Can ambient noise increase your productivity?

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Leaves rustle as I write this.

Birds twitter in unseen trees. Thunder crackles in the distance, as rain patters down. All of this exists solely in my headphones. It’s meant to make me work better.

Ambient noise has taken off as a productivity tool over the past couple of years. Start-ups such as Coffitivity (which plays the sounds of a coffee shop), Soundrown (everything from birds to fire) and Noisli (the app I am currently using) all offer a range of sounds that they claim will improve focus and increase productivity.

There is some evidence to back them up. In 2012, the Journal of Consumer Research published ‘Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition’, in which the authors examined the results of a series of experiments on the effect of background noise.

While low-decibel noises had little to no effect and highdecibel noises proved distracting, moderate noise (around 70 decibels) was found to improve concentration and encourage creative thinking.

“Our findings imply that, 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,” the authors wrote.

But it’s not quite as clear-cut as that. In his book Two Awesome Hours: Science-Based Strategies to Harness Your Best Time and Get Your Most Important Work Done, Josh Davis, lead professor at the NeuroLeadership Institute, compares several studies on the effects of background noise.

Whether ambient noise or music improves or impedes your productivity depends on the type of noise, the task you’re working on and your personality type, says Davis. For example, continuous speech, with little variation in volume or rhythm, may aid concentration, while intermittent speech – which you’re more likely to hear in offices, cafés and other bustling environments – is more likely to distract you.

And, if you’re introverted, you’re more likely to find noise distracting. A study by Glasgow Caledonian University found that, when given tasks to do in noisy environments, introverts had more performance problems than extroverts.

The study theorises that introverts are more likely to be overwhelmed by stimuli, and therefore more easily distracted. “There’s also evidence that people with strong working memories – those who are more capable, for instance, of remembering a phone number before they dial it – can also withstand background noise better than others,” Davis says.

So the picture is not quite as simple as purveyors of ambient noise would have you believe. This was borne out in Accounting Technician’s offices: while some of us found that they concentrated slightly better on their tasks when using an ambient noise app, others found the noise intrusive and distracting.

One colleague yanked her headphones out violently after 30 seconds, exclaiming: “That’s horrible. I can’t work and listen to that.” Perhaps ambient noise is not quite the saviour of productivity that some bloggers make it out to be. But, if you’re an extrovert with a good memory and a fondness for birdsong, it might just work for you.

Mark Rowland is a journalist and former editor of Accounting Technician and 20 magazine.

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