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September 30, 2014

What does productivity sound like?

Every second, the human brain is bombarded with around one billion stimuli (1), many of which are sounds. Of these, only roughly 100 individual sensations are actually processed.

Sifting through this mental noise, the left half of the brain distinguishes and removes unimportant background sounds, before identifying and amplifying priority sounds to make sure they are received more clearly.

Your brain works tirelessly to make sure that you aren’t overloaded with unnecessary stimulus. This exerts a tremendous effort, so we need be careful about what sounds we expose ourselves to even if they just seem to fade into the background.

Everyday sounds like the electrical buzzing of overhead lighting, traffic in the street, or the low drone of air-conditioning can all contribute to mental exhaustion without us even realising it.

There can be physical side effects to continued exposure to excessive noise, including high blood pressure, coronary disease, peptic ulcers, and migraines; and the stress resulting from ongoing noise means that that rather than getting used to it over time, the effects can get worse (2).

What is your OLA?

This isn’t to say that total silence is ideal either. It depends upon your ‘optimum level of arousal’ (also known as OLA), the ideal amount of stimulus you need in order to work at your best (3).

This level is different for everybody. If your OLA is lower, then you will respond most effectively to quieter, more peaceful environments, where you can focus without being beaten down by too much unwanted noise. Those of us with a higher OLA are more likely to become bored or distracted without music or a little background activity to help keep us motivated and engaged.

Having an awareness of what blend works best for you is vital if you want to create the perfect ambient environment.

One way to make sure you block out unwanted noise while maintaining the perfect level of stimulation is to listen to music while working. There have been many studies into the benefits of working to music, and besides the obvious perk of being more enjoyable, there are proven cognitive improvements too, sometimes referred to as ‘the Mozart Effect’.

When played at a comfortable volume, music paced at around 60 beats per minute has been shown to increase memory recall for people learning a foreign language by 8.7% (4). Attention to detail during cognitively demanding tasks, such as proofreading or pattern detection is also significantly higher when listening to music (5).

Of course, the best music to work to ultimately comes down to personal preference, but in general if it doesn’t have lyrics to interfere with your train of thought, and is around 60 bpm, then the chances are you’ll experience the Mozart Effect for yourself.

Download free stress relievers

Fortunately for Lumia owners there are a multitude of excellent audio apps to choose from. Nokia MixRadio provides ad-free music streaming and even works offline, meaning that your favourite productivity-boosting tracks are always within easy reach.

If you’d like to take a more scientific approach, then White Noise Generator provides a choice of artificially-generated sounds to help block out the distractions of your environment. It even features a timer for when you need to work to a strict schedule.

For those of us that prefer a more peaceful setting, Relax You Lite offers a customisable blend of natural sounds, from bird song to light rain, allowing for a perfectly tranquil mix when you need to clear your head and eliminate stress.

We’ve prepared a specially designed productivity mix for you to listen to below, based on the research outlined in this article. It’s free to download, is set to the optimum pace of 60 beats per minute, and runs continuously for 25 minutes, the length of one complete cycle of the Pomodoro technique (6).

The sounds are a balanced blend of high and low frequencies, and feature recurring phrases with subtle modulations, to fade into the background while simultaneously keeping you stimulated.

Try listening to our productivity mix when you need to escape from distraction, then take a three minute break when it concludes. Let us know in the comments if it works for you.

Image by 55Laney69 | CC BY-2.0

1. Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval, The Power of Small, p 78, (2009), ISBN 978-0-7525-3990-3

2. Mark A. W. Andrews, How does background noise affect our concentration?, Scientific American,

3. Marvin Zuckerman, Behavioral Expressions and Biosocial Bases of Sensation Seeking, (1994), ISBN 978-0-5214-3770-7

4. Annette M. B. de Groot, Effect of Stimulus Characteristics and Background Music on Foreign Language Vocabulary Learning and Forgetting,

5. Christian N. L. Olivers & Sander Nieuwenhuis, The beneficial effect of concurrent task-irrelevant mental activity on temporal attention, Psychological Science,