Creativity is enhanced by moderate background noise

I was completely unable to coherently string thoughts together at the recent IBM Connect conference. At first I thought that I was just out of practice, since I have intentionally decreased my conference-going in the past year or so. But thinking back on it, I realized that I am never very productive at conferences. My thesis is that there several factors, like bad wi-fi and terrible coffee. But for me, at least, the dominant factor is the noise. Conferences are really, really  loud.
There is a great deal of evidence that high levels of noise dampen our creativity and productivity. Almost paradoxically, moderate levels of background noise — like that at a cafe or restaurant — can actually increase creative thinking:

Ravi Mehta, Ryu Zhu, and Amar Cheema, Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition, cited by
A moderate level of noise enhances creativity compared to both low and high levels of noise. Moderate background noise induces distraction which encourages individuals to think at a higher, abstract level, and consequently exhibit higher creativity.
For individuals looking for creative solutions to daily problems, instead of burying oneself in a quiet room trying to figure out a solution, walking out of one’s comfort zone and getting into a relatively noisy environment (such as a café) may trigger the brain to think abstractly, and thus generate creative ideas.

Companies are taking advantage of this in workplace design by making lounge areas, with tables, chairs, and sofas, so that people can move from overly quiet offices and work spaces and get the creative benefit of more noise. I find myself leaving the quiet home office and heading over to the local coffee shop a few times a week, to get the juices flowing.
But the next time I go to a conference, I think I will put on noise-cancelling headphones.

Attention, distraction, and the social dilemma

Perhaps it’s the holiday season, with the predictable end-of-year, what-does-it-all-mean columns, and the growing sense of being pressed for time as we head for a few compressed days of egg nog and family away from the office. For whatever reason, in the past week I’ve seen a torrent of commentary about attention and distractedness, and the role that tools and space play. Over the past years, the desire to create workplaces that foster creativity and innovation — and maybe cut costs, as well — has led to the adoption of open-plan office layouts and an increased reliance on communication tools. In principle, open-plan workplaces and online chat are intended to make it easier to collaborate with coworkers, and to remain in a state of ‘ambient awareness’ of their coming and going. But workplace distraction is a major side effect of the increased noise and interruptions that seem to inevitably follow:

Rachel Emma Silverman, Workplace Distractions: Here’s Why You Won’t Finish This Article Even though digital technology has led to significant productivity increases, the modern workday seems custom-built to destroy individual focus. Open-plan offices and an emphasis on collaborative work leave workers with little insulation from colleagues’ chatter. A ceaseless tide of meetings and internal emails means that workers increasingly scramble to get their “real work” done on the margins, early in the morning or late in the evening. And the tempting lure of social-networking streams and status updates make it easy for workers to interrupt themselves. “It is an epidemic,” says Lacy Roberson, a director of learning and organizational development at eBay Inc. At most companies, it’s a struggle “to get work done on a daily basis, with all these things coming at you,” she says. Office workers are interrupted—or self-interrupt—roughly every three minutes, academic studies have found, with numerous distractions coming in both digital and human forms. Once thrown off track, it can take some 23 minutes for a worker to return to the original task, says Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, who studies digital distraction.

So our efforts to become more social — to remain connected, and to work cooperatively — have led to a social dilemma: we are decreasing the physical and virtual distance between people, but this has led to more noise and less signal. Interruptions and loud conversations pull us away from making progress on vital tasks, meetings break the day into chunks of time too small to accomplish big things, and the growing sense of powerlessness — a sense that we are unable to get ahead of the pressure wave of deadlines, follow-ups, and deliverables — can compound the problem as we grown anxious. At the cultural level, we can see this as another case where privacy is yielding to publicy (or publicness, as Jeff Jarvis styles it), and there are a great many ramifications arising from that shift. However, on a practical level, what can we do about this daily attention drain? One area of intense interest is the basic and core issue of noise. Making offices more open may cause more chance conversations, true, but they are also louder. A strange result of efforts over the past decades to make offices quieter — quieter heating and cooling systems, for example — makes voices carry farther:

John Tierney, From Cubicles, Cry for Quiet Pierces Office Buzz Many offices are now pin-drop quiet, thanks to silent ventilation systems, the demise of clattering typewriters and the victory of e-mail over the telephone. With so little background noise, cubicle dwellers cannot help overhearing anyone who does dare to start a conversation. Researchers at Finland’s Institute of Occupational Health have studied precisely how far those conversations carry and analyzed their effect on the unwilling listener: a decline of 5 percent to 10 percent on the performance of cognitive tasks requiring efficient use of short-term memory, like reading, writing and other forms of creative work. “Noise is the most serious problem in the open-plan office, and speech is the most disturbing type of sound because it is directly understood in the brain’s working memory,” said Valtteri Hongisto, an acoustician at the institute. He found that workers were more satisfied and performed better at cognitive tasks when speech sounds were masked by a background noise of a gently burbling brook.

As a result, many firms are adding noise back. So-called ‘pink noise’ can be added to the background by unobtrusive speakers, a variant of white noise equalized to mask human speech. As a result, conversations carry less far, and the background noise is perceived more like a distant waterfall than a bar at happy hour. And it may be that the promise of open plan offices — like the increased chance of serendipitous conversations — isn’t coming true either:

John Tierney, From Cubicles, Cry for Quiet Pierces Office Buzz The original rationale for the open-plan office, aside from saving space and money, was to foster communication among workers, the better to coax them to collaborate and innovate. But it turned out that too much communication sometimes had the opposite effect: a loss of privacy, plus the urgent desire to throttle one’s neighbor. “Many studies show that people have shorter and more superficial conversations in open offices because they’re self-conscious about being overheard,” said Anne-Laure Fayard, a professor of management at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University who has studied open offices.

Companies are instituting a wide range of policies to try to cut through the fog:

  • Aside from pink noise approaches, many open plan offices have created small private areas for twosy-threesy work groups to retreat to, or putting in ‘phone booths’: small enclosures for taking phone calls.
  • It is becoming commonplace for companies to declare email-less or meeting-less days on a regular basis, so that people can simply focus on work activities. Atos, the 75 thousand person IT consulting firm, has plans to phase out email, company wide, after determining that person were averaging two hours a day on email.
  • Some firms, like Intel, are instituting a policy for each person to allocate a chunk of time each week to ‘think time’ where they won’t attend meetings or respond to emails.

But ultimately these stresses are personal: we each have to juggle our way through each day, no matter what the noises and policies. Is there something else we can do, aside from using productivity approaches like zero mail box? It turns out that researchers have recently determined that meditation training increases our ability to multitask, and reduces the stress associated with that:

Maria Konnikova, The Power Of Concentration In 2012, researchers led by a team from the University of Washington examined the effects of meditation training on multitasking in a real-world setting. They asked a group of human resources professionals to engage in the type of simultaneous planning they did habitually. Each participant was placed in a one-person office, with a laptop and a phone, and asked to complete several typical tasks: schedule meetings for multiple attendees, locate free conference rooms, write a memo that proposed a creative agenda item and the like. The information necessary to complete those tasks? Delivered as it otherwise would be: by e-mail, through instant messages, over the phone and in person. The list was supposed to be completed in 20 minutes or less. After the multitasking free-for-all, participants were divided into three groups: one was assigned to an eight-week meditation course (two hours of instruction, weekly); another group didn’t take the course at first, but took it later; and the last group took an eight-week course in body relaxation. Everyone was put through a second round of frenzy. The only participants to show improvement were those who had received the mindfulness training. Not only did they report fewer negative emotions at the end of the assignment, but their ability to concentrate improved significantly. They could stay on task longer and they switched between tasks less frequently. While the overall time they devoted to the assignment didn’t differ much from that of other groups, they spent it more efficiently. They engaged, on average, in just over 40 discreet “tasks” — test-related behaviors that had a definable start and end time — spending approximately 36 seconds on each, in contrast to the 48 to 50 average tasks attempted by the other groups — with an average of only 30 seconds spent per activity. They also remembered what they did better than the other participants in the study.

With results like that, maybe Intel and Atos should be training their staff to meditate instead of focusing exclusively on calendar and email hygiene. What is increasingly clear is this: there are real benefits to increasing social density in the business setting. Collaboration and innovation does increase, and people are happier at work and more productive when they believe they have more friends at work. However, the side effects of increased social density — noise and interruptions, specifically — can’t be overlooked. We have to make room for work, both in the office and within our own minds, if we want to remain productive and unstressed. We have to understand the social dilemma and work at finding a personal balance between connection and distraction.

Work in Public Despite the Noise

With our lifestyles, many web workers find themselves working in public spaces at lease some of the time. Yet for many, peace and quiet is a prerequisite to quality output. And few of these places offer the golden silence you might enjoy at home.

How to Work From Home During Chaotic Repairs

1224085_measuring_tapeThe successive typhoons that recently came over the Philippines gave my roof and ceiling a complete beating. I thought I could ignore the rainwater dripping into every room in the house but, when I woke up one morning and found my head completely wet thanks to a new hole, I knew I couldn’t postpone the repairs any longer.
But working from home and having your home repaired can be a chaotic mix. It tends to destroy your routine, concentration and even the quality of your work. So what can we home office workers do to prevent that from happening? Read More about How to Work From Home During Chaotic Repairs

Apple Issues Fixes for Nagging Bluetooth, Hard Drive Issues

disk utilityPeople with MacBook Pros who opted for the speedier 7200RPM HD customization option can hopefully rest easy today, since Apple (s aapl) yesterday released a software fix to resolve reported problems related to odd noises being made by the drives. It was accompanied by a second update to resolve ongoing Bluetooth quirks.

Back in July, users started posting on support forums and message boards about audible clicking and beeping noises being made by the faster, optional 7200RM drives. While the update seems intended to fix these issues, reading Apple’s official blurb, it would seem like resting easy might actually be a tad premature. Apple Support claims that it “reduces certain infrequent noises.” Just “reduces?” We’ll have to wait and see what effect the update actually has, but it doesn’t sound to me like it will provide a total fix. Read More about Apple Issues Fixes for Nagging Bluetooth, Hard Drive Issues

Problem & Solution: iPhone 3G S Video and the Not-So-Fine Whine


After the honeymoon was over, and I started using the iPhone 3G S in earnest, I began to hear a high-pitched noise on my iPhone-recorded videos. At first I thought it was the environment, background noise, or just plain interference. However, once aware of the noise, I noticed it anytime the phone was recording audio, such as with voice memos. The whine is actually emitted by the speaker, and then becomes part of the recording. You will usually only hear it in quiet recordings.

Fortunately I know one of the best AV guys in the industry, Matt Kappenman, who analyzed and isolated the sound for me. He told me that, “It’s right around 4400-4500 Hertz, which is a C# for those musically inclined.” I’m not so musically inclined. Read More about Problem & Solution: iPhone 3G S Video and the Not-So-Fine Whine

The Sounds of Web Working: Do They Hurt or Help You?

When clients call you and hear a baby cooing or a kitten meowing in the background, they can’t help but remember that you’re human. You’re not just an invisible web working slave that does their bidding. You have a life, a family, and pets. Your clients know this because they can hear voices and home background noise when they call you.
But it’s not always advantageous that your clients hear background noise during calls or voice chat sessions.  Especially if you have a rooster.
Schedule your client calls.
I mentioned my pet rooster again because he produces the loudest noise here at home.  I used to have an absolute look of terror when I’m on Skype with a client and he would start crowing.  I wrote in a previous post here at WWD that I worked around this problem by scheduling my work tasks around the time when my pets are asleep. This allows me to call up clients without worrying about any noises the neighbors or pets might make.
Scheduling is also beneficial if your clients are the ones initiating calls. This tends to make both parties more productive. Clients can batch requests or comments rather than calling you every time they think of something new. You can also spend more time on the work itself, rather than answering the phone all day.
Read More about The Sounds of Web Working: Do They Hurt or Help You?

BlogJet 2.0 released

This will only be of interest to bloggers but today a new version of BlogJet was released (finally).  Version 2.0 has a total interface overhaul and looks pretty good so I upgraded ($20) and am using it to post this item.  I have been using BlogJet for some time and it looks like they put a lot of work and addressed some of the problems with the previous version.