Small Playlists, Flow, and Distractions

Matt just posted some interesting speculation about his trick of listening to a single song on repeat to get work done. (This led me to dig up his “The Way I Work: Annotated“, which is a fun behind-the-scenes tour. Coming home at 2am and writing some code FTW!)

I’m not sure I buy the “mere exposure” explanation when you’re starting from already liking a song, though. Seems to me that would be more apt if you chose a song you disliked and found yourself enjoying it after the hundredth time. ;)

Personally, I tend to glom onto a few favorite songs (or sometimes one particularly cohesive album) and listen to them over and over for months. I have noticed that if I’m going to put music on while working, it has to be something I know very well, or it will be distracting. On the flip side of that coin, I am slow to discover new music, as I can only fully absorb something new if I can give it my full attention.

Unlike some, I don’t think there’s a strong correlation between my own productivity and music. I sometimes listen to music while working, sometimes prefer silence. I think it just depends on my mood and how much ambient noise there is to tune out.

I wonder if another part of the explanation is the way music becomes kind of a storage mechanism for emotional states — just as a song you listened to after a breakup can remind you of those sad feelings, maybe a song you’ve listened to often while in “flow” can more easily evoke the flow state in the future.

I do know that I seem to be worse at processing audio than most people; I also have a hard time with podcasts, and can’t listen to anyone talking on the radio while driving. In general, I’m quite susceptible to being distracted by environmental factors (whether it’s noise, people walking around, temperature, hunger, etc.). That’s why I generally prefer to work from home, where I have total control over my environment and very few interruptions.

I’ve always found it very interesting that quite a lot of people are the reverse — they find working from home distracting, and prefer coffeeshops or offices. It’s very tempting to call that an introvert/extravert distinction (i.e., the difference between finding lots of input stimulating or tiring)… though my favorite recent article on introversion says it might be more strongly correlated with neuroticism, or at least, that sensitivity is a different axis.