Lately, the most stressful thing in my life is a thing called "quiet." This feels like a new problem, brought on, I believe, by my addiction to the Internet. When I'm under-stimulated, such as in a quiet environment with no access to electronics, I become instantly stressed. It feels like a painful sort of loneliness.

Luckily there isn't much quietness around. Life is mostly noisy. I'm in my office now, 5:39 a.m., and I can hear a low hum of freeway traffic in the distance, an occasional train, and some industrial moans from the rock quarry across the valley. It's just the right amount of noise to keep the quiet away without distracting me.

A study showed that people are more creative when there's human background noise, such as in a coffee shop. My experience agrees with the study. Back when I owned a restaurant, I brought my laptop to lunch one day to do some work in a booth while my order was being prepared. Ideas came to me so rapidly that I ended up writing an entire book while sitting in the restaurant during lunch rushes. The trick with background noise is that you don't want to hear individual conversations. You want a muffled hum of activity.

As I was writing this post, I stumbled upon the very product I was about to suggest: a background coffee shop sound loop. It's here at Coffitivity. http://coffitivity.com/ I'm playing it now. It's too early to say whether it helps my creativity, but I like the idea.

A lot of people play music while working or doing homework. The studies are mixed on that strategy. Apparently music doesn't hurt performance too much when you're doing math but it kills you when you're trying to do anything with language. I think people play music while working in part because they like music and in part because quiet is disturbing.

I know many of you will weigh in with a comment saying music helps your productivity. You're probably wrong about that, unless you're doing manual labor or math. If music made you more productive, companies would require employees to listen to music while working. I don't think the science supports music as a productivity booster in most situations. However, it might make you happy, and less stressed, and that can be reason enough.

I just turned off the Coffitivity.com background sound. I found it distracting. But that might be because I was too interested in whether it was working. I might give it another go later.

My question for the day: Does quietness stress you or relax you? And if it stresses you, were you always that way, or have you become addicted to continuous stimulation?


Scott Adams

Creator of Dilbert

Co-founder of CalendarTree.com

Author of How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big

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Mar 18, 2014
I need deep quiet to begin meditation. Once I'm in it, though, not so much.

Music is absolutely necessary for me to do mind-numbing repetitive computer tasks such as stupid (though necessary) data entry. Without music, my brain goes off-rail. My Bela Bartok and Eric Satie Pandora stations usually save the day.
Mar 16, 2014
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Mar 16, 2014
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Mar 15, 2014
Quiet is definitely relaxing for me. It helps me get into my productivity zone better and it also helps my creativity. Sometimes some mild sensory input is more useful because it helps keep my brain engaged and keeps my mind from wandering if I'm doing something a bit more tedious.
Mar 14, 2014
"Does quietness stress you or relax you? And if it stresses you, were you always that way, or have you become addicted to continuous stimulation?"

To answer this question, I would prefer quiet to distracting conversations, but I would prefer background noise to both. I've always lived in the city so I especially like traffic noise. When I stay at country dwelling relatives houses I find the perfect quiet very disturbing when I'm trying to fall asleep. I've always been this way, even as a kid, probably because I've been accustomed to it that long.
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Mar 14, 2014
I grew up in a house where everyone was coming and going constantly. There was noise everywhere: conversation, the TV, the radio, hair dryer, cooking noises... I shared a room with my sister so we would be talking/arguing whilee we did our homework all the time. Whenever I had to study hard, I would sit beside the washing machine when it was spinning so as to concentrate better. Later, when I was studying abroad and couldn't find sleep, I would switch on the radio and fall asleep instantly with the sound of conversation streaming from it.

I have tried many times to concentrate at a library, but it doesn't work for me. It's too quiet. I always end up staring at people around me 5 minutes later and forget all about my work. I find them so much more fascinating than whtever I should be doing. Music doesn't work that well for me either, because it has a pattern and the human brain picks patterns very easily... and my brain in particular loves to get distracted by patterns.

So, yes, it's mostly noise what does it for me. I find it soothing, as it gives me the "I'm working on this and the rest of the world is busy getting on with their lives" kind of feeling. It removes all pressure from me and almost inadvertently I lose myself into what I'm doing. Perfect.
Mar 14, 2014
"I think people play music while working in part because they like music and in part because quiet is disturbing."

I love listening to music when I work, and I think those reasons are part of it, but I also like the built-in timer feature. When I hear music while I'm working it gives me the physical sense that time is progressing and it makes me go faster. It has to be the right kind of music though, with a gentle rhythm and unobtrusive to non-existant lyrics.
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Mar 14, 2014
For me it depends on the type of work. I'm a programmer and when I'm coding I don't hear anything, except truly distracting noises, like a dripping water tap.

When I'm architecting, I like doing it in a more noisy environment. A cafe is great for me. I guess it's the acoustic equivalent to a cluttered desk, it creates lots associations and therefore helps ideas to pop up.

I don't think a noise loop could replace that.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 14, 2014
It depends entirely on my mood.

Sometimes I prefer absolutely quiet.
Sometimes I like to have some progressive house/trance running in the background.
Sometimes I like to ambient noises in the background such as raindrops, running water or cat purring.

What I do know is that for me, music that contains above a certain threshold of vocals is no go. If there's too much rapping and singing, my brain automatically diverts resources to trying to understand what is being said and that's hugely distracting.
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Mar 13, 2014
Factories use to pay a lector to read to the factory workers, I wonder if that was the same premise. Anyways I find the right music will distract that easily distractable part of my brain that keeps telling me things like, "hey, you haven't read Dilbert today" Which works could for things that require focus but aren't particularly interesting in themselves. But I have a busy mind, don't know if my results are normal.
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Mar 13, 2014
Hi Scott. Absolutely works for me. My favourite work environment is a Starbucks in Bao An, China. I'm always jet lagged for a few days, which means I'm up super early. I go down there at opening time and can happily sit there all day watching the world go on around me while pounding away at a keyboard doing something creative.
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Mar 13, 2014
I can't stand quiet. So much so that it need fan noise to sleep.

As for work, music is a way to drown out the work conversations so I don't get distracted. The music has to be something I'm familiar with so it doesn't distract me as well.
Mar 13, 2014
I'm ok either way. Right now it's quiet and I'm comfortable. There was a period of three years when I worked in a cube surrounded by other cube workers. And a couple of years later, another year. It may matter that the work was creative and the people around me were co-workers - some of them friends. I never had any problem screening out the conversations and concentrating. But it made at least one of my friends a bit nuts.
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Mar 13, 2014
I must be defective. I can't focus at ALL with people noises. Drives me nuts.

If I get really focused on a task, usually reading, I don't notice background noise. But if I notice it, it kills my concentration.
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Mar 13, 2014
I write software, and I like silence, preferably total silence. Sometimes I use ear muff, too.
Mar 12, 2014
I prefer music if I need to grind something over a long period of time. I don't know if a proper study has been done to investigate this.

I believe studies show that a 10 minute task maybe takes 12 minutes with music. I think I believe that.

But, for me, most tasks aren't like that. Most important tasks involve hours of work. This is work from which I'd easily be distracted without music.

So I think for longer-term tasks, music increases productivity by helping you maintain focus for longer, *even if your work/minute productivity is lower*...your net output is higher because you don't go batty sitting in silence.

At least that's how I think it works for me.
Mar 12, 2014
BTW Scott, there's a raft of info about how the internet can indeed get you "addicted" to sensory stimulation.

If it starts becoming a problem there are ways to detox. I'm sure silicon valley has loads of options for help if you need it, from church basements to $1000/hr specialists. Probably the simplest is to just unplug for at least two weeks and go somewhere new to "escape" the familiar environments that have become associated with internet usage. Something like a private beach bungalow on a tropical island or what have you. If you're too famous to "disappear" in normal settings, try Santa Barbara; it's celebrity-friendly and a nice drive down the 101 from you (I used to live there but couldn't afford it). Or if you can wait a couple months, come on out to Block Island or the Cape/Islands. Let me know if you go that route, of course...I'd be happy to give some pointers for my "home turf".

(note: if you've spent a lot of time in a tropical-island environment, those locales will not work and you'll need somewhere else. Perhaps Alaska in the summer or visit another country that's reasonably different from the US, but not so different that it becomes impossible to even find the bathroom.)

The key is not just to unplug from electronics but really to disrupt your entire normal daily regime. Don't wear a watch. Eat when you're hungry. Sleep a lot. That kind of nonsense. It doesn't work for everyone, of course. And you will feel like you're in hell for the first two to three days...five at the most. After that either the cognitive dissonance sets in, or you really do start to reset your brain. Either way, you'll feel better.
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Mar 12, 2014
I love quiet solitude in proper doses. Too little is stressful. Too much is its own kind of stress. When I need to focus for long periods of time on a solo task, I need some sort of background noise. I often play the same couple of albums over and over at low volume - but I think I'll try coffitity.

When working from home, I'll usually work for a few hours in my office (usually while walking slowly on my treadmill desk), then move to a coffee shop for a couple of hours, then home - then possibly another coffee shop. Depends on how restless I'm feeling.

Working in an office - as I do now - does have some advantages. There is enough varied stimulus, that when I do find time to do focused work, I don't need to work as hard to create the right environment. The downside is that I have a much harder time finding the time I need to do focused work...
Mar 12, 2014
My own experience on this, take it for what you will...

I have a great ability to tune out background noise. I'm not sure if it's a natural ability, or something I've learned. I work as a broadcast radio engineer and much of my career has been in computer-based audio editing, where you learn to focus on one particular PART of a sound amongst a cacophony of other sounds. But I've always been good at that, from the first day I started doing it seventeen years ago at age 20. I think I've got a knack for concentration. I remember a hypnotist at high-school "lock-in" party and volunteering to be hypnotized, just to prove to myself that I couldn't be. I concentrated so hard on not being hypnotized that, of course, I very nearly was. (shrugs) Right now my cube desk is part of a 11-person newsroom "bullpen" and it's noisy as hell. People on the phone, people talking to each other, people playing news pieces on speakers to review them...plus CNN on the TV above my head and the station's FM signal on a radio in the corner.

For the most part, it doesn't bother me. Most of the time I can tune it right out, even without the need for headphones. However, I have found that when the task at hand calls for extreme concentration. Reviewing legal contracts where each and every word, and its position in a sentence, can matter a lot? Or debugging the "code" of an automation playlist (it's like CSS, but more sadistic)? Things like that I just cannot do at my desk. I can't focus. I have to grab a laptop, or print out some pages, and disappear into the conference, or an unused studio, and close the door. In both those rooms, it's nearly perfect silence and I find I can suddenly focus much better.

The flip side is that I cannot focus at all when a TV is within my field of view. Or when music is playing. My brain just gloms onto it like a crow goes after...OOOH! SHINY-SHINY!

OTOH, when I find I'm at a boring meeting, if I can play tetris on my phone (usually I can't...the boss gets annoyed) then I suddenly can focus on what's being said much better. It looks like I'm ignoring everyone but I'm really not. I guess it's like tetris can distract the part of my brain that creates overwhelming sensations of boredom, and lets the rest of the brain deal with the stimulation of my co-workers. Or lack thereof.

Interestingly, my wife is very much the opposite of me. She has no ability to filter out background noise at all, and frequently gets frustrated when we dine out at a restaurant. Sure, everyone hates screaming kids or patrons practically yelling at each other in what they think is a "normal conversation". Well, actually, I rarely notice, but that's me. But most people would notice those things. Turn the volume down by half and my wife still hears it and can't tune it out. Go figure. But she often gets lots of work done (she's a policy analyst for the state) with music going in headphones at work, and almost always has the TV on in the background when typing something at home.
Mar 12, 2014
if you're using a recorded background noise, start off with the volume lower than the actual background noise and increase fractionally each session.
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