Find Quiet (and Maybe Even Peace) at Work
July 20, 2014 § Leave a comment
My uncle has a farm in Meriwether County, Georgia. When I was a kid, I spent weekends there camping, fishing, and spending time with family and friends. It was my place to wonder and wander. In a time before mobile devices, I could lie in the grass looking up at the stars and experience real solitude and silence. There were no car engines or text message alerts. The silence created space for reflection and imagination.
On a recent workday, in contrast, a venue near my office held an all-day rock concert that shook the windows in my office with sound checks and live music from 9 a.m. until I went home. The previous day I’d made a day trip to New York — a 16-hour cacophony of jet engines, pilot announcements, car horns, and strangers talking loudly into mobile phones. My experiences are not unique. Most of us now live and work in noisy environments. The ubiquity of electronic devices and the density of the cities in which we live mean that few of us regularly experience silence.
All this noise is bad for us. Julian Treasure, chairman of the Sound Agency, has documented a number of these impacts in detail (PDF), noting, for example, that according to the World Health Organization 40% of Europe is exposed to noise levels that could lead to disturbed sleep, raised blood pressure, and potentially increased incidences of heart disease. The European Commission has estimated the total health and productivity costs of road traffic noise in Europe alone at €30–46 billion. And one study indicates that one in three Americans now suffers hearing impairment as a result of noise in the environment. Stephen A Stansfeld and Mark P Matheson (PDF), in a similar roundup of the health impacts of noise, note many of those highlighted by Treasure as well as high incidences of good old-fashioned “annoyance” in adults and children.
Some studies also link noise to decreased performance in the workplace or classroom. Treasure, for example, claims that open office environments in which workers overhear other conversations can reduce productivity by 66%, and classrooms with high noise levels may prevent kids from hearing 50% of what is taught. Aircraft noise near schools has been associated with impaired reading comprehension.
Yet, for all of this evidence, most of us remain ensconced in noisy environments. So what can we do to recapture silence and, in doing so, our health and productivity? Here are a few suggestions:
Properly design your home or workplace. Open office environments may have a number of benefits for collaboration, efficient space usage, and office culture. But due to noise levels and interruptions, they can negatively impact concentration. Similarly, air conditioners, heating units, and electronic devices are critical modern conveniences, but the background noise they create canhinder performance and health. Proper design offsets these impacts. As Cornell’s Lorraine Maxwell notes (PDF), if an office is going to be open, it should contain small, closed spaces available for periods of intense focus. And choosing the right carpeting, furniture, and even ceiling height at home or work can mute the impact of increased noise. The “architectural option” might seem extreme, but for organizations or individuals so motivated, it could work wonders.
Close the door; turn off the TV. Recently, I noticed a bad habit I’ve developed when traveling for business: Almost as soon as I’d get into the hotel room, I’d turn on the TV, just to have a little background noise. Speaking with friends and colleagues, I’m not alone. Many of us reflexively fill silent spaces with music, radio programs, or television shows. Or, we allow the well-intentioned temptation to maintain an “open door policy” in the workplace to prevent us from quietly focusing with deep concentration on the task at hand. There are times for TVs, open doors, and stereos. But there are also times for silence, and to be healthier and more effective, we’d do well to make space for both.
Put in your earplugs. A classic response to unwanted noise is to replace it with wanted noise. As a student, for example, I commonly played everything from ‘90s rock to classical music in my dorm room while studying. And music can have its benefits. At least one study suggests Mozart for those seeking focus, and music has been linked to stress relief and relaxation. But additional research shows that while emotionally satisfying, music may actually decrease a person’s capacity for recall. So for common noise relief, the simplest answer may be to block it with earplugs or noise-canceling headphones.
Take a noise retreat. Even if you can’t cut down on the noise in your daily life, you can find periods of respite. For me, that’s still escaping to my uncle’s farm, to the beach, or to the North Georgia mountains. For others, it’s taking advantage of “silent retreats,” where participants go to actively avoid speaking or experiencing other man-made sounds. Ecologist Gordon Hempton has found only 12 spots in the U.S. free of human-made noise for intervals of 15 minutes or more, but there are a number of resorts that promise as much escape from noise as possible without a long hike into the Alaskan wilderness.
It’s ironic that, as more of our tasks become mental, our environments make the concentration so necessary for intellectual labor more difficult. The noise permeating our environments can impact our health, concentration, and happiness. As silence becomes rarer and more valuable, we’d be wise to seek it out.
This was originally posted at Harvard Business Review.