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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+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 12, 2014
I require silence in order to do just about anything (except listen to music, of course). And, yes, language-oriented tasks do require absolute silence. I have been this way all my life. But, then, again, I'm autistic, which is probably an important factor. Even two people talking talking at once can drive my mind into confusion.
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 12, 2014
I read in my Social Psychology textbook that people perform better on simple tasks when they're in the presence of others, but do more poorly on complex tasks. That resonates with my experience. I feel more accountable about staying on task and being productive when I'm around others, but I have trouble getting mentally immersed in a complex task around others, I think because my social-awareness is !$%*!$% up some of my mental energy.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 12, 2014
What I want to listen to from my equipment is highly dependent on what I'm doing:

- Domestic chores: Music or speech (NPR for preference).

- Editing/writing/reading: Familiar classical music (not atonal, not vocal). Definitely NOT speech in any form; I can't keep switching my attention between two verbal streams and be efficient at processing either one.

- Looking at images: With me, looking and listening seem to occupy two distinct sets of processes if I'm only passively looking rather than doing something active with the image (for instance, performing some kind of editing action on it). At such times, speech, or any kind of music within my taste range is OK. The exception is when the mood of what I'm looking at and listening to is widely divergent; upsetting pictures usually demand silence.

- When I'm driving, conducting a complicated conversation with a passenger is hard for me (and I never use a cellphone when I'm driving); if I'm listening to the radio, any kind of traffic situation that requires greater-than-usual attention causes me to mentally tune out anything else I'm hearing until the road conditions have returned to normal.

Overall, my available attention bandwith is less than I'd like. And any kind of highly repetitive (or overly loud) music is a form of torture, as is smooth jazz, most mass-market country music, or new-agey ambient music.
Mar 12, 2014
I love total silence. Noise drives me crazy & always has. It is probably because I am an only child & am used to quiet. My younger son (1 of 3 children), however, needs constant sound. To each their own, I say.
Mar 12, 2014
I write (after a fashion). When tightly focused, pretty much any music is acceptable so long as there are no vocals; TV and talk radio are both out as well. Words seem interfere with other words. Oddly enough, live conversations in the vicinity aren't that much of a problem (except when conversationists hear me reading things along to myself). Otherwise, the amount of ambient sound doesn't seem to matter except at extremes -- and I've been able to function with leafblowers, construction and flocks of crows outside my window.

I like my iPod on long walks and mass transit, and the CD player while driving, but neither is essential. When walking, the earbuds come out whenever I'm in an environment where at least minimal interaction is assumed -- a shop, a busy sidewalk, a fast-food line. Partly because there's more sound I need to be aware of; partly because it seems rude to visibly absent oneself (simply paying minimal heed to others and going about your business is slightly different).

On the other end of the spectrum, I know one individual who prefers television AND music while working, which is dominated by lengthy phone conversations and emails. On top of this, she claims it's impossible to sleep at night unless the TV is on.
Mar 12, 2014
preferential order (for me):

1. natural sounds (animals in woods, leaves rustling, moving water, etc)
2. quiet
3. anything artificial (music, machines, people, etc)

I've finally started using noise canceling headphones at work, not b/c ours is especially noisy but going from an office at my old job back to a cube at new company has been distracting...
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 12, 2014
I wish Kenny G would stay in elevators in other buildings. I normally don't listen to music if I have to produce something that requires brain power, like writing, or balancing a check book. On the other hand I love hard rock when I am doing something physical like mowing grass.

When I fish I like to listen to the sounds of nature.
Mar 12, 2014
IT project manger here; when I am on a long grind banging a project; my go to is game sound tracks, it is music, but is written towards the goal achievement button in my brain
Mar 12, 2014
When I'm under-stimulated, I fall asleep. I had a root canal this morning (Woot! My new dentist offers a free iPad mini with $1500 in work!), and even with the drilling and mild pain, the lack-of-computer was sufficient anaesthetic to make me snooze. Not the first time for me, either. Other dentists have commented that it's extremely unusual for a patient to fall asleep while being drilled.
Mar 12, 2014
I must be one of the weird ones. I love working when it's quiet. If I am at the office late or on a weekend, when it's dead silent the amount I get done is mind blowing.

Here's the interesting part. I am an extreme extrovert. I grew up with 10 brothers and sister. If I'm not working and i'm not around people/noise, I start to feel almost manicly depressed very quickly. But if I am working on something, I can be alone forever.

I wonder if those two are inversely proportional. People who like to spend quiet time recharging prefer to work around noise, while people who relax by interacting with others prefer peace and quiet when they work...

Scott would you call yourself introverted or extroverted?
Mar 12, 2014
I wonder - has the upswing in popularity of instrumental "background" music styles (electronica, smooth jazz, etc) coincided with the availability of technology that allows you to easily have music in the background at work? I mean, back in 1998 I had to record FM radio and use cassette tapes - now it's a click away.

Mar 12, 2014
For me, quiet is wonderful; noise, especially loud noise, totally makes me feel agitated and hyper.

Nice relaxing music (ambient electronic) in the background is ok for doing tasks, but even too much of relaxing music eventually has to be silenced.

The outside world is so noisy that I need to wear earplugs whenever I'm forced to interact with urban reality, although 'country' noise does not have the same deleterious effect on me. I much prefer my own quiet little world.
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 12, 2014
I write software for a living. I find light classical music or trance / electronica to be great for keeping my mood up and productivity strong. I don't know if it's better than just turning on the noise cancellation feature of my headphones and listening to nothing, but it's usually not hurting. But for some reason, occasionally I'll start getting distracted by the music and have to turn it off. This usually involves music with easy to hear vocals, like a strong, catchy chorus. And when I'm writing up a spec or reading documentation, the music has to go off, no matter what sort it is. Apparently I can't read and write documentation with music going, but for some reason I can code. Oddly though, I can read emails with music going, just not documentation. Probably something to do with the level of concentration required.
Mar 12, 2014
From experience working in a magazine office, I can confirm the disruptive effect of music on concentration for verbal work (like mine) but not for visual work (like whatever it is that the layout people do all day with their headphones on). And I have, I think, a corollary to the principle: as a native English speaker living in France, I find it easy to block out background French and impossible to block out English. On the other hand, that may be just because my co-workers' accents in English could shatter glass (in contrast to my accent in French, which shatters double glazing).
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 12, 2014
Like a lot of people here, I find that sometimes I want music, and sometimes I want quiet. It's more often music, to the point where my workspace (dorm room or desk area at home) is playing music by default. I do find though, that it's a very specific kind of music I listen to when trying to be productive. It has to be music I appreciate for its own merits, and that I would enjoy listening to on its own, but it also needs to be music that is familiar enough to me that I can't discover new things about it easily. For example, classical music is often held up as one of the better types of music for creativity, but I find it to be almost too mellow for me to properly appreciate it. As such, it just irks me.

Of course, there's always times when I find the music just isn't working, and I need to just listen to the noise of my keyboard, or pen on paper. That never lasts for long though, and I sometimes find myself stopping and starting the music multiple times in a single hour.

Even so, quiet on its own isn't unsettling, I find it to be relaxing, and facilitative of some types of thinking and meditation.
Mar 12, 2014
I write fiction, and I find I can only listen to music that I've heard so much that the lyrics fade into the background. Or opera, since I don't speak Italian (classical too).

However, one thing music adds to that kind of writing is that I can adjust the musical style for the mood I'm writing. Action scene? Throw on some NIN. Tender moment? Where's my Sarah McLaughlin? Having my personal mood approximate the mood of what I'm writing is a big asset.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 12, 2014
I've never liked TV in the background (or a ball game) because I can't ignore the words being said. Music, maybe.
But I have indeed found that a coffee shop is very productive for me. However, I've attributed it less to the background noise (which probably is positive) than to:
1) lack of distraction (or major distractions); I can't go to the kitchen or do laundry, etc.
2) being around people; I'm a huge extrovert, so people give me energy. I'm not sure a recording of a coffee shop would provide that.
+13 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 12, 2014
Quiet is just fine by itself.

I listen to music as well, but it must be without singing. Classical, ambient, lounge and the nature-type recordings do well to create a *sound landscape* that seems to encourage focus.

Music with singing, or conversation in a public place, is very distracting to me.
+9 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 12, 2014
I adore quiet, and always have. People have often told me they work better with sound and music, but I find I can't think. Classical music is better than anything with lyrics. This probably fits with your findings, because I'm a copywriter!
Mar 12, 2014
> If music made you more productive, companies would require employees to listen to music while working.
You probably know there was a company "Musak" that was devoted to this concept. In the 60s, they would bring their music into offices, and it was even sequenced to have tempo move up and down across 15-20 minute intervals as they felt that optimized productivity.

I listen to Smooth Jazz - essentially another form of indistinct background noise, because I find any more "active" music too distracting. Of course, when I need to do some really serious creative thinking, I'm most productive in total lack of other stimulation/distraction (in the car, in the shower, before falling asleep, etc).

perhaps different things work for different people.

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