Working from home may be music to one’s ears, but Dragonflies know that what’s playing in the background can be crucial to productivity. An informal survey of our staff revealed that we use a variety of sound strategies—from total quiet to eclectic music, baseball games, and podcasts—to maintain focus. Here’s what keeps the Dragonflies humming.
THE SOUNDS OF SILENCE
Some of us find that silence is golden. Anything beyond the steady ticking of the Joanna Gaines–mandated oversized clock on the office wall will send this crew off track.
Samantha Enslen: I find that when I edit, I must listen to … nothing. In fact, my favorite way to edit is with my Hello Kitty headphones on, covering my ears … but with nothing playing. I’m blocking everything out, but taking nothing in. Call it my “blank brain slate” for editing. For all my other work, I’ve become addicted to the Focus@Will classical piano channel.
Bethany Meisinger-Reiff: I can’t listen to anything when I’m working. I harbor a deep suspicion that I have ADD, and I can’t divide my focus like that—the music steals my attention every time. I do work with my windows open, however, and delight in the sounds of nature.
Amy Welde: I work best in silence. In the summer months when my kids are home, my background “music” is my son playing video games and my daughter on YouTube and Netflix.
Melissa Blevins: Silence!
I HAVE NO WORDS
A significant number of Dragonfly editors enjoy listening to music while they work, with one caveat: no lyrics allowed. For this group, instrumental music ensures there’s only one set of words to focus on.
Kelly Rickard: I prefer either silence or music without lyrics when I’m editing. I rely heavily on Minnesota Public Radio’s three stations—Classical MPR, The Current, and MPR News. Current faves in our household are Kamasi Washington and Janelle Monáe, but my kids like to torture me with ’80s pop and yacht rock.
Molly Gamborg: I usually like it quiet when I’m editing, but when I put on music, I almost always choose The Essential Yo-Yo Ma. There are two songs at the tail end that I have to skip because my brain starts singing along, but otherwise I find it both calming and invigorating.
For these Dragonflies, the soundtrack of their workday is as varied as the tasks they’re assigned.
Melissa Levine: Silence or the white noise of CNN for the first pass. Classical or jazz for the second pass (no one specific—just the latest Spotify playlist). If I’m working through a long reference list, the Hamilton soundtrack or The Miseducation of Lauren Hill.
Michelle Anderson: Silence (punctuated by random barking) while I’m editing. If I’m formatting or designing a template or playing with graphics, I listen to music in a range of genres—from Imagine Dragons, Tool, Marilyn Manson, and Godsmack to Ella Fitzgerald, 15th-century court music, and classical. Sometimes, I’ll even live on the edge and throw in a favorite movie. I’m a risk-taker like that.
Julie Henderson: Either no music or instrumental music that’s happy being in the background if I’m editing the main text, figures, and tables of a paper. But when I get to the references, especially if it’s a long list that needs a lot of corrections, anything goes! Depending on my mood, that runs the gamut: blues, classic rock, pop, bluegrass, Yo-Yo Ma, gypsy jazz, strong African rhythms, Latino dancy stuff, choral music. My Spotify songs list is long and gets a good workout!
Beth Golden: I need quiet for actual edits. For other office tasks like downloads and organizing, I listen to Alfred Hitchcock Presents or Alfred Hitchcock Hour as if they were podcasts. The style is reminiscent of old radio plays and soap operas, and I like the snappy noir-ish dialogue. Other than that, WTJU FM—an amazingly diverse local college station playing everything from Beethoven to Captain Beefheart.
NOTHING BUT NOISE
There’s some actual science backing up the preferences of this group. (They must be really smart, and I’m not just saying that because I’m in this group. OK, yes I am.) White noise—noise that contains all frequencies with equal intensity—has been a thing since the 1800s. There’s even brown, pink, and blue noise, each with different characteristics, but all with the ability to mask other sounds.
Background sound was even the subject of a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research in 2012. Researchers found that a moderate level of ambient noise—about the level found in a coffee shop—increases creativity.
Kathryn Flynn: I used to work in a cubicle between the copy machine and the office’s resident “Game of Thrones” expert. To block out the noise and stay focused, I relied on a website that played adjustable white noise and another that played a very soothing rain storm. The options for background noise like that have expanded a lot over the years, so I try to mix it up a bit. I’ve also been a big fan of Coffitivity, which is just a streaming recording of a couple different cafés and coffee shops, for a long time.
Anna Bentley: I tried listening to music while I worked for a while, but I found it too distracting while trying to read and concentrate. Luckily, I found something better: baseball. I stockpile games throughout the season and play them in the background while I work. And it works pretty well—it’s not so quiet that I get distracted by silence, and I tune out the broadcasters most of the time. Other times, there’s the mute button—and the pause button if the game is really, really good!
MAKE MINE MUSIC
Some Dragonflies find music—any kind, words and all—is all they need to get the job done.
Kari S: When I need to really focus and not let myself get caught singing along, but need the music to keep me in the zone, I’ve started turning to The National and Future Islands. They’re super cool indie bands introduced to me by my husband, and though I’m not really cool enough to listen to them, I find they are great for working. (Sometimes, however, I throw caution to the wind and blast show tunes to pump up my energy first.)
Scott Rennie: Pandora on shuffle.
Lisa Pere: I usually use the Focus@Will app. Lately the café tracks have been favorites. Worth the subscription!
And there are those among us who can, and do, listen to just about anything while they work.
James Fraleigh: I listen virtually all day to WFMU, 91.1 out of northern NJ, streaming at wfmu.org—a former college radio station, now fully independent and listener supported, similarly all over the map playlist-wise. For editing I gravitate toward shows featuring no vocals, non-English lyrics (they play a lot of international music), drones, ragas, ambient, minimal, natural environments, etc. Oddly, really grindy metal, punk, and hardcore work too. Something fairly constant there, but not intrusive. … I can’t work in silence.
Lexy Nesbitt: As a designer, I’m lucky to be able to listen to words—unless I’m making revisions one of you guys sent me, which requires the other side of my brain, I guess. I listen to a lot of podcasts. Topics range from decorating, parenting, wellness and nutrition (whose advice I largely ignore), gossip, advice, and loooooooots of true crime. I listen to music too, but I don’t really have any go-tos. Except for Person Pitch by Panda Bear. I listen to that on repeat a lot.
Emilie Speicher: I like a mixture of podcasts and music (it all depends on what I’m working on). Podcasts: Judge John Hodgman, Gilmore Guys, Serial. Music: The Avett Brothers, Lianne La Havas, City and Colour, Fleet Foxes, Kacey Musgraves, The Aces (not to be confused with the American Copy Editors Society). Composers: Joe Hisaishi, Many Beautiful Things by Sleeping At Last.
SOME SOUND ADVICE
There is an abundance of apps and websites eager to provide just what you need to stay on task. Here is a small sampling of what’s available.
Some are free but have ads, some require a subscription. Some store and play your music, some give you access to other sources. Some are customizable, some place you at the mercy of a mysterious algorithm. Among the many options are Spotify, Pandora, Amazon Music Unlimited, Apple Music, Google Play Music, TIDAL, Deezer, YouTube Music, and SoundCloud.
Focus@Will is a slightly different beast. It bills itself as “a productivity platform that allows professionals to be four times more productive while they work.” You answer a few questions, and Focus@Will creates a channel of instrumental music designed to fit your personality, make your brain hyperfocused, and thus increase your productivity.
Keep It Simple
coffitivity.com: The soothing sounds of a coffee shop to give your creativity a boost. There’s even a Coffitivity app, so you can double down and listen to a coffee shop on your phone while you’re in an actual coffee shop.
rainymood.com: Anyone for a nice rain storm, complete with birds tweeting and (mostly) low rumbles of thunder?
simplynoise.com: The SimplyNoise app allows you to pick the color of noise that helps you focus best.
Make Your Own Mix
As our extremely unscientific Dragonfly survey discovered, not everybody finds the same background noise beneficial. One editor might find the sound of a train rumbling down the tracks soothing, for example, while another hears only the Deadline Express barreling toward them. A number of websites are ready to help with a range of ambient noises to choose from.
noises.online: A variety (30, to be exact) of nature sounds (they even differentiate among brook/creek/stream); brown, pink, and white noise; and coffee house/cocktail voices will keep you on track.
mynoise.net: You choose your current need (e.g., “I need to focus in a noisy environment,” “My room is too quiet”; you might want to avoid “I want to sleep” during work hours) and are guided to helpful sounds ranging from Gregorian chant to primeval forest, Japanese garden to Irish coast.
www.noisli.com: Choose from 16 different sounds to create your perfect environment, whether you need to relax or increase your productivity. Choose “Random” if you want to relax productively.
This post was written by Kathryn Flynn, a Senior Editor at Dragonfly Editorial.