Caroline Stern, a Boston-based content creator, has a secret weapon for getting her work done: Escapade Gourmande by Maison Mataha, which she calls the most “beautifully done vanilla.” When she sprays it on, Stern said it makes her feel like “I am ‘that girl’ and like ‘that girl’ is going to be an active participant in her own life and then be productive, because I’m channeling the vibe of that scent.”
When you get “in the zone” for your job or a big meeting, you might have a particular song you play or an outfit you don to feel powerful and focused. But don’t discount the power of scent, too.
There’s a science behind why certain scents can make us work and think better. Scent experts share why and offer their own tips as to how you can find the one that works best for you:
Scents can fire up your brain.
What you smell can affect your mood and ability to do your job well in complex ways.
One reason is simply because we like good smells. “Pleasant smells are associated with better performance, probably through improved mood, whereas unpleasant smells impair performance, most likely due to negative mood,” said Mark Moss, head of the psychology department at Northumbria University, who has researched the effects of scent on mood and cognition.
“Pleasant smells are associated with better performance, probably through improved mood,”
Another important reason scents can help us work better is because of how they interact with our brain. The olfactory bulb that sits behind the nose and processes what you smell “has projections into more areas of the brain than any other sense organ,” Moss said.
“Aromas are made up of small volatile compounds, and when we inhale these, are passed into the lungs. Here, they cross into the bloodstream and get delivered straight to the brain,” Moss continued. “Because these molecules are small, they can cross the blood-brain barrier and act directly on the brain’s neurochemical systems.”
In other words, when you inhale a smell, it gets fast-tracked to your brain.
Herbal scents in particular can help you concentrate.
If you’re needing a productivity boost, Moss said he particularly recommended peppermint if you need to focus; rosemary and sage have compounds that have been shown in studies to enhance our ability to remember things.
“Perhaps unsurprisingly, sedative aromas such as lavender and chamomile are not recommended,” he said.
Loreto Remsing, a Novato, California-based perfumer, said that she is personally drawn to “bracing, fresh, outdoorsy scents” when she wants to be productive while working. She cited peppermint, eucalyptus, citrus, conifer and herbal scents like coriander and rosemary as examples.
The scent she often recommends to others who want to get focused is basil.
“When I was in college back in the late 90s, I used to make a small aromatherapy spray that contained a few drops of basil essential oil diluted in distilled water and take it with me to school,” she recalled. “I would spray it on my face or mist around me when I needed perking up. It was great to revitalize my senses at that time of the day between noon and 4 p.m. when you start to lose your energy.”
If you want to try it for yourself, Remsing suggests a revitalizing spray with a combination of basil, bergamot, and pink grapefruit essential oils diluted in distilled water. “You can use 10-20 drops of essential oil in four ounces of distilled water. Spray your face or environment to perk yourself up,” she said.
Exposing yourself to new scents can help your memory recall, too.
On your quest for the ideal productivity-boosting scent, you don’t just need to stick to one aroma. One study published in Frontiers in Neuroscience found that exposure to different smells could help improve memory and learning in older adults.
In the study, 43 healthy, older adults got diffusers to use at night. One group got exposed to a rotating group of pleasant smells ― rose, orange, eucalyptus, lemon, peppermint, rosemary and lavender ― while the other group just got distilled water. After six months, the participants who had the nightly pleasant odors saw a 226% improvement on a learning and memory test, compared to the group who did not.
If you want to improve your own memory recall and focus, expose yourself to multiple odors on a regular basis, said Michael Leon, a neurobiologist at University of California, Irvine, and one of the authors behind the study.
“People may like specific odors at work or home, but they need to expose themselves to multiple odors over time to gain a cognitive advantage,” Leon told HuffPost.
If you want to apply this finding to your everyday life, pay attention to what interesting and novel smells you encounter each day. That’s what Tracy Wan does. Wan, a Toronto-based writer and scent consultant, said she does not have a go-to scent for getting productive, but said “the simple gesture of smelling something new — which I do often, as I test multiple scents a week — helps me hone my attention, which positively impacts the way I work.”
Also keep in mind that your perfect productivity scent might be different than someone else’s.
The professionals I asked gave wide-ranging answers of what they like to smell to feel focused.
Wan said she associated rosemary and sage with freshness and the outdoors, which helps her feel refreshed and focused, but acknowledged “that may be idiosyncratic and psychosomatic.”
The variety of answers could also be tied to your personal memories. For Stern, her scent preferences go back to locker rooms in middle school and how the popular girls back then smelled like cupcakes, strawberries and passion fruit.
Stern said this combo of scents “just gave off this wave of confidence and put-togetherness that I think I struggled with at the time,” Stern recalled. “It sort of weirdly stuck with me, and I associate those scent notes and that scent family with being ‘that girl.’”
“Your early experience with odors actually changes your brain’s subsequent responses to those odors. People therefore have very different responses to the same odors,” Leon explained. “The military once tried to develop an odor that could disperse crowds without harming them, but they could not find a universal negative response to any odor.”
In other words, what you may find comforting or energizing, another person may find totally off-putting.
Ultimately, we each have individual tastes and preferences and the best smells for your productivity are a journey only you can find out. Stern recommends using Fragrantica, “the Reddit for perfumes and fragrances,” to figure out which specific notes you are drawn to, and see which perfumes have it.
Keep in mind that wanting a scent to work can be enough for it to work on you, too. If you start to build a habit of always using a certain candle or scent when you complete a certain task, the ritual can help you get in the zone.
“I think our ability to trick ourselves with specific scent associations shouldn’t be discounted,” Wan said. “I used to listen to the same song over and over again when I needed to write. Now I associate that song with being productive. The same could be said for fragrance.“
In this way, smelling is believing. Or as Moss puts it: “If we believe and expect that an aroma will have a certain effect, then it is likely that it will as we will be motivated to support our expectations.”