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How I Write and Learn

Playlists of Productivity: Motivation from the Turntable

By Tony, a Learning Center Coach

“Man, you don’t know how I felt that afternoon when I heard that VOICE and it was my own VOICE.” – Muddy Waters

As a student, I often struggle to feel confident in my own voice, and I’m constantly searching to figure out how I best learn, work, and express myself. However, when I get into a real groove putting my ideas on paper, and when I reflect on why I am here and what I am doing, my “impostor syndrome” disappears and I find myself in a state of confidence. As time has progressed, I found that these moments, for me at least, have a soundtrack. Through the use of music, I’ve been able to create an environment that helps me have more of these moments of self-realization. Music is not only one of my favorite avenues for self-care, it’s also one of my most effective time-management tools.

Recordings of music from Miles Davis and Etta James.
Playing Miles Davis and Etta James records always helps me get through stressful times.

The DJ Method of Time Management

“Time is the Master…time can be a disaster.” – Easy Star All Stars

One of the most common conversations I have with students in my time at the Learning Center is about the challenges of time management and figuring out how to effectively demarcate time between tasks, and I myself am no stranger to these issues. Over the years, I’ve found that simply spending about fifteen or twenty minutes each morning cultivating playlists for each of my academic tasks helps me take back a little bit of control over my schedule. For tasks that require me to proceed energetically from point to point, I select more up-tempo music that will keep me pumped up for my playlist. For work that requires more thought and patience, I might select music that is a little bit more down-tempo and ethereal. At first glance, it may appear like all I am doing is JUST putting on music while I work. What I am talking about here, though, is subtly different, and that difference has made a huge impact on my day. Becoming my own DJ for the work day requires action, reflection, and cultivation. By thinking about the sort of sounds I want to surround myself with, and which albums speak to me, I reclaim some agency over the mood in which I live and work. For me, it is like one concert ending and another beginning.

A vertical stack of vinyl records.
Some of my favorite genres of music include soul, jazz, and salsa.

Curating my soundtracks is a phenomenal way to take a mental break between tasks and give myself a boost of intellectual energy as I transition. I like to incorporate whole albums in my playlist, which helps me proceed without constantly switching individual songs. I’ve also discovered that I really enjoy the physicality of using a record player for this task. Getting up to flip or change a record to the next album doubles as a convenient way to stretch and take a short break. The natural rhythms of these records are a satisfying and fun way to boost my productivity and manage my time without fixating on the ticking of a clock.

The Soundtrack

“A positive attitude activates constant elevation.” – The RZA

I have also found that using this method is a great way to really engage with music and myself. When I identify the sorts of music that motivate me and make me feel good, I realize that I learn more about myself as an academic and as an appreciator of this artform. When I am doing dissertation research, for example, I listen to music from the time and place that I study as a way to create a sense that I am intimately involved with the subject matter.

Three album covers featuring Caribbean music artists in front of a book shelf.
Caribbean music has always been a major part of my life and it will be with me wherever I go!

If I am writing, I play the kinds of beats that don’t distract me but that keep my head bobbing to the sounds and thinking about what’s going on the page. Spending some time every day selecting my music has not only been a great way for me to review my tasks for the day, but I also get to live out a deep-seated wish of being a DJ. Now, when things get challenging, I’ve already got my first step figured out. All I have to do is press play:

General Work Playlist

  • “Moanin in the Moonlight” – Howlin Wolf
  • “The Big Payback” – James Brown
  • “La Habana Si” – Los Van Van
  • “Return to the 36 Chambers” – Wu Tang Klan
  • “Baby I Love You” – Aretha Franklin
  • “Let it Bleed” – The Rolling Stones
  • “Funky Kingston” – Toots and the Maytalls
  • “The Score” – The Fugees
  • “Busted Stuff” – Dave Matthews Band
  • “Live at Yankee Stadium” – Fania Allstars

A Writers Playlist

  • “Radio Retaliation” – Thievery Corporation
  • “Shape the Future” – Nightmares on Wax
  • “Lady Sings the Blues” – Billie Holliday
  • “Washington Suite” – Lloyd McNeil
  • “Round Midnight” – Miles Davis
  • “The City of Columns” – Leo Brouwer
  • “Coltrane and Ellington” – John Coltrane and Duke Ellington
  • “The Buena Vista Social Club” – The Buena Vista Social Club
  • “The Blade Runner Soundtrack” – Vangelis
  • “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” – Tan Dun and Yo-Yo Ma

This blog showcases the perspectives of UNC Chapel Hill community members learning and writing online. If you want to talk to a Writing and Learning Center coach about implementing strategies described in the blog, make an appointment with a writing coach, a peer tutor, or an academic coach today. Have an idea for a blog post about how you are learning and writing remotely? Contact us here.

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