First Hand — Time to focus: 23 tracks that help people “get sh*t done”
What do you listen to when you need to get work done? While it’s proven that certain music and sounds helps you focus better than others, two people’s audio preferences can vary wildly. Partly out of curiosity, but mostly out of nosiness, we decided to reach out to a big mix of creatives to ask what they tune into when they need to get in the zone. The result is a collective, focus-ready rollercoaster of a playlist (found at the bottom of this page!), along with words from the 18 creatives – whose work spans photography, writing, sound design, filmmaking, graphic and motion design – on each of their contributions.
Matthew the Horse, illustrator and poet
“My best drawings usually occur in silence, so I’ve been exploring music that sits close to silence. Recently I’ve been listening to The Space Between by Joanna Brouk.
“Joanna was part of the New Age movement in the 1980s. She was also a poet and practitioner of transcendental mediation. There’s a lot of people on YouTube who describe her music as ‘centring’, which I think is a lovely way to explain it.”
Read our interview with Matthew here
Lucy Bourton, deputy editor, It’s Nice That
“I pretty much have to listen to music at all times while working, I can’t concentrate without it! It actually baffles me when I look around our office and some people aren’t listening to music but are typing or designing away. It’s like when you see someone on a flight and they have nothing to read or watch. What are they thinking about? How are they that content with themselves?
“My headphones are constantly in, so I have a few specific playlists I listen to depending on what I’m up to. In the morning I’m mostly writing and editing, so will listen to a very sombre playlist that includes artists like Sharon Van Etten, The Beta Band, Angel Olsen, Cocteau Twins and Cat Power. A friend and I have also got really into Badly Drawn Boy’s soundtrack for About a Boy, which – although it’s highly embarrassing – I cannot recommend enough for writing. Just don’t accidentally put it on your office speakers like I did once!
“In another part of my day I might have to interview someone, which will never cease to be a nerve wracking experience. In this instance I have a collaborative playlist with a friend of ‘confidence songs’ to get ready, which includes everything from Oasis, Spice Girls, No Doubt and Elastica.”
Caterina Bianchini, designer and art director
“Hearing something without lyrics helps me get in a zone with whatever design I’m working on. Steady Jam by Sad City (from the 16 Emotional Response release) is progressive and minimal, so it doesn’t distract me when I’m trying to think about work or coming up with concepts.
“The track builds in a really slow and natural way, and only after listening to it a few times do you start to notice the interesting production elements. The style and production of it also reflects the way I work; starting something and building it up over time to create something with more complexity or feeling.”
Read our interview with Caterina here
Jon Cockley, Handsome Frank
“The two records I’ve probably listened to more than anything else last year are All Melody by Nils Frahm; and The Circle by Phil France. Both are kind of ambient records, which I find makes them a great soundtrack to work to – especially first thing in the morning or later in the evening. The Phil France record in particular, has a lovely energy to it, it’s perfect for getting stuff done to.”
Read more from Jon here
Anna Ginsburg, animator and director
“I like to work to very aggressive or sexual music, which makes me feel like I’m going to war, and sets alight the fire in my belly. Songs like Bickenhead by Cardi B make me feel naughty and like I should invest in expensive noise-cancelling headphones. If I’m not listening that, it’ll often be uplifting ethereal music with no lyrics, like You’re So Cool by Hans Zimmer. Both such a contrast!”
Akinola Davies, director
“I try and listen to ambient compositions when I work, or nothing at all, as I’ll often be watching something I’m working on. However, when I want to get motivated I listen to Rage Against The Machine or watch this live video. It makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.”
Karl Sadler, artist and sound designer
“The majority of the time I work and think in silence. I find that natural ambience is perfectly fine, and ideally after 20 minutes of meditation, I have absolute clarity. But often if you’re in a place with distracting ambient noise (and I don’t mean a coffee shop), those organic forms of white noise are actually very good to work to. Our minds are overly stimulated by other senses, so if you want to think or concentrate, play something that lulls that sense to sleep.
“A really beautiful, and almost hypnotic, approach is William Basinski’s use of tape loops. He has a flair for slow, boring music – that is probably one of the most beautiful sounds I have ever experienced.
“These long, subtlety changing tape loops degrade, bloom and rust away over time. Your mind falls into a rhythm expecting and anticipating the soundscapes and starts to shut down. Higher-frequency sounds take up more computational power in our minds, so all these fuzzy blurry sounds allow less mental processing, and free up our inner CPU [central processing unit] to render and focus our attention elsewhere.”
Gem Fletcher, photographic art director and writer
Joe Prytherch (Mason London), designer and illustrator
“When I’m working to a tight deadline and really need to focus, this past year, I’ve often put on one of Khruangbin’s two albums of laid-back Californian psychedelic music. In particular, their song Dern Kala makes me feel chilled out enough to face a mountain of work, but energetic enough to do it as quickly as possible.”
Ronan Mckenzie, photographer
“When I have 25 unread emails, everything on my to-do list is due within an hour, and my homepage is a mess, Burna Boy by Gbona is my ultimate ‘GET SHIT DONE’ track. This song gives me so much energy that I want to get up and dance, but instead, all the energy goes to my fingers and I get on top of it!”
Read our interview with Ronan here
Jimmy Turrell, graphic artist and director
“To keep the concentration levels up, Manuel Gottsching’s E2–E4 (Part 1 of 6) is an incredible piece of immersive ambient music that also has a driving edge to it. For the same reasons, my second choice would also be Analogue Bubblebath by Aphex Twin.”
Read our interview with Jimmy here
Rose Pilkington, motion designer and visual artist
Abbie Stephens, director
“Sometimes you play a song and connect with it so strongly that it feels like it’s changing the rhythm of your heart – like the feeling when you’ve too much coffee, but in a great way! Plus, you know it’s only going to last the length of the song, and then you can operate on a different frequency. It happens for me in the instrumental of Worms by Youth Lagoon. The song builds from 27 seconds and then kicks in at 52 seconds.
“I think any song that gets the visual part of my brain excited is great at getting ideas flowing. The Cowboy In the Continental Suit by Marty Robbins is an odd track that I listen to at the moment. It makes me really happy, and I have no idea why, but it really lifts me. Maybe it’s the tone of his voice and the smoothness of the lyrics and the chipper baseline. I want to put it into a film when the protagonist is feeling very happy with himself about something.”
Diogo Lopes, creative director, Kyra TV
Charlie Drinkwater, art director, Island Records
“Anything from The Fall’s back catalogue helps – but in particular the song, The NWRA – it’s the band’s lead singer Mark E. Smith at his perfect, word-jumbled best. The repetition, heavy bass, mass of lyrics, and length of the song gets me into a ‘motorik’ rhythm.
“Weirdly enough, songs with lots of lyrics help more than ones without – I seem to half tune into the words and let my mind wander around the sounds and intonation while I’m forming my own ideas.”
Sarah Maycock, illustrator
“I have a few things that help me focus. I often listen to music from soundtracks of films I love, like Unmade by Thom Yorke from Suspira. I find it creates a focused mood for me in the studio (though I don’t know what this says about me and the atmosphere I want while I’m working!).
“Then I’ll listen to something like Bad Bad News by Leon Bridges. The opening groove of this track says it all. Cue shoulder dancing at my desk. Mount Beauty by Jen Cloher is the first track of hers that I’d heard, and the first track on her album, In Blood Memory. I’ve seen her live more than any other artist, and I always leave her shows feeling replenished and fiery.
“Side note: I also use the app A Soft Murmur to accompany whatever I’m listening to. I love thunder storms and find the noise helps my mind stay inside of the studio.”
Ollie Olanipekun, creative director, Superimpose
“My go-to song for concentration is Una Mattina by Ludovico Einaudi. I saw Einaudi at the Barbican a few years ago and was blown away. When I need to concentrate I tend to avoid lyrics or anything heavy. That’s what makes Una Mattina the perfect song (and album) to power through any task.”
Ben Arfur, graphic designer
“All of the work I do is somehow musically involved. Contrary to this, most of it is done in silence. I get fixated with the songs that remind me of things that never happened, or have the ability to steer my thought on a different path.
“See The Sky About To Rain by Neil Young in particular has pulled me out of many mental blocks in the early hours. There’s a subtle chord change at the end of each verse that makes my brain melt every time I hear it. Give it a whirl.”
Listen to Ben’s very own focus playlist in full here
The Lecture in Progress Focus Playlist
You can also hear our playlist (with extra tracks that were unavailable on Spotify) on YouTube: