How Final Fantasy IX taught me to hack my brain

Decades ago I started associating specific music soundtracks to specific contexts of my life, and it’s made so many things easier. What I’m about to tell you is probably obvious, but I tripped over it by accident so I figure passing it on might save someone else time.

The technique:

  • Create a music playlist specifically for listening to in a specific context. I have two for deep uninterrupted work, one for sleeping, and one for exercise.
  • Whenever you are in that context (working, sleeping, exercising), listen to the playlist. I find it more effective if it’s always in the same order, but eventually works either way.
  • After 10-15 times doing this (more effective closer together, less effective if there’s a big gap in between) you’ll find that as soon as the first song plays, your brain will start adjusting for the associated context, even if your immediate environment doesn’t align perfectly with that context.

Back in the 00s [1]pronounced “ooo you’re old” when I was a phone rep at a large financial institution, I started listening to  the Final Fantasy IX Original Soundtrack whenever I was assigned to the email queue. It’s a type of work that requires concentration and preferably a lack of interruption (totally unlike answering the phones, which are all about interruption). The environment, being a call center, was noisy, so I needed something that would block out other sounds and increase my concentration. Plus omg I loved that game so much.

I’ll admit it wasn’t my intention to pattern-match video game soundtracks to concentrated work, but I probably should’ve seen it coming. When I play a good, deep video game the house could burn down around me and I wouldn’t notice as long as it didn’t affect the game. I become fully immersed in the task at hand both visually and aurally, with the visual and aural environmental cues reinforcing each other. It seems obvious in retrospect that taking a soundtrack and applying it to a specific experience outside of video games would work just as well.

After about a month, I found that just hearing the first few tracks of that playlist were enough to signal to my brain that oh hey it’s time to work now.   Fifteen(!) years later, I can still go back to that soundtrack set when I want to concentrate.

I’ve since formed a second playlist — a mixture of singer/songwriter artists, Hayao Miyazaki movie soundtracks, and Final Fantasy soundtracks that I play when I need to concentrate. I’m listening to it right now, in a hospital waiting room, working while I wait for a family member to get out of surgery.

My sleeping soundtrack is six albums from Dan Gibson’s Solitudes (no relation), a series of albums mostly consisting of piano or strings over nature sounds. I started listening to these albums decades ago to settle down at bedtime. It’s nice to picture a forest or the ocean or something when trying to get my brain to let go of the stress of the day. (Not as nice as being in the forest or at the ocean, but hey, it’s March, they’d both be miserably cold places at 11pm anyway.)

Since I started using the sleep playlist, I’ve seen a couple of effects:

  • I fall asleep faster just hearing this music (although fortunately it doesn’t put me to sleep because sometimes the phone decides to randomize it in when I’m driving!)
  • I can fall asleep in strange places (like hotel rooms) more easily when I turn on the music that I already associate with a safe place to sleep.
  • The dogs [2]Three Jack Russell terriers and yes I know that’s intense also settle down just hearing this music – it’s a cue to them that it’s time for doggy naptime.

So not only is this a great life hack as a human, it’s also a great dog-training life hack, because some days you just need the pack to settle down and stop chewing on each other for a half hour. It’s also proof that matching auditory input to environment isn’t a higher-level human thing, it’s at minimum a smart mammal thing.

I walk half marathons, and I always start my workouts with either a) dragging my brother along and we talk for three hours or b) listening to Mumford and Sons.  My brain believes that specific album’s purpose is to get the heart pumping and the legs moving. Need to get a good workout? Mumford and Sons. Flight changed terminals? Mumford and Sons. Don’t feel like doing the food shopping? Mumford and Sons. Time to mow the lawn? Mumford and Sons.

All of these hacks boil down to two thing: repetition and context. Our brains are wired to look for patterns in our environments. Audio pattern recognition tied to experiential context is not necessarily as easy a set of relationships to build as, say, visual patterns or learning the lyrics to a song, but I’ve found it’s actually a pretty strong relationship once it’s established.

So: soundtracks. If you don’t have them for parts of your life, consider setting them up. They’ll help you switch contexts more easily and stay in a specific context even if your environment isn’t a perfect match for what you’re trying to accomplish. Plus, music is awesome.


1 pronounced “ooo you’re old”
2 Three Jack Russell terriers and yes I know that’s intense

Author: Anne Gibson

anne gibson is a Senior Staff Product Designer and General Troublemaker working on design systems from outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She's an editor and writer at The Interconnected. She is also published at A List Apart and The Pastry Box, and publishes short fiction when she's not persuading the terriers to stop wrecking things. (The terriers are winning.)