You're trying to get some work done in the office, but the person next to you keeps on getting up from his desk. Another team member is having a snack with an unusually noisy wrapper, and a few desks over, your colleague’s phone keeps on going off. Not to mention that impromptu meeting next to the water cooler!
The open office environment may increase collaboration, but it can equally kill productivity and concentration.
Of course, not all interruptions are caused by others. We’re really good at interrupting ourselves too. That's why we can still be unproductive even when you can hear a pin drop across the office. But research shows that external interruptions are a good predictor of future self-interruptions. Gloria Mark, a researcher at University of California, Irvine, discovered that each external interruption within the previous hour increased self interruption by 8% within the following hour.
It seems that when we are interrupted by others we are more likely to think about or remember additional tasks that we need to take care of.
One of the ways you can significantly cut down on external interruptions is to plug in your headphones and drown the noise around you. But drown it with what?
What kind of sounds are conducive to productivity?
If you’re simply choosing music that you like or the local radio station, you’re probably hurting your focus just as much, if not more, as the noise around you. To stay productive, you need sounds you listen to, but that you don’t follow with your mind.
For example, music with lyrics, especially lyrics that you know and like, is music that you follow. You’re probably dying to jump on your desk and break out into song by the time of the chorus! So is music that has a strong, repeating rhythm. The more engaging and unpredictable a rhythm is, the more it will distract you from your work.
On the other hand, nature sounds like rustling leaves and crackling brooks, as well as instrumental and classical music, are sounds that you listen to, but that don’t enthral you.
Here’s one very helpful analogy to help you understanding why some sounds help you focus and others seem to do the opposite, from Wikipedia’s entry on sound masking:
Imagine a dark room where someone is turning a flashlight on and off. The light is very obvious and distracting. Now imagine that the room lights are turned on. The flashlight is still being turned on and off, but is no longer noticeable because it has been "masked". Sound masking is a similar process of covering a distracting sound with a more soothing or less intrusive sound.
Don’t worry though, you don’t need to take out your recording gear during the next thunderstorm. Others have already thought about this and have come up with some amazing music and sound services to help you drown the noise around you and stay focused. Here are some of our favourites:
Focus@Will is a great tool for when you need productivity on demand.
The free version plays music for 60 minutes at a time, which is great for scheduling periods of intense focus followed by short breaks. All the music is lyric-free and tracks switch so seamlessly that your brain won’t even notice when one song ends and another begins.
You have plenty of styles of music to choose from in the free version, such as Baroque Piano (personal favourite!), Alpha Chill or Cinematic. And the team has recently added an ADHD beta channel - a special pet project to them, as several team members, including the CEO, actually have ADHD.
SimplyNoise & SimplyRain
Some people can’t work with any music playing — even ambient. If you’re one of them, try SimplyNoise.
The service produces a set of static frequencies (white, pink and brown noise) that drown out all background noise in your office - or the thoughts in your head, if that's what you need.
Since there are no rhythms, beats or instruments, this is an interesting way to drown out noise without introducing any new stimulus.
SimplyRain is a companion service that plays the soothing sound of rain instead of static noise. You can adjust the volume and intensity of the rain storm. You can also select different intervals for thunders or turn them off altogether.
Mobile apps are available for both SimplyNoise and SimplyRain so you can tune out a noisy environment even if you don’t have internet access.
For some people, there’s no greater productivity boost than the chatter and clatter of a cafe. Coffitivity recreates that environment for when you’re in the office, at home or anywhere in between. This app gives you the right amount of background noise, and even allows you to choose different kinds of coffee shop rattle: Morning Murmur, University Undertones, and Lunchtime Lounge.
If you want to combine the cafe buzz with the soothing sounds of rain, try Rainy Cafe. This simple webapp allows you to combine these two sounds at the optimal volumes for you. Clean and simple.
Noisli is possibly the most complete ambient sounds service of all. It comes with many options, from forest sounds to crackling fire to railway trains. It also includes coffee shop buzz and white, pink and brown noise. You can combine any and all the sounds just the way you want to, which can make for some interesting and captivating background noise.
But if you’re easily distracted by choice, then Noisli may be a bit too much for you. You might be spending more time creating the background noise that makes you most productive than actually being productive.
Noisli also has a distraction free plain text editor with markdown support and colour changing background for improved productivity. Bug again, some might find the colour changing background somewhat distracting.
If you’re already using music services like Songza or Spotify, you can find a bunch of really cool music there for concentration. However, since these services allow you to skip, up vote, add songs to playlists or save them for later, you might end up interrupting yourself to do just that.
Try mixing a few sounds or even services together to find out what works best for you - for example, rain and forest or train tracks and classical music. Sometimes the most bizarre combination might be just what you need to get into the zone.
What sounds do you prefer when you need to be productive? Have you tried any of these services? Let us know in the comment section below.