Create a playlist for everything you do

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On self discipline, an examination of popular ideas

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Life without music is like watching a movie without sound. Every so often it will come out like The Artist, but more often than not it will come out like every other silent movie you have never heard of. Aside from entertainment value, creating a playlist is a signal of intent not for the world, but for yourself. 

It is in our mind’s nature to wander (Mason et. al, 2007), and if we let it, it will not stop, so we need some way to anchor it. In The playlist as the new photo book I discuss how playlists can anchor us to the past seasons of our lives. But there I had not yet addressed the idea of anchor us to the moment, to our present. The increasingly popular solution to this is meditation. It has been proven effective as a means of slowing our minds down (Brewer et al., 2011). 

An argument for playlists

A carefully curated playlist can serve as a viable solution for anchoring us to specific activities. In Atomic Habits, James Clear outlines an evidence-based framework for creating and sticking with new habits. Every good habit needs a cue, a craving, a response, and a reward. 

Take the example of exercising. It is something we all do to some degree, many have playlists dedicated for working out. A great playlist is able to contribute to three of those four phases:

Craving: It makes exercising attractive because you get to enjoy your exercise playlist.

Response: It makes exercising easier because you don’t have to think about whether you will listen to music, podcast, or nothing at all.

Reward: It makes exercising satisfying because generally workout playlists are of a higher BPM and more intense, working out with that as your backing track helps to motivate you through the session. 

I accept that not everyone will identify with the benefit outlined in the craving phase, but the benefit in the response and reward phase is irrefutable. Listening to the playlist sends a signal to your brain that it is time to get your sweat on, giving you energy anticipating that you will be working out. The more you use these playlists exclusively for the activities you build them for, the more they will work for you. 

Playlists for the various episodes of the day

Playlists work best as a tether for activities you do repeatedly. Working out is an obvious example. Alternative episodes that fit this criteria include commuting, working or studying, and recreational activities. You could then break it down further, for example, work distills into deep-work and administrative work. 

Each context has different needs. For deep work, you would probably want to add songs that don’t have lyrics. For administrative work, lyrics or no-lyrics make no difference, so long as it encourages you to maintain your focus and attention on the task at hand. In recreational activities like cooking, you may only want to have the playlist running quietly in the background, or not. 

Make the playlist and get specific

During quarantine, I have two main playlists that are played 60% of the time. Both playlists I use whenever I am doing work and / or reading. Their inspiration and the way I built them differed. 

The first is Crema, 1983. The sound of the playlist is inspired by the aesthetic and soundtrack of Call Me By Your Name. I had watched the movie a while ago, but had only recently had the inspiration to build the playlist. I recently re-arranged my room such that sitting at my desk affords me the opportunity to look outside.

That first day after the re-arranging happened to be a fabulously sunny day. I was facing due-west in the morning and the sun beamed onto me. When my eyes adjusted, all I see for lush greenery. In the foreground, flowering daffodils weaving around the paved walkway on my left, a tuscan-orange elevated that led to the front door on my right. A 2.5m tall hedge ran across my view and served as the horizon line, behind which a looming Pūriri towered on the right. On the left, the top of three story house can be seen peering over the outstretched nature of the neighbouring Pūriri.

It reminded me of the scenes I had seen of the Italian countryside from the movie. I knew it the film’s soundtrack would be a perfect foundation for a playlist. The playlist helps me focus. Moreover, it has made the experience of working in my room during the day incredibly delightful. To help preserve the sanctity of this experience, I only play this playlist when I am working in my room AND when I physically feel the sun’s rays shine on me. 

The other playlist is Lo-Fi Cafe. This is for when I want to work but it is an overcast or a gloomy day. Admittedly, I didn’t make this playlist, it is a Spotify-curated playlist. I had my own attempts of creating a playlist with a lo-fi production aesthetic, but they were miserable compared to the Lo-Fi Cafe playlist. I can’t pinpoint an exact reason why this sound works for me, it just does, so I have used it as long as I can remember as a means to focus on work. 

When I just want to relax, I have a bunch of different playlists depending on which mood I am in. If I’m feeling a bit down, I have one designed to cheer me back up, it’s called Groovy Pep Talk. I have a playlist for reading magazines called kinfolk kickback, and another one for if I’m feeling physically cold called soup for the soul. Then I have a default playlist for free-time called sunset boogie.

Final thoughts

Making good playlists take time. They are always evolving. The best thing you can do is to start. It can help to keep you tethered to whatever you’re doing. At the end of the day it’s just music. It’s a boatload of fun to make whilst encouraging you to savour these experiences as well: a win-win. 


Mason et al. (2007). Wandering minds: The default network and stimulus-independent thought. Science, 315 (5810), 393–395.

Brewer et al. (2011). Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108(50), 20254-20259.

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