Do you struggle to get work done from your open office? If so, you’re not alone. Research suggests that it might not be the noise of the open office that’s so distracting. Instead, the problem might be the seemingly limitless distractions that come with the open-office territory.
“…new research shows that it may not be the sound itself that distracts us…it may be who is making it,” writes David Burkus, Associate Professor of Leadership and Innovation at Oral Roberts University, at Harvard Business Review. “In fact, some level of office banter in the background might actually benefit our ability to do creative tasks, provided we don’t get drawn into the conversation. Instead of total silence, the ideal work environment for creative work has a little bit of background noise. That’s why you might focus really well in a noisy coffee shop, but barely be able to concentrate in a noisy office.”
It’s About More Than Noise Levels
Did you know that some levels of noise are more ideal than others for focusing and getting work done? It’s true. It turns out that some work environments can be too quiet and others can be too loud.
There is a just-right level (around 70 decibels) that works well for most people, according to research, helping to trigger our brains to think more creatively. The idea is that this level of noise changes our normal patterns just enough to help us think a little more abstractly.
Flow State Requires Lack of Distraction
If you really want to maximize your efficiency, it’s all about flow state. More commonly known as “being in the zone,” this is that state of ultimate focus and complete immersion in an activity. We are our most creative, and our most productive, when in flow state. There are many different tips for getting into flow state. But, they all come down to one thing essentially — eliminate distractions. When we do, we work smarter, harder and better.
“People I think intuit that they’re too distracted, and it’s making them feel fragmented and exhausted and anxious,” Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World said during an interview on the NPR podcast Hidden Brain. “But we treat it, I think, in this more general sense of, I probably should be less distracted. And I think it’s more urgent than people realize, that if your brain is how you make a living, then you really have to worry about this cognitive fitness.”
Open Offices Are Full of Distractions
It can be challenging to focus in an open office setting, but that’s not just because it’s noisy. Rather, the problem is related to distractions. It’s difficult to stay engaged when you can see and hear your coworkers all around you. The temptation to engage in conversation or even just ask or answer “a quick question” is disruptive. Those disruptions effect your ability to focus, get into flow state and get your work done.
On the other hand, the coffee shop or coworking space down the street from your open office might be the ideal place to focus and get to work. There is often a level of ambient sound in these kinds of locations, without all the interruptions. Even though there are people in coffee shops, you don’t know them. You’re also not invested in what they’re talking about. This is an entirely different environment than the open office, where there are people and tasks that matter to you.
So, if you really want to focus and get stuff accomplished, try leaving your open office and heading to the coffee shop across the street. It might seem sort of counter-intuitive at first. But, give it a try sometime and judge for yourself.
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