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How can you concentrate with all that noise?

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I never understood how people could study while listening to music.

Sure, I listened to music while doing physical tasks like exercising or yard work, but as the youngest in my family, by the time I had to do any serious studying the house was pretty quiet and in college I usually went to the library or computer lab which were also pretty quiet places.

Then I got a job in an office.

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There was extra noise from teams “next door” (even though there were no doors), people always seemed to be dropping by to ask a question of someone nearby, and since they were so close it was difficult not to listen in on conversations and lose my train of thought.

For some tasks, this isn’t much of a problem, but when you’re trying to really concentrate on a complex problem, it can totally throw a wrench into your productivity.

One guy on our team brought in his music collection so we could all connect to his machine and listen to tunes while we worked. I thought it was worth a try since the alternative office noise wasn’t really helping and I found that listening to music actually helped me concentrate.

One problem is that even with a large music library, you go through a lot of songs in a workweek. Starts to get a little repetitive.

About a year later Pandora came out and it was like Christmas!

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Pandora lets you pick a song or artist to “seed” a station. It then selects songs similar to those and plays them on your station. As you go you can “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” songs and it will learn what you like for that station and keep introducing new music as well as replay songs you have given the thumbs up.

Pandora was nice because you never knew what song would be next! Pandora introduced me to artists I had never even heard of but really liked their music. I still use some of the stations I built up during that time.

It can be a little bit of a distraction, though – looking at the screen to see who the artist is you may not have heard of then googling them, giving a song the thumbs up or skipping something you don’t want to listen all the way through. We’re talking just a few seconds, but there is a slight distraction factor.

Pandora was my go-to noise filter until about a year ago someone introduced me to Simply Noise

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It’s a noise generator – you’ve probably heard of white noise but they also have pink noise, brown noise, it can fade in and out, and they even have rainstorm sounds!

This has worked a lot better for me because it’s enough to block out what’s going on around me yet it’s pretty constant – I don’t have to deal with transitions, giving a thumbs up or thumbs down, etc. I even used it in a busy waiting room with some stock Apple earbuds and I was in my own world within seconds.

Headphones

Even if you don’t want to listen to anything, headphones can be a visual queue to someone else that you are concentrating on your work. They may think twice before interrupting your train of thought for something trivial.

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These are my “Princess Leia” headphones as they were affectionately dubbed by some co-workers. They block out some sound on their own and you can definitely tell when I am wearing them!

Using headphones can work well with the Pomodoro Technique

Headphones on = in the middle of some work, leave me alone

Headphones off = taking a break, come talk to me

Earplugs

Let’s not forget good old fashioned earplugs.

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Silence is golden.

Book a Meeting

Sometimes headphones aren’t enough. Sometimes you have to physically go somewhere other than your desk to get some work done.

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If you have a laptop, book a conference room for a “meeting” with yourself then go get stuff done. I knew a team lead who would do this a few times a week for 1-2 hours just to finish some tasks since their normal day was filled with questions and interruptions.

Their secret didn’t last long so if someone really needed to talk to them they could start walking around checking conference rooms (this was a big office building with 6 floors) but it was an effective way to filter out most of the interruptions that could wait an hour or two until they returned to their desk.

Make an Appointment

Have an “Appointment” outside of the office where you leave. People have Doctor appointments, Dentist appointments, repair appointments, so why not a get things done appointment?

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For me, this has sometimes been in the middle of the night since that was a time I knew no one would be sending messages or trying to get a hold of me and I could focus on finishing my tasks. Making an appointment for yourself is a way to put this uninterrupted time during normal working hours.

Education

Meetings can be one of the biggest productivity killers out there, especially if you are doing more creative work vs. administrative work.

Managers tend to think of the day in 30 or 60-minute slots while makers tend to think in terms of half or whole days.

Paul Graham wrote an excellent article on this topic – it’s a quick 5-minute read and he makes some good points about the cost of meetings and how makers and managers can better understand how to most effectively work with each other.

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With all of these strategies, you may think I’m advocating that we all work in a cave. I am not. There is simply a balance between being always available and collaborative vs. being focused and productive on individual tasks.

Some questions are urgent and require face to face contact and justify interrupting a person’s current focus. But many questions can wait – send an email, let them answer later on in between focused work sessions, or catch up around the water cooler. Instant messaging is also convenient but doesn’t always require an instant response.

What strategies do you use to get things done in noisy office spaces with constant interruptions?

Share in the comments below.

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