About 10 years ago, I started listening to songs on repeat while doing creative work. I’ll listen to the same song for days at a time and often for the entire length of a project (weeks). Or sometimes I’ll listen to a slower song in the morning and maybe a faster song later in the day. I’ve discovered that this approach makes a significant impact on the quality and the volume of work I produce. This practice will work for designers, writers, programmers, or anyone who’s involved in intensely focused work.
Why is song repetition such a powerful tool?
Studies suggest that when you listen to music you like, the brain releases the chemical dopamine that can have positive effects on your mood. Fast music can actually increase your heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure, while slower music tends to have the opposite effect.¹
By listening to the same song on repeat, you are altering your physiology. Over time the song starts to fade into the background. That’s when you begin to transcend from actually listening to just feeling the music.
I’m using music to literally put myself into a trance-like state.
And that place is where I’m able to do my best work. Anything that helps me focus is a huge benefit when fighting the constant distractions of open offices.
Song choice has a direct effect on successful outcomes.
I like songs with different tempos and styles, and these can have a dramatic effect on performance and altering your mental state. Almost all of my work is deadline-driven and they’re usually hard deadlines. The projects I work on are typically broken up into a few different phases.
The first is the creative ideation phase. I try to ensure I have enough time during this part because I usually listen to slower songs. Often these are melancholy songs that can be linked to memories. I’m trying to mine the past for ideas that were never uncovered. If I’m writing, I listen to songs without lyrics. Words paint pictures, and my mind wanders into the story of the song.
The second part is the actual design, presenting, and revisions phase. I’m a bit more open to what I listen to here. If I were really digging what I was listening to during the first phase, I’d keep playing it. If I’m collaborating, there will be lots of stops and starts, and I use different songs to jumpstart my focus.
The last phase is the roll-up your sleeves and work as fast as humanly possible right up until the project ships. Fast tempo songs work best during this time, especially if I’m working at night and trying to stay awake.
You’re not weird.
At times I’m a bit embarrassed by my song choices e.g., Britney Spears Toxic. I usually don’t tell anyone about this habit, but sometimes my secret gets out. One day I was wearing my Sennheiser headphones that leak a bit of sound. A coworker sitting across from me looked up and said, “are you listening to Wicked Game on repeat?” “Uhhh, yes,” I timidly answered. “Oh, I love that remake by James Vincent McMorrow” she happily responded. “Yeah, me too, cool,” I said while quietly turning my music down…
Here’s my Spotify playlist.
The playlist is in no particular order and I almost always click on a few different songs until I find the one that feels right. I’d love to hear how this works for you and I’d also love some new song suggestions.