If you're a knowledge worker, your productivity depends on your ability to give attention to your tasks. Unfortunately, the human cognitive system is designed to be wary of environmental events so it devotes some of its ongoing processing to scanning the environment. Thought interruptions naturally occur, lowering our productivity–including our output, creativity, effectiveness, and completeness.

If you've got your own office and your own door, you may be able to control outside distractions. But for many of us, we've got noisy creatures near us–our colleagues–requiring us to devote cognitive capacity to their trivial activities.

Fortunately, there are solutions. I just found a great one-two combination that is really working for me–for those times when I really need full-frontal attention.

  1. Noise-Canceling Headset.
  2. White Noise (see for example www.SimplyNoise.com)

I have a Audio-Technica Headset and I just discovered www.SimplyNoise.com, which allows me to hear white noise, pink noise, and red/brown noise–and I can even have it oscillate.

Thoughts on Noise

White noise (or pink, red/brown noise) is great for when I really need to concentrate. I do a lot of writing and so hearing words–like song lyrics–is really disruptive. I have found a great grouping of African musicians on Last.FM, and that will often work great because most of the words are not in English so the lyrics don't disrupt. Other people like Pandora for music, but their "instrumental" section doesn't work for me. Somebody needs to come up with a way to filter out songs with English words.

Noise-Canceling Headsets

If you haven't used noise-canceling headsets, here are some things you should know (before you buy):

  1. They do NOT block out all ambient noise, but they blunt its ability to disrupt your thoughts.
  2. They block much, much more ambient noise when you are listening to music or white noise. In fact, without adding noise inside the earpieces you may not think the noise-cancellation technology is doing enough.
  3. If you are buying these specifically for airplane travel, know that you are generally NOT allowed to wear them on takeoffs and landings (when the noise is at its height).

I don't really know whether one brand of noise-cancellation headsets is better than another. For example, it's not clear if Bose is worth the extra money.

I do think an investment in noise-canceling headsets will pay itself back in productivity. On the other hand, your spouse may get really annoyed…

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If you want to be like me, here is a link to the updated version of my headsets: