Working smarter with 36-minute playlists with frequent breaks

From personal experience, it’s easy to recognize that listening to music while I work is enjoyable. But I’ve recently experimented with how music can help me focus on my goals.
24 June 2021#productivity

Like most knowledge workers, I also have lots of experience listening to music at work. While we were doing customer support, it was pretty common to have Spotify and Youtube music links thrown into company chats. In fact, I still have a collection of collaborative playlists that were the only thing that got me and some work friends through some grave night shifts.

From personal experience, it’s easy to recognize that listening to music while I work is enjoyable. But I’ve recently experimented with how music can help me focus on my goals.

52:17

In my productivity hunt, I once came across an article that suggested that 52 minutes, following by breaks of 17 minutes was the ideal level of productivity ratio (according to The Draugiem Group who makes the productivity software Desktime)

I thought that was pretty interesting - not the 52 minute interval part - but the suggestion that the trait 10% of their most productive users have in common is that [planning effective breaks](planning effective breaks) into their day.

When I am deliberate about taking breaks is an earmark of periods where I've been the most productive.

I've written about How planning breaks can help you flourish before. And it's worth repeating because it's so easy to forget; It's amazing what a short walk or run does for any decision-making process you've been thinking on for some time.

Music repeats

I also recently read another article gives insight behind our motivation in cultivating listening habits

“Repetition serves as a handprint of human intent. A phrase that might have sounded arbitrary the first time might come to sound purposefully shaped and communicative the second."

My take away is, if you want to increase purpose, you can use music to increase repetition.

To do that, some people try to make sure they are listening to the same exact song on repeat or set of songs - which in theory would help trigger your mind into that work state.

This makes sense to me, because I've also had positive outcomes in creating intended states by using routines. For example, brewing a fresh cup of coffee before starting work is a time-tested strategy to help you start a mindset that helps tune out distractions.

Plus, an obvious benefit of listening to the same set of songs every day is that conversely, by using a radio or random playlist, you will inevitably find a song that doesn’t strike your mood and cause you to stop working in order to change it. And according to a study by the University of California Irvine interruptions can take up to 23 minutes for you to regain focus.

I’ve known for a while that for tasks requiring focus or the processing new information, I need quiet and steady music to prevent the noise from drowning out my attention. So it did not surprise me to learn that it’s recommended that we avoid listening to music featuring lyrics.

My process

In the last two years, I’ve experimented with combining these ideas. I’ve been listening to roughly the same combination of playlist for to help not only trigger my brain that it’s time to focus, but the flow of music helps guide me through productive upswings, and helps me time in breaks.

I originally made this playlist while I was doing contracting work and had an enormous project that I need to push through. It was during a period of grief - so every time I finally caught up to thinking about the amount of work that I needed to do, I often spiraled and spinning into circles.

After reading this 52:17 process by The Muse, I download an app that helped me time my breaks in 52/17 intervals to help me time my breaks. I even made with a 52-minute music playlist to go along with the strategy.

In my discovery process, I also found that around 50-minutes is a good chunk of focus for me and allows me to become extremely focused on a task and has allowed me to cultivate that deep focus work. But I noticed I kept having to go to the bathroom about 70% through the playlist.

Let's be honest here: 52 minutes, 23 minutes, 17 minutes; these are just averages pulled from some datasets - your individual experiences are going to fluctuate.

So eventually I changed my playlist up. I cut it down to make it work with my own biorhythms. And after monitoring and tracking my activity, I finally landed on my process of 36-minute playlists for my focus. (And after trial and error I wonder if that 52 minute referenced at the beginning of the article is actually just measuring the average person’s tolerance to hold their coffee filled bladders.)

Hey boss, I'm busy

Today, I start a ~35 minute long playlist and when it stops; I take a 5 minute pause. And then work another ~35 minutes and increase my break to a 10 minute pause. Then I work another ~35 minutes and finally I take a complete ~15-60 minute break.

Optionally, I repeat doing another block for another activity.

From a workforce management perspective, I am still within any reasonable work adherence schedule:

  • The sum of the focus and work pause gives me 2 hours of activity on my computer.
  • My schedule includes a regular 15-20 minutes break
  • I can focus on multiple activities, without needing to multi task

Imagine a person does four blocks of this routine in one day:

  • That is 105 minutes of focus + 15 minutes of pause, for a 120 minute block of productive time).
  • The 5 and 10-minute pauses are there to help me refocus on other things, check that slack channel or update my calendar, or jot down some idea that I recently had.
  • Then follow it up with a guaranteed 15-60 minutes of rest (eating/reading/meditation/walking).

How it looks on spreadsheets

Activity Duration Music
Focus 35 minutes Playlist 1
Pause 5 minutes None
Refocus 35 minutes Playlist 2
Pause 10 minutes None
Refocus 35 minutes Playlist 3
Break 15-60 minutes None

It’s amazing that despite giving myself plenty of time for breaks and pauses, I still wind up 8 hours of activity that can I honestly log and any manager can reason with its adherence.

When I start the playlist, it puts me right into the mood and I suddenly feel like looking at my task list.

I’ve gotten to the habit where I know when the first song is playing that I need to eliminate my distractions. I also shouldn’t waste time trying to decide what to do - it’s time to just pick something and do it.

This process has helped keep me focused and working and productive regardless of what time it is. It doesn’t matter if I start this at 10 am or at 10:26 am. I am working until the playlist ends.

If you repeated this through 3-4 times throughout the day, that is at least 4-6 hours of active work time. Which far surpasses the current workforce averages.

On a good day, I can do 2-3 cycles of this. On a ridiculous day, like during Covid-19 at Microsoft, I was pumping out 4 cycles on any day (8 hours of focus time is insanity - considering most people get 2-3 hours in at tops in an 8 hour billable day).

My playlists (to inspire you)

If this all sounds a lot like the pomodoro timer method, it's because that's what I initially started trying to help me focus. I still have my red kitchen timer on my desk and I still utilize pomodoro for tasks that I especially dread. But as David Kadavy points out in his book, if you can only work on whatever you're working on for 20 minute sprints, you might need to find something else you can enjoy.

My original playlist started at 52 minutes, but I cut down and reorganized into 3 separate playlists at 36 minutes each.

I've shared these two playlists below from my Spotify account. Please feel free to try them and I'd love to hear how it goes for you.

I don't listen to these every single day, but I do start at least the Focus playlist most days - especially days where I need to write or do other creative tasks like coding, or working on my budget.

I picked instrumental songs only that fluctuate throughout the playlist and helps keep a nice momentum.

The pace of the playlist in my opinion is perfect for working but has enough life for the songs to keep your mind entertained.

I've been using this system for long enough that it's become a habit - almost like I cannot work without these repeating piano arpeggios and textures. I sometimes wonder how long before I will grow tired of this mix, but I'm finding that I can associate it with more and more success that it becomes cherished to me.

Making a playlist of music you love has a positive effect on your ability to concentrate. If you adopt this method and it works for you, I’d love to hear the playlists you make.

Some helpful advice to follow is that multiple deep focus work studies have shown that music without lyrics is crucial. (Maybe you can work and write by singing along to your favorite songs, but I sure as hell can’t.)