Music for Getting Things Done

Date: Wednesday, November 19, 2008 by GTD Times Staff

By Scott Allen – Community Contributor

Left to my own devices, I have a terrible time maintaining focus when I need to write, do web design, work on spreadsheets or databases, or do intensive analytical reading. While I refuse to go to the doctor to get a formal diagnosis, I pretty much know that I have ADD (I score between 75-85% of the indicators for it on the tests I’ve taken myself). I was fortunate to be raised in an environment that allowed me to develop coping mechanisms and become very high-functioning, and I’ve since learned that there is a high correlation between AD/HD symptoms and entrepreneurial traits.

So, where was I?  😉

Oh yeah… I was talking about maintaining focus when writing and doing other production work. I find that my brain is constantly throwing completely irrelevant ideas into my conscious awareness.

As a coping mechanism, as a student back in high school and college, I frequently used to study to music, and found that it usually helped my concentration.As an adult, I started slipping into the habit of media multi-tasking — trying to watch TV, IM/Twitter and read/write at the same time. NOT effective!

So as an experiment, I’ve reverted back to my school-age practice of using music to try to help me focus. The difference is that now I’ve approached it more scientifically, testing and comparing my ability to maintain sustained, focus effort with different kinds of music. Now, I’m not claiming that I’ve been rigorous — I won’t be publishing this in any medical journals — but I’ve definitely found what does and what doesn’t work for me.

Here’s what doesn’t seem to work for me:

  • Lyrics – If there are vocals, it seems to activate the language center of my brain and distracts from writing or reading effectively.
  • Too mellow – If it’s too relaxed, it puts me to sleep.
  • Too simple – Apparently my subconscious mind requires a certain degree of complexity to keep its attention on the music. Ambient music allows my mind to wander still.
  • Too complex – Polyrhythms, complex chord changes, etc., become an intellectual exercise of their own.
  • Multiple instruments – Another form of complexity, multiple instruments demand more conscious attention. A simple rhythmic accompaniment is usually OK, but large ensembles don’t seem to work well.
  • Too familiar – If the songs I hear are too familiar, my mind wanders to memories associated with the songs.

So that was my challenge: to find music that is energetic, moderately complex, performed on a single instrument (or small ensemble) and not overly familiar.

Enter the marvelous world of social music. Sites like Pandora and allow you to create “stations” that play music of a particular style. You can “seed” the stations with particular artists or songs, then vote “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” on the songs as they’re played. Over time, you can create stations that are tightly formatted to the specific musical characteristics you’re looking for, but provide you new and unfamiliar music so you get plenty of variety.

I’ve been working on this for months, experimenting with the various musical formats. I’ve created/found a few stations at Pandora that perfectly suit my requirements for “music to work by”. I invite you to have a listen and see what you think. And if you don’t like them, you can modify them or create new ones for your own tastes:

How about you? What music helps you get things done?

Image by Jesse Therrien via

17 Responses to “Music for Getting Things Done”

  1. Here’s a post I did earlier this year which collected some chill / focus music wisdom from my Twitter followers.

  2. I’ve got a station on Pandora I call Writing Radio that works for me, but I’m looking forward to trying yours.

  3. Skip Reardon says:


    From one music lover to another -thank you for your discovery, insights and contribution.

    All the best to you!


  4. Jeff says:

    Definitely modern jazz. Not like the “contemporary jazz” radio stations, but like Charlie Hunter; Stanton Moore; and Medeski Martin and Wood. I could work all day to that stuff.

  5. Patrix says:

    Funny enough, chorals work for me quite well.

    PS: As for the Pandora lists: “We are deeply, deeply sorry to say that due to licensing constraints, we can no longer allow access to Pandora for listeners located outside of the U.S.”. Oh well…

  6. Brian says:

    I had a similar sort of mindset and about January of last year had to start handling all the RFPs for my company in the midst of an open sales floor. For a guy who is used to working alone this was a horrible proposition. Consequently I dove into the music of Rodrigo y Gabriella; the fast pace and the beat ended up being a pairing which was extraordinarily productive for me, and lacked as you said vocals. I’ve found some ambient and light techno that works also, but nothing that works quite as well as that does .

  7. Sarah says:

    Years ago, a coworker announced that the only proper music for painting or major housework was…bluegrass string bands.

    He’s right. I’ve painted the same bathroom with and without string band accompaniment, and without it, it took longer, it took more coats, I got frustrated more quickly and easily, and in general it wasn’t any fun.

    Notably, neither of us typically listens to string bands in “real life,” but for painting, it hits the spot.

  8. Frank says:

    I’ve also enjoyed Anyone tried nature sounds as a form of musical background? Can’t be long before someone will sell a recording of Starbucks sounds for those who can only work in that environment.

  9. Rich Tatum says:

    Brilliant! I suffer the same… :: rushing to get Pandora hooked up ::


  10. Scott Allen says:

    Hmm… I could see maybe chorals in Latin or German or something. Might have to try that. I’ve played around with some others, like, but can’t seem to get the stations as well-refined as I can with Pandora.

  11. Maia Beatty says:

    This is a wonderful discussion! As a “high-functioning” ADHD person myself (and I like to think of us as “Hunter Brains” in a world set up for “Farmer Brains”…so all the qualities we have that make it ABSOLUTE MISERY to work on tasks at a computer without the focusing track of “the right music” are the very same ones that make us extraordinarily skilled in our professions‚Ķ)

    Thank you for the pointing to Pandora – I have been on Music Sojourn, which is mostly very good, until a recent glitch when I got a new hard drive. I’m off to Pandora to check it out!

    Meanwhile, thanks for the laughing (out LOUD) as I read this column. You made my day (and I am almost done with a transcription that will be wonderful when I finish it, despite practically being the death of me this afternoon). Reading it gave me that final jolt of energy I needed to finish my last three pages!

  12. The thing I find most – if the music is direct from the machine I’m working on, I’m massively distracted. I always use the Mac Mini theater PC in the other room for music.

  13. Wide range from classical to Stones to afropop. Depends on the writing task. I love Pandora; iTunes shuffle makes me crazy, though.

  14. Jeff says:

    Baroque music defocuses my mind from the noise in cubicle land and keeps my workflow paced. It’s the only style of classical that seems to do the trick, though.

  15. Sorry, it must be an over 50 thing, but I need quiet to focus. I love music and could work to it when I was younger, but it doesn’t work for my anymore.

    BTW, did you check out David’s feature in the premier issue of Productive! magazine. Its just been released, and has 17 great articles on productivity, in addition to the interview with David. I’ve posted a link to the free premier November issue at

  16. Cyril says:

    When I want to avoid interruptions from the outside world I use white noise or natural sounds. If you are interested here are some links.

  17. Jon Peltier says:

    For nearly a month I’ve been listening to the Modern Fingerstyle while working, thanks to your suggestion. It is great background, lightens the mood without distraction.

    Great idea, thanks for posting.

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