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A lot of people around me in my office listen to music or podcasts on their headphones.

I am not particularly a fan of just listening to music all day, however, I can see the benefit of podcasts. However, when I tried this with Spanish podcasts a while back, I found it nearly impossible to listen and work at the same time.

How do people do this? Is there a style of podcast people recommend?

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In what field do you work? –  Christian May 27 '12 at 23:33
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Software developer. –  Mark Mayo May 27 '12 at 23:46
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IMO you can't listen to a podcast and do meaningful work. –  Dave Newton Jun 15 '12 at 14:49

6 Answers 6

Part of the answer, at least, is that some people just can't do it. I can't. I have exactly one verbal input/output stream and switching to a new source requires turning off the old one. If I'm listening to music and someone wants my attention, I have to mute the music. Someone comes in to talk to my officemate, I go get a drink of water and stretch my legs for a few minutes. I can't even listen to music with lyrics in a language I don't know while I'm working; my brain keeps getting distracted trying to figure out what they're singing.

Some possible clues that this might be the case for you:

  • Are you easily distracted or disturbed by noises in the workplace?
  • Do noises wake you up when you're sleeping?
  • Do you have trouble filtering out background conversations while trying to have your own?

So, if you're really interested in doing this, it's probably worth the effort to try a few different types of podcasts - in your native language, in a non-native language you know, fiction, non-fiction, fast and noisy, slow and quiet - but be prepared that it just might not work for you.

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The ability to multi-task differs from person to person, so its important for you to try alternatives and assess what works best for you and enhances in productivity. Listening to a podcast can shield you from external noises and contribute to your ability to concentrate. On the contrary, for a different person, it could well distract your attention if your focus shifts to the music or its lyrics. Here's what I suggest:

  1. Try different forms of music at various volume levels to balance what soothes you vis-a-vis what could distract you.
  2. Instrumental music may be a good bet as it helps concentrate and soothe senses but your senses don't need to assimilate verbal lyrics
  3. The kind of work you are doing could also be an important parameter
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The stuff I listen to varies considerably, depending on my frame of mind and tasks at hand. I'm one of those people that can't listen to a podcast and do language-basesd work very well. I either find myself not typing or not listening.

Music, meh, like you I can get bored with it.

That being said, there's a lot of "sound" stuff that you can play with. Here's what I've got on my work iPod and when it's applicable:

1.) I've got a slew of Gershwin and 80s tunes that I know like the back of my hand. I can listen to those, and concentrate HEAVILY on my work. I find that because I absently start singing along without realizing it, I'm free to focus on the task at hand without cluttering my mind with explorations of new music. That works well for me.

2.) For mindless busy-work, I listen to new music. Radio, recent CDs I've ripped, etc. My brain is engaged with listening and that keeps me from going insane with the boredom of repetitive crap.

3.) For everything else, there's non-lyrical audio. From classical to new age to big band to new music to jazz, it's stuff that I use to drown out my surroundings when I'm having trouble focusing. I also have a library of nature sounds...wind in the trees, ocean surf, crickets and the like, which are distracting enough to keep me on task without distracting FROM the task at hand.

Listen to a lot of variety. Find what works for you based on your concentration and work style. There's no one-size-fits-all solution, so it's best to experiment to find the one size that fits you.

good luck!

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I've tried listening to podcasts at work... can't do it, I can't pay attention to what's being said unless I stop working. I tried listening to them at the gym and it's the same thing - narrow focus of attention. If I'm doing something I like to be doing it well.

But I do listen to music, I use music to affect me while I work, just as much as when I'm at the gym or mowing the lawn. I'm not really listening to the music, it's more something to take away other noises and just be a bit more pleasant than silence. A while ago I got into podrunner, each week he releases a new mix of fixed tempo (dance) music - it's aimed at runners (hence the name) but I find it works for me writing code. I pretty quickly settle into a rhythm, the faster he goes the fast I seem to go. I'm not really listening to any vocals so I guess it's a bit like a metronome that helps me keep time, only this is between 130 and 180 bpm.

If I need to break out and get creative then I might choose something else and daydream - but actually I'm better off if I get up and walk about.

Anything that means I have to think about it, developers life, hanselminutes... is just too much for me to do anything else at the same time. So my advice is don't try to multi-task, but find what works for you. I've mentioned podrunner... it's not a technical podcast, just music I can work to.

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I do listen music in the office and it really saves me from the noise of open area and helps to concentrate. I listen classical music which is neutral for me. So, I support the idea to experiment with different types of music and find something that help you and does not disturb.

There is another issue in open area - people quite often come to you with some questions and destructs from current task. In some sources it called "chronofags", people who "steal" your time. It is really depend on etiquette in the office which sometimes needs reinforcement. I use funny sign to show my colleagues that I am in headphones. It helps in the way that folks around understand that I am in the process and disturb me less. For real important discussions I arrange meetings with prep on the subject rather than conversation ad hoc. That works much more efficient.

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As a software developer myself, I am doing this right now. It works as long as you retain your focus in your work, and not your audio.

Benefits

  • Noise-cancelling headphones reduce the sounds of the work environment, making less distractions for you.
  • A lot of the time developers will have work that just needs to get done. No deep thought needed. A unit test here or there. Listening to music or a tv show makes that process go by faster.
  • Similar to the second bulletpoint, you could use that time to also listen to news or podcasts; I like to listen to French or Spanish language lessons.
  • It is a mental stimulus. Listening to headphones and your own music gives you some liberty that is usually unseen in a professional workspace.

Pitfalls

  • Waste time flipping between songs or audio sources
  • Lose focus of your work from devoting attention to the sounds.
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