Personal Productivity Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for people wanting to improve their personal productivity. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

I find it very difficult to concentrate on a task, if people are talking in the "neighborhood", e.g.

  • reading a book in the tram or train or in a doctor's waiting room where other people are talking.

In such situations I'm finding myself constantly listening to the conversation (although it is nothing to me and I even do not want to listen!).

How can I learn to "shut those noises off" and concentrate on my task?

share|improve this question
I have done this for years. I read in Math Honours class with the teacher standing right next to me, talking to the whole class. (I sometimes keep an ear out and listen in when I see something interesting happening. The teacher is so epic that he doesn't mind, and sometimes talks about some interesting area of mathematics I haven't explored yet, just so some people don't get bored.) – Mateen Ulhaq Dec 17 '11 at 20:22
up vote 9 down vote accepted

One option is music as Vic noted. Another option is to force yourself to pay attention to your reading. For example, try reading out loud. Or subvocalizing (moving your lips without sound.) This gives your ears something else to focus on - the book you are trying to read. Once you get absorbed in the reading, you can stop reading out loud/subvocalizing because your brain has already been tuned to the book.

share|improve this answer
thanks! reading out really loud in such a situation is surely not what I'd want to do, but subvocalizing sounds interesting (even if it might look weird for the other people e. g. in the waiting room). – MostlyHarmless Dec 15 '11 at 6:14
I guess as long as it also sounds interesting to the other people in the room it's all good. – Vic Goldfeld Dec 15 '11 at 6:39
It also makes a big difference to trace along the line you are reading with your finger. – Mongus Pong Dec 15 '11 at 10:25
After you subvocalize for a little while, you start to only move your lips a few millimeters. (Or at least I do) It's not obvious at all. – Jeanne Boyarsky Dec 16 '11 at 3:38

Human chatter piques our attention because it's inconstant and meaningful (as in carrying meaning, not as in being important), that's normal. Your best bet would be to use headphones and play the kind of sound that's just background and won't get in the way of your reading the book.

Good candidates for that are, of course, white noise and instrumental music, but also music that you have gotten so accustomed to that you simply phase out, even when it has lyrics. It's better if the music is constant, as in not having wild changes of tempo or volume, or parts that are much noisier than the rest. But when you have listened to a record enough times, even those become completely ignored and you can simply read your book.

share|improve this answer
what about ear plugs? – Theta30 Dec 15 '11 at 8:15
well I'd still go with earbuds instead of earplugs, if only because it will not look as weird and impolite--you can pretend to be listening to music and no one is offended by that. Plus depending on the volume of chatter noise you're ready to boot up some music to improve the cancellation effect. – Vic Goldfeld Dec 15 '11 at 12:32
The bad thing is, overuse might make your ears go 'bad'. – Mateen Ulhaq Dec 17 '11 at 20:31
I listen to sometimes at work when there are too much people talking, it helps me to focus a little bit. – elias Feb 17 '13 at 17:40

When I worked in a busy, noisy, open plan office, I would sometimes throw everything at the problem:

  • foam earplugs
  • stereo ear defenders i.e. with speakers built in for ...
  • pink noise playing in the ear defenders

Worked for me.

share|improve this answer

Another alternative is to take notes on what you are reading. Just like your mom always said "You can't hear me when you are talking!" She was right, if your inner voice is busy processing the information in order to take notes you will not be able to make out what the people around you are saying. Hope this helps.

share|improve this answer

I study in a university and live in its hostel. It's noisy with many people talking even in the library. What I do is keep writing as I read, whatever I am reading. It helps a lot.

share|improve this answer

While you read, putting your finger under what you are reading−like childrens do when they learn to read−will increase your focus, you can also use a 3×5 index card and place it on top of the lines you read.

Got that from the book 10 Days to Faster Reading by Ally Marks Beale, reading faster is done by being more focused on what you read so this book helps for situations like these.

share|improve this answer

i just wanna summarize what im reading above since people surrounding me keep talking. LOL. To avoid distraction while reading, you need to: 1/ put finger or card index below what you are reading. 2/ take notes what your are reading. 3/ put earbud 4/ read out loud

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.