Illustration by Fanny Luor
Illustration by Fanny Luor

Work Culture

Go with the Flow State: How music is helping people focus at work

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Published on March 13, 2019

Illustration by Fanny Luor

Sometimes it’s hard to start. Not for lack of ambition or enthusiasm—it’s just… the vibe isn’t right. Thankfully, there’s a way to overcome this problem, besides wandering around in a fog of procrastination.

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A current obsession—call it a trend, if you must—are flow state playlists, which have become kind of a thing in the last few months. Basically, they’re heavily curated collections of music designed to assist people needing a little extra gumption. They’re like a nice afternoon caffeine boost, without having to deal with a rude barista.

One of the best work playlists out there currently is a newsletter called Flow State. Every weekday morning, it sends a batch of albums (or playlists, or mixtapes...) of perfect music to work to, usually around two hours worth, designed to get you into a productive, er, flow state. 

Each newsletter also includes a quick summary of the featured music, offering useful background info and insight into its composition. In a recent email, for example, describing the drone music of Pausal: “Avifaunal sounds like Beethoven slowed down 80% and played in a rainforest.”

The newsletters don’t just consist of stray sounds emanating from an eternal void, but provide something more human. It’s simultaneously informative and boosts one’s productivity—this essay likely wouldn’t have been written without it.

Flow State was a chance to try to create a meaningful, intentional collection of work music, with perhaps more emphasis on the music than the work.

The selections are usually ambient works, quiet but not too, somewhat relaxing, usually with a fast enough tempo to keep someone from falling asleep, but not so fast to be distracting. A sampling of some of the songs in the list since we first subscribed shows a wide range of taste: a digital backup of a rare cassette from composer Brian Hand; the post-rock genius of Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden (in mourning, following the passing of Mark Hollis); the found-sound ambient synth washes of Celestial Trax; and the ahead-of-its-time pumping disco beats of Patrick Cowley. The links typically feature all streaming platforms, when possible, though sometimes go out to YouTube videos and Soundcloud links for rarities.

Flow State is run semi-anonymously by a guy based in New York named Marcus, with occasional help from his friends. He started it in December, after the company he was working for got bought out, and he suddenly had some extra time to work on side projects. 

As Marcus tells us, he was having trouble finding decent music to work to. Though there are plenty of blogs and playlists devoted to “work music,” they often seem to miss the mark.

Flow State was a chance to try to create a meaningful, intentional collection of work music, with perhaps more emphasis on the music than the work. He figured a newsletter was the best way to convey this kind of information. It seemed to strike a chord (pun intended and immediately regretted). By mid-February, roughly two months later, it had over 4,000 subscribers. There’s also an option to subscribe to a premium version, which opens special access to the Monday edition of the newsletter, and comes with a custom playlist.

The general success of the newsletter nudges an interesting question. What makes a good work flow playlist? Why do so many fail? “It depends on the person,” Marcus suggests. “For me, what we're searching for is music that creates an atmosphere of profundity.” But it also comes down to personal preferences, which of course vary wildly depending on the person. “For our subscriber Rodrigo, he likes wall of sound and blackgaze metal,” he says. “We're learning about what music different people like to work to, which is one facet of a great mystery: musical taste.”

If there’s a common theme, though, it’s that it shouldn’t have vocals. “I didn't realize that many people share my abhorrence of the human voice in work music,” Marcus says. “For some people, if there's three seconds of voice in a 60 minute mix it throws the whole thing off.”

As for how it’s all chosen, Marcus estimates about half the recommendations come from memory—he’s an admitted “music fiend.” The rest comes from scouring the internet and friend recommendations.

“With Flow State, I hope people discover the music we recommend as art, inspired by something that someone lived through, created while searching for something.”—Marcus

He has big future plans for the newsletter. This includes adding new features for premium users, like building out a digital library, as well as creating community features, like an internet art project in which all subscribers attempt together. And if all that works, “perhaps even provide non-music things to help people focus.”

Overall, he’s hoping to avoid the danger inherent with work music—that is, as we theorized in our piece on Muzak, that the stressful nature of work can conceivably rub off on great tunes, essentially sullying them. “When good music made by inspired artists is put to use by greedy managers to increase profits, people come to hate it. And that's a tragedy,” Marcus says. “I love bossanova music and still whenever I tell someone this or I put on an Astrud Gilberto song, people instantly associate it with elevator music and dismiss it.” 

“With Flow State, I hope people discover the music we recommend as art, inspired by something that someone lived through, created while searching for something.”

And we’ll all flow-t on okay...

Meanwhile, over at the Dropbox offices (👋 hey!), enter Davy Rudolph, Associate Creative Director for the Brand Team. He published his own collection of work playlists, also (and totally coincidentally) back in December. Each follows a set theme, featuring its own unique vibe. There’s Flow (“Never distracting, but never dull.”), Focus (“The perfect sound bed for paying serious attention.”), and Creative Energy (“When you need to unleash your best ideas in a brainstorm or tap into your inner artist”). Each comes with its own custom album art, from a new artist each month (the first was designed by Justin Tran).

The idea started as a way of expanding people’s notions of what an enlightened way of working could be beyond visuals. “It’s all about creating an environment for people to work,” he explains. In other words, it’s all about creating a vibe.

The songs on each playlist vary. Flow, for example, features upbeat tracks with a pronounced groove, like Octavian’s “Hands,” rAHHH’s “Dog Days,” and Chance the Rapper’s “65th & Ingleside.” It’s the sound of morning rain clouds dissipating revealing a sunny spring afternoon. It’s enough energy to push you across the finish line while working on a difficult project. “It’s definitely a little bit more lively, but subdued at the same time. It’s kind of like that perfect balance of something you can listen to and work to,” he says. Focus, meanwhile, “is very much like subdued, ethereal, atmospheric music, that’s really trying not to call too much attention to itself.”

It’s kind of interesting to surmise why they work. One notion is that both offer a sense of discovery.

The general goal across the different lists is consistency. “I listen to all the tracks and make sure there aren’t these moments where you’d have to go and turn the volume down, because something’s getting too out of control,” he says. Basically, set it and forget it. 

Like the Flow State playlists, its avid listeners are making requests, pushing it in the direction they need. Early feedback was that the playlists were too subdued. “Sometimes I’ll interlace a softer acoustic song in there, just to break it up a little bit and not make it too sleepy,” he says. 

Again, it’s all very subjective. “I think that just might be that focus music is very polarizing. ‘Cause you can have one person who only wants to listen to classical music and that’s how they work best, or you have someone who’s into ambient focus music,” Rudolph says. “While i try to dip into all those different genres, I think it’s difficult to find something that hits the mark for everyone. So I think that was one I’m going to have to fine tune.”

To each their tone

Between both the Flow State and Dropbox lists, it’s kind of interesting to surmise why they work. One notion is that both offer a sense of discovery. Rudolph hints that this might be one of the most important elements of a good playlist. “I think people will come back more often if they listen to these playlists and are like, ‘Man, I really found ten new artists that I’ve never heard of, and I love their music.’”

Additionally, they offer hard limits on the lengths of the playlists, both at around two hours. This seems important, in that rather than just a vague infinite background soundscape, there’s an intentionality to it. One can put on an album or playlist, planning to work on a specific set of tasks until the music ends, then take a break before starting up again. It can’t be a coincidence that this compliments the general blueprints of we outlined in our previous pieces about creativity and productivity music — that is, having set limits on time and space to help get things done.

More than anything, though, it seems important that both offer a distinctly human approach. The typically algorithmically generated selections in most work playlists often feel cold and impersonal. It seems important, the notion that another person put something together for you, arranging everything with thought and care. And maybe—if it’s not too floaty— this same attention and care can be transferred to whatever it is you’re creating while listening to it.