Using music to focus in a shared office

By Dr Jasmine B. MacDonald on October 14, 2023

My personal work style is to go into the office everyday. I like routine and having environmental cues signalling it is time to focus and be productive.

Since the start of my research career I have worked in shared offices with 1 or 2 other people or in an open-plan office with many colleagues. I think there are a range of reasons why working around other people can be beneficial. But I am easily distracted by background noise and conversations in the office when I’m trying to do focused work.

One item I have with me everyday is my noise-cancelling, over-ear headphones. But this isn’t enough because good headphones is only part of the story. The more important thing is having a range of music options to listen to and knowing what kind of music will work for me based on my level of arousal.

Arousal: physiological alertness or stimulation.

When I was doing my Ph.D. and when I started out in lecturing, I would tend to work when I was feeling good physically and mentally. The problem with this was the lack of consistency and routine. The flexibility of academic work can be great for some people. But I often had this feeling like I was playing catch up. Usually, this would mean I’d get my teaching preparation done because it had a critical timeline – the next class! Research, writing, higher level thinking, and planning would get crammed into tiny windows through the work week or be left until evenings or the weekend.

Now I show up to the same place everyday at pretty much the same time. But this means I am sometimes feeling under-stimulated or over-stimulated, making focused work in a shared office space tricky. The solution for me has been to use music to regulate my level of arousal.

Generally, I am listening to instrumental music only. My work typically involves reading and writing, and so I don’t want music that is going to compete with the language comprehension and generation functions of my working memory.

Music to increase arousal levels

When I have arousal levels too low to be productive I want the most energetic music. I listen to music with a faster tempo or that is louder to increase my level of stimulation and speed up my thinking or work. I find that I am usually under-stimulated at the start of the day and also on days when I am working on a single project all day and independently. My go-to music options at these times are:

These options are also useful when, regardless of my level of arousal, I am distracted by a particularly loud, close or otherwise distracting conversation in the office. I used to also have to work on the train to and from work and these options where good for that context too. But be careful not to hit too much of a flow and miss your train stop – although you can find cool new restaurants doing this, so it’s not all bad. 🙂

Music to decrease arousal levels

When I have arousal levels too high to be productive I want the most chill and calming music to decrease my over-stimulated mind. I usually feel over-stimulated when I am doing a lot of context switching in a single day or when I have a lot of social demands in a day, things like meetings or working collaboratively with others. My go-to music options at these time include:

Some practical considerations

If you want to try to regulate your work hours and productivity by altering your arousal through the music you listen to, here are some considerations:

  1. Think about what would work for you when you are over stimulated and when you are under stimulated, but do this thinking when you are in that Goldilocks just-right arousal zone. Then download or otherwise make the music easy to access. Don’t leave smart decisions to the version of you that is not at optimal thinking mode.
  2. Come up with multiple options to listen to because you will habituate and music that works for a while will stop working, or worse, become distracting or frustrating.
  3. Listening to music for long periods of time while working or being productive for the sole purpose of regulating your arousal levels will mess up the predictions and recommendations your streaming platform gives you. When Tim and I are hanging out at home or I am walking around and just want Siri to recommend me good vibes music based on my non-productivity music preferences, I ultimately end up hearing a lot of meditation or smooth jazz!

Author note

Send focus music recommendations my way, please. It helps to crowd source variety in your focused work tunes.


By Israel Andrade on Unsplash