The sound of silence. It’s what many of us yearn for when working. We try to get away from all of the noise and distractions of our surroundings and get to a place – whether natural or virtual – to achieve that quiet space we long for.
But that’s not necessarily the best thing for you to do.
I’m not suggesting that you attempt to do your work in a noisy coffee shop or while your co-worker is playing loud music, but what I am suggesting is that you learn to work with noise rather than try to get away from it. After all, noise can be your best friend if you let it.
Why Noise is Better Than Quiet
The biggest problem with quiet is not so much that it is counter-productive to look for it (as in, it takes a lot of time just to find it), but that it can serve to be counter-productive once you do discover it. This may seem odd to you at first glance – as it was for me – but after listening to Dan Benjamin discuss the problem with quiet on an episode of his Back to Work podcast, it sunk in.
Benjamin — and I’m paraphrasing here — discusses how we are not meant to work in a completely quiet or noise-free environment. In fact, if you’re out in the woods and you hear the crickets chirping and other sounds of nature going on around you — and then it all stops — it means that there is danger lurking somewhere. It creates a tension that actually inhibits progress (save for the source of danger, perhaps) rather than promotes it.
You need to learn to work with the noise. When it’s too quiet, your mind naturally wonders when the next shoe is going to drop – or when the next distraction is going to arrive. That takes your focus away from the work. To have a din of crowd noise or the hum of your heating system clearly audible while you are working away may be enough for you to keep you on task. For others, they may need the hustle and bustle of an office or coffee shop to keep them focused on what they are doing. Absolute quiet (or the removal of ambient noise) can really work against you in many circumstances.
Benjamin’s co-host, Merlin Mann, takes it a step further by saying (again, I’m paraphrasing here) that if you can’t deal with the distraction, then you clearly don’t care enough about what you’re doing at that moment. I need to have some kind of noise going on in order to write. Whether it be some music in the background or the noise of my kids playing in the house, I need to have some form of sound happening around me so that it pushes me to get the writing done. My kids playing is a reminder that I need to push through the work so I can join them, but it’s also a reminder of why I’m writing to begin with: to provide for them.
When Quiet Works
Quiet can be your best friend when you need to let your mind wander. There’s often nothing better to have around you than “quietude” when you don’t have to focus on one thing in particular. When you invite quiet into your world, you invite the possibility of noise as well. That means that the noise of your ideas, your thoughts, your plans and your goals that may not have a a chance to breathe otherwise can freely enter and leave your mind without fear of repression. That’s when quiet works for you – and when you need that time that is when you should work to find quiet.
Noise is very subjective. One person’s music is another person’s noise. But what you can accomplish while surrounded by noise of varying volumes can be very specific, because your mind (when disciplined and working on something important enough to you) can wade through the noise and get to the work. Quiet invites your own personal noise into your world, which can be the ultimate distraction unless you want all of it to be present.
So don’t seek quiet to escape the noise – it can and will work for you. Seek to find quiet for the time to let your own personal noise come into play. That’s when counter-productivity can turn into productivity in both the short – and loing – term.
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