Regardless of my results, please experiment for yourself! If you’re trying to maximize productivity, you might be surprised what things are impacting your focus levels.