concentration and music

I take stretches where I shut down instant messaging software, quiet my phone and don’t answer any unknown numbers. I don’t check my email and to some extent, try to ignore everyone around me. The ambient babble and occasional shrieks in the office (especially on Fridays) break concentration and at worst interrupt any flow I might have achieved. To mitigate that, I tend to listen to a lot of music while working. Whilst not the most important thing in life, I seek to achieve high levels of productivity.

Reaching flow at work generally requires a clear goal or purpose, feedback, and a balance of challenge and achievability. I suspect developers tend to be more of the autotelic type than the population in general. Programming is abstract and requires interest in theoretic stuff right from the get go. Quite often, the programmer is intrinsically motivated beyond the business value or personal monetary rewards.

For me to achieve flow, I think all the above mentioned requirements apply. Having a good challenge is vital. Minimising distractions is a necessity.


Music might not be necessary to achieve flow, but it certainly helps. I feel that listening to music is actually more helpful with staying in the flow and fostering concentration. The best kind is usually something instrumental, slow and peaceful, with no sudden changes in tempo or volume. I recently bumped into this service called Hearts of Space, which is basically a collection of an hour or so radio shows from the past few decades. “Slow music for fast times”, they say. And I highly recommend it.

Another option is to listen to ambient sounds, such as those found in or They’re great by themselves or combined with music. It’s difficult to achieve flow if you’re completely stressed, and I’ve found these to mix well with the occasional meditation or just plain relaxation.

Lyrics can be distracting, unless you’re familiar with them. Repeating a song or a few can actually help with concentration, and I’ve noticed this too. Apparently, via exposure, repetition helps the listener to achieve some kind of a “shared subjectivity” with the music and somehow merge with it. Such zen.

Oh, and RATATAT just put out a new single, which actually inspired me into writing this. After looping it for hours.


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