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In the past week I've tried switching between several work spaces


If it's open space and someone starts talking loudly you get distracted. There are also people around who may want to talk with you.


There are many people in the house/flat/wherever who feel the need to talk to you.


It's a fine place with no people who need anything from you… until a small baby starts crying. Or until 2 youngsters want to talk loudly about how their holidays were, etc.


I guess this mostly depends on the library rules and the people who come there. The library I go to actually has some rules about keeping the noise below a certain level, but some people just don't respect that.

but I haven't found any place that's a perfect fit, mostly due to noise.

How can I improve my workplace to have less interruptions so that I can concentrate better?

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@Tom anything can help to improve my productivity – Radek Simko Jun 27 '11 at 14:49
No, I meant that your title and content different. You were asking if "work place any impact on productivity?" and "tips on places to work that allow you to really focus?" which are very different questions, the first one is research-oriented while the other is problem-oriented. Combining both results in a vague question which is unclear and confusing... – Tom Wijsman Jun 27 '11 at 16:10
What kind of work are you doing? – Todd Williamson Jun 28 '11 at 22:29
@Todd I am a programmer. – Radek Simko Jun 29 '11 at 9:34

12 Answers 12

up vote 24 down vote accepted

There are three key factors that affect the quality of your working environment; the physical setup of the space itself, distractions, and interruptions.

  1. Physical setup. The ideal space should be comfortable, ergonomic, and adequately lit and ventilated. If it's uncomfortable (too hot/cold, cramped, poorly laid out), you won't enjoy working there. If you can see anything green and living from your desk, that's a bonus. Any form of natural light is a big bonus. A dedicated place where you can escape to when you take breaks or need thinking time is also helpful. Examples are a garden, courtyard, coffee room, or just somewhere to walk.
  2. Distractions. Distractions are incredibly disruptive, because they break up concentration and can prevent you ever entering a state of flow with your work. However, what counts as a distraction is highly personal. I find movement and conversation particularly disturbing - coffee shops don't work well for me. For others, a clock ticking, or even perfect silence is itself a horrible distraction. If you find conversations, computer fan-noise, the latte machine or other people's headphones annoying, the simplest solution is to replace that sound with sound of your own choosing. Buy some well-insulated headphones, and either play music you get along with, or try a source of brown noise. This kind of noise is common in nature, and most people find it soothing and comfortable, even when very loud. For example the sound of the sea, rain, waterfalls, and wind are all brown noise. I use a looping, 60 minute mp3 of rain falling, which works perfectly for me to mask external sound. Alternatively, you could try a brown noise generator. Both are freely available from this website, among many others.
  3. Interruptions. Interruptions from other people are the biggest problem for me. On the other hand, some people thrive on a certain level of interruption - they enjoy the dynamic task-switching and prioritising. If interruptions are an issue for you, the simplest option is to work somewhere where they are impossible - in a different building from anyone that knows you is the perfect ideal. If you can't do that, next best is to setup a physical boundary. If you have an office with a door, shut it when you want to be left alone. Explain to your colleagues, or if you work at home, your wife/housemates/children that you are working, and must not be interrupted. Set a time at which you will become available for them to discuss their issue with you. Most people will respect this approach if you really do stop and pay them attention when you said you would. If you don't have a physical boundary you can apply, signal your concentration in another way. Headphones discourage others from talking to you, particularly if you don't immediately respond. Another possibility is to where a hood or hat. I once worked in an office where we had a 'programming hat' - a pair of mickey mouse ears someone had been given as a joke! But we had an accepted rule: if someone wore the hat, they couldn't be interrupted. It worked perfectly.

Ultimately, no environment is going to be perfect without some work from you. But you can easily take positive steps to make it work, by adapting that environment to your particular needs. Pick the thing that most upsets you, and find a way to deal with it. You may be surprised at how much difference it will make to your ability to work effectively.

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Upvoted for the Brown Noise and link. I had not heard of this before. I find White Noise bothers me so I'm keen to try some brown noise and the rain you like sounds ideal for me. – Bernhard Hofmann Jul 1 '11 at 12:12
a "programming hat" is a great idea... :)) – Radek Simko Aug 2 '11 at 7:51

What about a pair of headphones? Nothing says that you have to play music in them. :)

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Years ago, I didn't think I could stand headphones. However, just try it - it works! – Umber Ferrule Jun 26 '11 at 9:52
This. A pair of good noise-cancelling headphones are worth their weight in gold. – sevenseacat Jun 26 '11 at 14:00
+3 My Sennheiser HD 280s are amazing at blocking out noise. – Dan H Jun 27 '11 at 16:28
Low-tech earplugs or earmuffs can work too, if you prefer silence to music. – Kristopher Johnson Jun 30 '11 at 23:52
In college I carried around a set of headphones when I went to the computer lab. I would put the earbuds in and run the cable into my bag - sometimes I even had them hooked up to my MP3 player. ;) – AnonJr Jul 29 '11 at 21:08

For tuning out noise, you have to figure it out. Noise canceling headphones, background noise, etc.

I find people who want to talk to you more interesting to solve because it involves other people. I actually have a "do not disturb" sign at work. It's not up much, but the few hours a week it is, people leave me alone and let me focus! My sign actually has two parts - one is that I am available non-verbally (during calls) and one that I need to be left alone unless the sky is falling. For home, do you have a door? Something you can use to signify that you are working and not to be disturbed?

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Well, that's just life. You have to force yourself to work amid all these disruptions. Unless you have a private office at work, noise and disruptions are present everywhere and you just have to condition yourself to work at less than ideal conditions all the time just like everyone does.

I attended a workshop where a successful blogger and freelance writer told us that to be financially rewarding in writing, they have to condition themselves to be disciplined in writing anytime, anywhere, so that they can meet deadlines and accept many assignments. That includes bringing their laptops everywhere and writing in between available minutes, wherever they are, in the plane, waiting for the bus, waiting in a restaurant, in the dryers, etc.

Force yourself to focus on your work and pay attention to your thoughts. If you get distracted, just go back to your work. Don't get irritated and silently curse the source of those disruptions. In a few minutes, momentum will kick in and you might just find yourself in the zone :)

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For me it is entirely internal - if I need to work at home I put on my suit and have a morning coffee. This puts me in a mental state expecting work and it doesn't matter what noise is around me (with 3 kids, this is essential)

Without that routine, I really can't work at home.

In a coffee shop the same holds true - but if you really can't stand noise you need earplugs or headphones. This can also give you the benefit of setting up productivity playlists with tunes that you know will bring you up during your low points of the day.

As an example, my low point is about 3.30 in the afternoon, so I try and take a coffee break then and listen to some of the music I like to work out to. This gets me a higher mood in a very short space of time (sure, it may be the caffeine, maybe the music - either way it works)

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I believe that there are lots of ways to reduce interruptions at work. Like when you are working in a home office with many people around, all you need to do is go to your room put a “Do Not Disturb” sign outside the door and lock it. Another great way to avoid distraction is “Airplane Mode” that will turn all your gadgets, like your mobile phone, off. This way text messages and phone calls can't disturb you while working.

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Hearos earplugs work extremly well if you want to cancel out noise. It's dead silence if you insert them correctly. After 6-8 hours you feel that you have to get them out, they get uncomfortable after that much time.

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I arrive that early in the office so I'm almost alone there - this is the most productive place-time combination. My personal problem is that I'm distracting myself but I hope this hint may help you to find your best solution.

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Firstly - Assuming that noise is indeed the problem then I would agree with the earplugs recommendation but it feels a bit weird - and the noise of the plugs themselves - expanding or moving slightly in your ears - can even be a problem if you are very affected by noise.

I used to be very sensitive to noise and got very frustrated with a flatmate once when I was trying to study in the evenings for professional exams (and he wanted to watch TV at full volume in a neighbouring room).

Then a friend , who'd grown up in a large family with noisy younger siblings around, told me that it is possible to train yourself to switch off from external noises and to focus. I didn't really believe it - but it does work - it just takes practice. You have to kind of 'go somewhere' in your head and after a while you can train your brain to switch off to external distractions. This works well for most types of work but it's not always easy at the start.

It is similar to meditation techniques in a way - and I found that meditation incidentally also makes you good at suppressing noise distractions when in a non-meditative mode - so it must use a similar part of the brain and it is definitely trainable in my experience. Sometimes now I don't even hear the doorbell when I am working at home - if I am in noise suppression mode.

Secondly, is it really noise that is the problem? I noticed that I am easily distracted by noise (or anything) if my mind is just in a distractable state. So the cause appears to be noise but it can be that this is just a symptom. The real cause being that your mind is irritable about something else - and then anything will distract you. You might need to figure out what is niggling at you that is making it hard to concentrate - albeit that the noise is not helping.

The worst scenario is when the problem that is actually bothering you is the work that you've got hanging over you ! i.e. worrying about how much you have to finish etc This then turns into a bit of a self propelling problem - you worry and are easily distracted...the distraction delays you ...and then you worry more. Not good.

Hopefully you don't have that situation.

To drown out noise, and get 'into the zone' , I would also vote for certain classical music on closed in type headphones (something without too much change in tempo or volume)

I also regularly resort to using one of the meeting rooms or boardrooms at my office when my normal office becomes too noisy and I have an urgent project to finish. Sometimes I also have to put a note on the outside of the meeting room door to emphasize the 'do not disturb' plan and also tell staff on reception and secretaries not to put calls through. I have had staff come and find me in the 'quiet room' even after all that though - so you have my absolute sympathies for your search for peace and quiet.

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Buy a pair of headphones.

If you can afford it, there are noise-cancelling headphones which actively suppress background noise using interference. I haven't used one regularly, but I hear (pardon the pun) they are very good.

If you can't afford it, you can simply play music (instrumental tends to be less distracting) or white noise at a fairly high volume. It seems like this in itself is noisy at first, but your brain quickly gets used to it and you stop hearing the background noise OR your suppressor noise.

In a pinch, a $15 pair of headphones will do fine, just get one with bigger cups so that they isolate sound better. I would strongly suggest to pay a bit extra for bigger, comfier headphones, though. For some people, wearing cheap headphones for several hours can be painful.

Seeing you with large headphones on is signal enough for most people to think twice about whether they really need to ask you this right now. For the rest, simply pretend not to hear. They can't tell if you aren't actually listening at very high volume, and will assume you can't hear. Only the truly rude, and those with truly urgent matters will take the final grabbing you by the shoulder - if it's the former, it becomes much more socially acceptable to complain about their impertinence.

After a couple of days, most should learn that you are not to be distracted at any and all times.

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That might be too obvious, but you only have two strategies here:

  1. Find a completely noise-free environment.
  2. Reduce your sensitivity towards noise.

While (1) is good if you can afford that, most likely you'd already rent a private office or apartment if you could. And even in that circumstances (2) is still useful.

Human brain is perfectly capable to filter out noise. I used to have a vacation near the ocean. Every time the first couple nights it's hard to fall asleep because of the ocean noise, but after that you just never hear it, like it doesn't exist (though if you choose to concentrate on the sound of ocean you hear it again)

Good concentration on the activity you are doing also filters out the outside noise. I remember myself playing quake in the student hostel when I was studying - people around me could be drinking, dancing, fighting or doing whatever noisy things the youngsters in the hostel normally do, but that didn't distract me much :)

I know two approaches for improving the ability to concentrate:

  • Various time-management techniques that employ the idea of the flow
  • Concentration exercises(similar to meditation, when you practice consciously focusing your attention on some outside object or something inside, like breath, some part of body, etc. for few minutes every day)
  • Relaxation. I've read somewhere (cannot remember the source right now) that adrenalin reduces your concentration ability. So in the lower stress states you concentrate more easily and get distracted less.
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Regardless of where your workspace is located, and your duties/responsibility at that workspace, designate and make known your availability for questions, e-mail responses, returning phone calls, etc. By making your availability for these or other issues and adhering to these guidelines will increase your productivity and performance and will also let others know that while they may not interrupt you anytime they may chose, it will let them know when they can, and that you can be counted on to assist them with your full attention!

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How would you tell others when you are available? Depending on the environment it might not be acceptble to put up a sign with your "opening hours". – 0x6d64 Jan 10 '15 at 17:33
A "sign" with hours available isn't a necessity. Sending an e-mail or short memo to those with whom you have any interaction with is a great way to inform. Obviously there are going to be exceptions, but usually it's not the exceptions that create chronic issues with productivity. – user13045 Jan 10 '15 at 21:39

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