When you're halfway through what could only be called "the worst day ever," it might seem like your impenetrably tangled earbuds are just another message from the Bad-Day Gods. There are ways to prevent this from happening.
Dorian Raymer and Douglas Smith at UC San Diego unraveled the mystery in a paper titled "Spontaneous Knotting of an Agitated String" in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers stuck lengths of string in a box, rotated the box, then opened it to see if knots formed. After an eye-glazing 3,415 trials, they determined that string shorter than 1.5 feet never tangled, but as a string gets longer, the probability of knots shoots up sharply (which is why 10-foot-long Christmas tree lights can melt your soul).
There's a million and one solutions on the market for keeping headphone cords in check. There are four things all of these devices have in common.
Make a loop
You can't make the cord shorter, but you can bring the ends together in another way. Robert Matthews at Aston University in Birmingham, England, once had the brilliant idea to test if clipping earbud ends together with a binder clip could prevent tangled cords. When you grip the earbuds to the miniplug, you're forming a huge loop—a small innovation that Matthews suspected would cut down on tangles. He was right. He repeated the string-in-a-box test for 12,000 trials, and reduced the risk of knots by tenfold.
Keep ends apart
Instead of bringing ends together, keep them apart. Douglas Smith, the UC San Diego researcher from earlier in this story, had a different theory. Rescue squads who have to meticulously pack up ropes every day put one end of the rope into a bag, then feed the rest in, like you'd stuff a sleeping bag into a sack. This keeps the ends away from each other, preventing knots from forming.
Make it thicker
If you can prevent a cord from curling up on itself, you can essentially stop knots before they start. You can also try coating or covering your wires to get the same effect.
In all these super scientific tests of earbud-tangleosity, the researchers employed fast, sharp movements as a means to tossle the earbud cords together. That's because, at the root of it all, it's movement that causes wires to knot up. It's why your earbuds only tangle in your pocket and not sitting on your desk. To prevent knots, just keep your cords from moving around. The easiest way to do this? Wrap them carefully around anything, maybe a credit card and secure them completely.
The Science Behind Tangled Earbuds...and how to prevent them