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Whistle while you work; just don't listen to music

By: Philip Hesketh (view speaker details)

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Philip Hesketh
Like me, you're no doubt always on the lookout for ways to do things better and more efficiently.



It doesn't matter what product you make, what service you provide; if you can be more productive you can generally add to the bottom line.



So wouldn't it be great if you could increase productivity simply by altering the work environment? And I don't mean outsourcing to the sub-continent.

My good friend Adrian Furnham, Professor of Psychology at University College London, has written no less than six papers on the subject of productivity in the workplace. That's right, he's really churning them out. His studies attempt to discover whether or not it’s possible to influence creativity, and hence productivity, simply by creating the right atmosphere. For instance, some people claim to work better when listening to music; others find it a distraction. So what's the truth?

Adrian's initial work involved studying two different types of people undertaking a comprehension task. One group consisted of extroverts and the other introverts. Both undertook the challenges in two very different atmospheres. Firstly in silence with no distractions, and secondly with a TV switched on close by. Not surprisingly, both groups performed best in silence. However, when completing the task with the distraction of the TV, the extroverts outperformed the introverts.



The researchers then repeated the study with pop music. Again, both groups achieved better immediate memory recall when the task was performed in silence. In fact, the only difference came at the end of the study when the introverts shuffled awkwardly out of the room and the extroverts stayed behind to party. Only kidding.



And, as if any more proof were needed, researchers Campbell & Hawley studied academics working in a library and concluded that working in silence does indeed mean that you learn more. Granted it wasn't the most exciting of research studies with the only distractions being the occasional dull thud of a book being stamped and a librarian going 'shush' from time to time.



The conclusion? Well, it seems that no matter however much your kids or colleagues at work insists it helps, listening to music or working with the TV on doesn't increase concentration. In fact, it actually reduces performance levels. Even Mozart's most tuneful ditties won't improve your concentration levels, even though they do help to calm you down at the end of a busy day.



Of course there are exceptions. My gardener listens to his iPod all the time. So do the guys who do the decorating. The bricklayers working on next door's extension put the radio on at the start of the day and only turn it off when they go home. Does it work for them? Well, actually, yes. According to research by Etaugh & Ptasnik, people whose work doesn't stretch them mentally will often perform better when listening to background music. But then again they haven’t seen the state of my hedges. 



It's called work for a reason. Turn off the radio and take that iPod out unless you are carrying out a menial task.



Philip Hesketh is a professional speaker on the psychology of persuasion. His new book 'How To Persuade and Influence People' is an Amazon best seller.
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