How To Be Productive In A Distracting Environment

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Ringing phones. Pinging e-mail. Co-workers’ ringing phones and pinging e-mail. How is anyone supposed to get work done in this place? A huge new study of “open-plan offices” finds that this type of workspace, divided by cubicle partitions instead of walls and doors, makes it hard for employees to do their jobs.

“Our results categorically contradict the industry-accepted wisdom that open-plan layout enhances communication between colleagues and improves occupants’ overall work environmental satisfaction,” the study’s authors write in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, adding that “the open-plan proponents’ argument that open-plan improves morale and productivity appears to have no basis in the research literature.”

The noise of the open office is one of employees’ chief complaints about it, and research shows that the ceaseless hubbub can actually undermine our motivation. In a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, 40 female clerical workers were subjected to three hours of “low-intensity noise” designed to simulate the sounds heard in a typical open office. A control group experienced three hours of blessed quiet. Afterward, both groups were given puzzles to solve; unbeknownst to them, the puzzles had no solution. The participants who’d been treated to a quiet work setting kept plugging away at the puzzles, while the subjects who’d endured the noisy conditions gave up after fewer attempts.

Another frequent complaint is the lack of privacy in an open office. In part, this is deliberate: designers and managers believed that once the walls came down, workers would be more likely to have the kind of casual or chance conversations that can inspire new ideas. This utopian plan may have backfired, however: research shows that while conversations are indeed frequent among employees in open offices, they tend to be short and superficial—precisely because there are so many other ears around to listen. To avoid self-consciousness and self-censoring, find private spaces to talk to your colleagues: go on a walk around the block or a trip to the coffee shop, or slip into an empty conference room.

The original promoters of open-plan offices also hoped that the setting would make co-workers available to help one another. That’s great for the help seeker; not so great for the help giver who has her own work to do. In a study released last year by a group of German and Swiss researchers, participants who requested help with a task performed better, while those who supplied assistance did worse. Frequently alternating between helping others and doing one’s own job imposes a heavy “cognitive load,” the scientists concluded, as the help givers are forced to repeatedly reacquaint themselves with the details of their own task. They recommend that workers set aside a block of time each day when they are not to be disturbed. In order to minimize cognitive load, this period should last for a while—on the order of several hours.

Can You Tune Out The Open Office?

Look around any open-plan office today (especially one full of younger employees) and you’ll see that many workers deal with this problem by wearing ear buds or headphones. Although it might seem that importing one’s own noise wouldn’t be much of a solution, experts say that this approach could be effective on at least one dimension. Part of the reason office noise reduces our motivation is that it’s a factor out of our control, so the act of asserting control over our aural environment may lead us to try harder at our jobs. But does having a constant soundtrack to your day also distract you from the task at hand? That depends on the task. Research shows that under some conditions, music actually improves our performance, while in other situations music makes it worse—sometimes dangerously so.

Absorbing and remembering new information is best done with the music off, suggests a 2010 study published in Applied Cognitive Psychology. Adults aged 18 to 30 were asked to recall a series of sounds presented in a particular order. Participants’ performance suffered when music was played while they carried out the task as compared to when they completed the task in a quiet environment. Nick Perham, the British researcher who conducted the study, notes that playing music you like can lift your mood and increase your arousal — if you listen to it before getting down to work. But it serves as a distraction from cognitively demanding tasks.

That finding is key to understanding another condition under which music can improve performance: when a well-practiced expert needs to achieve the relaxed focus necessary to execute a job he’s done many times before. A number of studies have found, for example, that surgeons often listen to music in the operating room and that they work more effectively when they do. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that surgeons carrying out a task in the laboratory worked more accurately when music that they liked was playing. (Music that they didn’t like was second best, and no music was least helpful of all.)

The doctors listening to their preferred music were also the most relaxed, as revealed by measurements of their nervous system activity. Still, surgeons might want to ask others in the operating room for their opinions on playing music: one survey of anaesthetists found that about a quarter felt that music “reduced their vigilance and impaired their communication with other staff,” and about half felt that music was distracting when they were dealing with a problem with the anesthesia. (And who would want to be the patient in that situation?)

Research suggests that singing along might even heighten the distraction. A study published in 2012 in the journal Accident Analysis & Prevention reported that singing along with music in a car may slow drivers’ responses to potential hazards. Christina Rudin-Brown, a Canadian researcher who studies the role of “human factors” in traffic snafus, asked the participants in her experiment to learn the lyrics to “I’m a Believer,” as performed by the band Smash Mouth, and “Imagine,” as performed by John Lennon. Singing these songs while operating a simulated car increased drivers’ mental workload, leading them to scan their visual field less often and to focus instead on the road right in front of them.

Other iPod rules drawn from the research: Classical or instrumental music enhances mental performance more than music with lyrics. Music can make rote or routine tasks (think folding laundry or filing papers) less boring and more enjoyable. Runners who listen to music go faster. But when you need to give learning and remembering your full attention, silence is golden.

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10 Responses to “How To Be Productive In A Distracting Environment”

  1. I feel this goes right in with my learning theory regarding the stimuli in our environment. I feel our minds are always taking in and analyzing information and working with it even subconsciously when we are doing or thinking of other things. Try to visualize and upright rectangle representing our full mental energy to think and learn new things. Now begin at the bottom drawing in narrowly spaced horizontal lines to represent our layers of mental work our minds are dealing with subconsciously. The space left over represents our leftover energy to learn and perform other new mental work. This show just how our individual environments “do greatly affect thinking, learning, and mental/emotional health. I will be more than happy to send the figure to you by e-mail or you can see on my site.
    Regarding the noise in the room, I feel our minds are also taking in outside, extraneous information from that noise and even the music we may be hearing. I feel our mind is so complex it analyzes the information and disregards that which is irrelevant. However, there is some activity going on, “for some more than others” which then limits the available mental energy needed for learning new information. When you combine this new noise with higher average layers of average stress from the outside lives of the individuals involved, you then have very different outcomes of feelings of distress from the noise presented. Some may be okay with the noise while others with higher average stress layers may have much more difficulty.
    There is a difference however with the kind of work being done by those persons. When the person is performing old work, or work where the person does not have to learn new things, then such additional noise would not be a problem. The use of music is great when performing older work or where the new mental work is not that pressing a concern. This is the difference between how old work can be performed under stress and while newer work requires more ease and less distractions.
    The most valuable part of my learning theory is in two areas. First, it shows how our individual environments greatly affect thinking, learning, and motivation to learn that can create large differences in accumulated academic skills over time. Second, it shows how with too many layers of mental frictions reaching toward the top of the upright rectangle you could experience psychological suffering and much shorter reflection time creating very short term reactions, even temporary mental insanity when there is saturation of layers of stress. My theory shows how all of us now can redefine our average stress as layer of mental work and learn how to begin approaching elements of our individual environments more delicately to better understand, resolve, and make changes some weights or values that may be creating layers of mental frictions in our lives. This then provides students and adults tools to continually improve thinking, learning, motivation, and maintain better mental/emotional health.

  2. Malyn says:

    Distractions are everywhere and everyone should develop strategies to deal with them. I’m pretty good out zoning things out and focusing when necessary. In an open, I do this by literally turning a deaf ear to what’s around me.

    The reason I’m actually commenting is that this has a big implication in the classroom. There is a growing trend towards open classrooms with all the challenges mentioned above and more; not the least of which is kids are less adept at cutting out distractions.

    One of the ways I manage this is through the use of archetypal learning spaces – campfire, waterhole and cave (see related story here. I think some kids have become better at going into their metaphorical cave. I also point out when some students are being causes of distractions and its effect on their productivity and others – i’m big on classroom as a community of learners.

    • JB says:

      I can promise you no workplace will ever make a virtual campfire with its employees. Also, regarding distractions being everywhere, next time you do the campfire blast a TV on one side and a radio on the other and then tell your students to zone out on it. Also, incorporate some visual distractions such as a person dancing on one side and another petting a dog. Tell your students to zone out on this. Let us know how it goes.

  3. Kelly says:

    Great points about the classroom Malyn. With a stagnant economy, it is important to note that open office plans are also cheaper for companies to implement than a traditional layout, so I don’t see them going away anytime soon! It is important for children to learn that their community of learners might resemble their community of co-workers.

  4. I work in an area that would be considered the “open plan” section of our company offices and it is next to possible to get anything done unless I’m wearing noise reduction headphones which my boss was kind enough to purchase for me. She says that since I started using last year, my productivity has more than doubled, leading my boss to believe that this increase has more than paid for the cost of the headphones.

  5. Jim F says:

    After many 20+ years, I have escaped the dreaded cube farms. The tiny but expensive walls did little to separate you from the noise of others. Since CDs became available I went with the headphones route to block out the world. I received few phone calls so that worked for me. Still I will never forget the soon-to-be-divorced folk would scream over the phones. Then there was the documentation guy would call out “cut” and “paste,” carefully articulating the T and the P, which the extra exhalation at the end of each word. I am not sure if this was genius or idiocy, but no one ever bothered him.

  6. Hi Anne…congrats on this & many earlier blogs. I don’t have the time to read stuff not directly linked to my work but I make an exception with your blog.
    This latest one was fascinating and has relevence to classrooms, particularly in infant grades when skills are low,attention is inadequate and noise and movement are excessive. It would be interesting to know if there is research on infants.
    By the way the website above is not available until we have finished our BETA trialsanother in the next month. You might care to have a look at it then (I will drop you a line)because it will enable parents and teachers to generate the evidence of widespread reading failure…new theories, new testing techniques, databases on every child, every class, detailed reports within ten seconds anywhere in the world, automatic analysis of progress in all the subskills following remediation etc. Most interesting of all, it will reveal a massive hole in the asumptions of Whole Language, the dominant strategy in infant teacher training.
    Again…my thanks for your blog..I envy your journalistic skills.
    Byron Harrison
    VAS Research.

  7. JB says:

    I am fine with cubes, but I intensely dislike open offices with no visual barriers. The reason is pretty obvious. I have eyes. And with these eyes I can see things moving in front of and to the side of me which causes me to pause working. I don’t know why this isn’t obvious and why people have to actually pay to do studies to know this.

  8. Olivia Mak says:

    Open office concepts can prove to be distracting for employees. However, by making sure each employee still has enough personal space and is provided with comfortable essentials like an ergonomic office chair, I have realized the open office environment is much better for overall morale and worth the trade-off.

  9. Greg says:

    Having worked in open concept and cubicles, I can see the merits of both. What it comes down to is meeting the organisation’s culture, and the degree of collaboration needed.

    Personally, I think the amount of sunlight has the greatest impact on comfort and satisfaction in an office. Without it, it doesn’t matter what design you choose as productivity and satisfaction will suffer.

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