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 12, 2014
I'm a web developer - I like to listen to music for some tasks - head down coding where I know what to do say, or just general database or server admin. I've got some Led Zep on now - stuff I'm very familiar with works best.

If I am learning something new or planning a new architecture then I definitely prefer quiet.
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Mar 12, 2014
Back when I did hardware design and coding, I was most productive alone in the office late at night. I always listened to music. It kept my energy up. But it had to be something I was very familiar with or it would be a distraction. Each project I worked on had a "soundtrack". I would listen to the same two or three CDs over and over for months.
Mar 12, 2014
I'm a philosophy professor, and I do my best work at home in the quiet. Certain things like grading I can do in my office, with the chatter of students and colleagues, but the work that requires a lot of creativity and deep thought seems to happen best for me when it is quiet.

I have, on occasion, worked with instrumental music, but usually only on routine tasks such as formatting a paper, not creating. (Vocal music I find to be too distracting, because I get distracted by the lyrics.)
Mar 12, 2014
Very likely Im addicted to stimulation. Literally anytime Im not working and sometimes when I am I give myself some form of stimultion (that includes web browsing) and anytime thats impossible I either A) become irritated or B) make my own stimulation (ie, daydream).
Mar 12, 2014
I only find quiet distracting when I'm not expecting it to be quiet. There is a recording studio in my building, and I find it weird being in it because it is soundproofed so well that the noise you would normally hear -- air conditioning, servers, etc. -- are completely muted. The quiet actually feels like pressure on my eardrums to me. I get a similar feeling from noise-cancelling headphones.

I think the "relaxing" effect of music is really a distracting effect. Stress is a reaction to uncertainty, and music gives you something to focus on that is familiar -- and thus stress-reducing -- without consuming all of your attention. (The phrase "whistling past a graveyard" comes to mind.) That's also why it doesn't work for tasks requiring deep thinking; that little bit of your attention that music takes up isn't available.
Mar 12, 2014
My company actually pumps very low levels of 'white noise' into the building and from what I understand that is based on some of these same principles about background noise and productivity. Also, I'm a programmer and it varies from day to day whether I feel like music is helpful, so I wonder if it's the type of task I'm working on. I've never tracked it closely.
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Mar 12, 2014
I work best when its quiet or with a very soft, industinguishable background noise. As soon as I recognize individual sounds, it starts to distract me. This gets worse over time; when I was young I could concentrate better. I guess the reason is that I often have to wotk in a very loud environment (assembly hall).
My worst distraction: I practice the piano at home with headphones on and behind me our old cat who has gone almost deaf, starts to meow in a very loud voice. Poor cat, he can't help it.
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Mar 12, 2014
When using my brain I prefer quiet but while doing physical work or activity I usually prefer music. It seems to me that music or talking interrupts my level of concentration...I listen to the words and lose my train of thought. Whereas a physical activity seems to involve less thought and music can occupy part of my brain without causing distraction.
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Mar 12, 2014

The quietness or noise in my brain stresses me more than outside noise or quiet. My grandmother taught me to meditate when I was 15, that technique has help get through many periods of waiting or stress. Sound is used to manipulate shoppers, so it must have an effect.

Even up here in the middle of nowhere there is noise. We joke about the quiet of the country. From electronic fans in the router, the fridge inside, or the snapping of the fire, to the occasional rumbling of the train, idling lower in the valley. Birds peeping, squirrels chattering, wind in the trees, the river below when the air is just right...

I do crave reading the news and watching movies for stimulation, but I don't usually play music nor have other sounds like that. Music does help mood.

On those rare occasions when the power goes out, after turning off all the battery alarms, the quiet inside is startling. Everything is on pause, like a Steven King story.

But I'm going deaf, so don't listen to me.

Mar 12, 2014
I can't work with music, because it sends me off on tangents. If I dislike a song, it irritates me. If I like a song, I tend to drift off into a daydream about the great time in college, etc. that I associate with the song. Or, I start searching for the guitar tabs / looking at instructional videos on YouTube.

I find that having CNBC on in the background works best for me. They talk a lot about popular companies, so there is enough familiarity with the subject matter to release some kind of "I've heard of that" endorphin, but I don't really care what the talking heads are actually saying, so it rarely pulls my attention away from the work I am doing.
Mar 12, 2014
I'm a Process Engineer / CNC Programmer / Machinist, and I can't work in a quiet environment. When I really need to get something done, like getting several machines running for the overnight shifts, I crank up the tunes on my mp3 player - gets the energy flowing. When I'm programming or at my computer or doing more mundane things, I listen to audiobooks (sci-fi mostly). It helps keep me focused by occupying the part of my brain that isn't involved with thinking about what I'm doing. If it were quiet, I would be distracted by other thing in my environment, and I'd get nothing done.

Interestingly, I can't listen to anything educational while I work, because it requires too much brain interaction and concentration.

It should be noted that I'm not listening to anything now, which is why I was distracted by this post... oops... back to work ;-)
Mar 12, 2014
It is quite an interesting conundrum. I have always needed to work with background noise. I always revised with music or the TV blaring. Being mid-forties, I recall life before the age of technology and I consider my craving for noise to achieve any given task, was just as acute then as it is now. Working in an office alone, I am happier with background chuntering and/or my music than without.
However, a few years back, I progressed from a long line of brick mobiles to my shiny fruity smartphone. That has mammothly impacted my ability to cope without constant interruption! I find myself craving for another notification, especially when real person interaction is not available.
Quietness really does stress me out!
Mar 12, 2014
> If music made you more productive, companies would require employees to listen to music while working.

I worked in a company that played music, but stopped because they couldn't get people to agree on what comprises GOOD music. What is relaxing and adds to the productivity of some, will make others want to shove sharp objects into their ear canals. That's why headphones were invented.
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