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Background music can help improve your productivity at work, but it can also hinder your performance. According to recent research, the effect of music on workload comes down to three variables: the type of music, the complexity of the task you’re tackling and your personality.

John Aiello, a professor of psychology at Rutgers University, and Manuel Gonzales, a doctoral student at the City University of New York, conducted an experiment in which 142 undergraduate students listened to instrumental music as they tackled a simple and a complicated task. The music could be varied for complexity.

The researchers started with the theory that when we do simple tasks, we are easily distracted, as less attention is required than we have to offer. So in that instance, playing music might help prevent boredom and mind-wandering. As well, the demand for attention that we experience from the music and the task should create some stress and psychological arousal, keeping us more stimulated,

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But when the task is more complicated, the reverse should occur – we need all our attention for the work, so the music interferes, and that worsens as the volume and complexity of the music grows.

The research validated the theory. For simple tasks, playing music will help; the more volume and complexity, the better your performance.

If the task is complex, beware. The research suggested that music impairs performance. However, it didn’t find that complexity of the music or volume worsened performance.

We differ individually in our preference for external stimulation. Some people are prone to boredom; they thirst for distractions and novelty, while others are just the opposite.

The researchers therefore studied the impact of music on introverts and extroverts. They assumed that individuals with stronger preferences for external stimulation – those who are more likely to seek stimulation from their environment – will pay greater attention to music while they are performing tasks, which can be detrimental when that task is complex.

The findings were far from clear, but music generally hindered complex task performance if the individual’s preference for external stimulation was high. Complex music and soft volumes seemed to help simple task performance when preference for external stimulation was low, but hindered simple task performance when preference for external stimulation was high.

Ultimately, the researchers say their findings indicate the relationship between music and task performance is not “one size fits all,” and instead, it depends on the person.

Quick hits

  • Check your to-do list to see how many items are urgent but not important. Career coach Mimi Bishop suggests abandoning the daily to-do list for a weekly one that includes a mix of the urgent but not necessarily important, and the important but not necessarily urgent.
  • Put thought into the headline of your LinkedIn profile. This is one of the most valuable pieces of LinkedIn real estate, according to career advancement coach Suzanne O’Brien, and should signal not just your current role but where you want to go, along with your unique value. For example: Marketing Professional for High-Growth Companies.
  • Here are two questions career coach Adunola Adeshola recommends asking job interviewers: “Ideally, if offered this role, what are the biggest priorities you’d like me to tackle immediately in my first 90 days?" and “Is there anything that concerns you about my background being fit for this role?”
  • A series of 11 experiments reported in the Harvard Business Review found evidence for the belief that people tend to shoot the messenger – bearers of bad news tended to be viewed as unlikable.
  • Behavioural economist Dan Ariely advises allotting two extra hours for any flight to account for potential delays. If the flight takes less time than that, you’ll arrive in better spirits by preparing.

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