John Kary

I want to talk a bit about how Music affects my ability to be in The Zone: that "deeply creative space where inspiration is built", as Rands puts it. That mental place where you're so focused that nothing else matters except the bug you're hunting, the feature you're cranking out or the blog post you're writing.

By the end of this article I hope you have a better sense of how you choose what to listen to, and that I introduce you to some new artists to increase your productivity when working.

The most important part for me in finding The Zone is my auditory environment. Where I work varies: the office, at home, 30,000 feet in an airplane, etc. Each environment has its own accompanying distractions: conversations in the next cubicle row, people walking by, my neighbor's rhythmic subwoofer, the barista making a drink order, the impending "Would you like something to drink?" from the flight attendant making her way down the isle.

Music and quality audio equipment have become my great equalizer.

But music alone isn't enough. I can't slip into The Zone just listening to just any music. The type of music that makes me most productive is affected by many factors:

Whatever the case, what I pick to listen to is both an extension of what mood I'm in and what mental state and mood I need to put myself in to be productive in what I'm working on.

Early Morning (5am - 8am) - Low-key

I use my mornings to catch up on Twitter, articles I've saved to Instapaper, or sometimes experiment or test out solutions to problems I've been mulling over. Whatever the case, I don't like much distraction.

The darkness and lack of buzz before sunrise allows me to focus. No one is moving except the birds and squirrels outside. Jason Friend and DHH hit it perfectly in their book "Rework":

Think about it: When do you get most of your work done? If you're like most people, it's at night or early in the morning. It's no coincidence that these are the times when nobody else is around. […] Long stretches of alone time are when you're most productive. When you don't have to mind-shift between various tasks, you get a boatload done.

Jazz and low-key minimalism tunes allow me to get my brain moving and cognitively functioning. It's like morning coffee for my ears. Contemplative, but energizing.

(Listen) Goldmund
Gonzales - Solo Piano
Miles Davis - Kind of Blue

Morning Work (8am - 12pm)

By now I'm in the office and ready to start on the day's work. Check email, put out any fires, start structuring my plan for the day.

Right now, I need music to keep me deep in thought and focused. The office usually has many people running around, or having conversations. My goal is to tune them out.

This music is a bit spacey and droning. The minimalism and calming nature also keeps me level-headed about any boogiemen I might discover in my Inbox.

After filing and sending email, it's usually any new support work or maintenance programming on my current project. Tying up loose ends so I can have a productive rest of the day where I'll write new code, perhaps continuing what I was building on earlier in the morning.

(Listen) Cliff Martinez - Solaris Soundtrack
(Listen) Jonn Serrie

Afternoon (1pm - 5pm)

The post-lunch time slot can be difficult. It's either a continuation of a productive morning, or an uphill battle to stay focused. Depending on the day, over lunch I either played basketball, watched a video/conference talk I saved via Instapaper, read a programming-related book or caught up with co-workers.

I try to pick music to draw me back into my productive morning state, or kick-start me into The Zone if my morning yield was poor. Caffeine with lunch seems to be a reliable way to get me going in the afternoon and keep me focused. Adding the right music to that allows me to get a lot done.

Music during this time varies so much because it depends how my morning went. I usually kick iTunes into Shuffle and play tracks until something hits the spot.

I'm usually in this mode until the end of the work day.

Electronic / Trance - Trance Channel or Armin van Buuren
Nine Inch Nails
August Burns Red
As Tall As Lions
The Mars Volta
Circa Survive

Night (10pm - 1am) - Drifting

By now, errands have been run, dinner is finished and cleaned up, I've spent time with friends or my girlfriend, and I'm ready to get back to it.

If I had an early morning or a long day, there's usually another window of quality focus during the nighttime hours. There's not much coming through on Twitter, not many people on chat, and nothing of interest on TV. I can focus again.

This is another period of quality isolation time, allowing me to ignore everything else from the comfort of my couch and crank on more code or work on a blog post. (It's 1:30am as I type this.)

I try not to let myself go to sleep if I'm in the middle of coding a feature or fixing a bug. There's time investment required to orient my mind to what I'm doing, like having a virtual machine running, a few terminal sessions going, a few tabs open in NetBeans and a dirty working tree in git.

But I can usually find this weird blissful mental state where I feel half-asleep but can focus intensely on what I'm doing even though I'm really tired. It's like I can ignore anything else on my mind from the day and just sink into a comfortable place and code. I get lost in the music and time stands still.

(Listen) Godspeed You! Black Emperor
(Listen) Benn Jordan - Pale Blue Dot
(Listen) Sven Weisemann
(Listen) Jonn Serrie
(Listen) Maserati
(Listen) The Flashbulb
(Listen) The Mercury Program

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