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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

The Tech Splurge That Seriously Transformed My Work Life

person wearing headphones while working on a laptop in an open office
Georgijevic/Getty Images

I’m not a fancy device person. I don’t upgrade my phone until it’s long overdue to be replaced and doing some pretty weird things. I have no interest in spending hundreds of dollars on electronics; I’d much rather invest in adding to the already teetering piles of books threatening an avalanche in my room (but that’s a whole other problem). Basically, I’ve got my laptop and my phone and that’s more than enough.

So I was initially dismissive about schmancy noise-canceling headphones. Who needs them when you can buy a perfectly functional pair at the drugstore for $10 or upgrade to a highly rated but inexpensive pair you can order for under $30?

I was wrong though, and I hereby declare that I have been converted to Team Noise-Canceling Headphones.

It all started with a discount my brother had access to through work, some generous percentage off any headphones at a company I won’t name (because this isn’t an ad for anyone, more like a brand-agnostic ode). I don’t need those, I said. Besides, the big headphones smush my glasses into my head (and that’s painful). Still, I conceded that I’d try out the pair my dad already owned next time I visited. When I did—and it turns out there are non-smushing kinds—I was shocked at how much I liked them.

Here at The Muse, folks use everything from Bose to Sony to Sennheiser, including one model that costs about $170 and others that run over $300. Wirecutter has picks for different budgets, including one pair under $50.

If you’re on the fence, here are four reasons this previous non-believer is now all in:

1. You Can Cut Out Auditory Distractions and Just Focus

People love to hate on the ubiquitous open-office plan. There’s been quite a bit of research to back those less-than-enthusiastic opinions, including one study which found that the benefits of an open layout were outweighed by the disadvantages, the most significant of which were a lack of privacy and noise.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could tamp down some of that noise? Maybe even cancel it out? It sounds obvious, but it’s worth stating explicitly. The biggest thing noise-canceling headphones have going for them is right in their name.

Noise-canceling headphones can subdue the chatter around you so that you’re not tuning into random conversations taking place in your vicinity when you’re trying to focus. You can turn on some of your favorite music, but if the headphones are good enough, you don’t even have to be listening to anything—just pop them on and you’re enveloped by a soothing cocoon.

The headphones absolutely aren’t 100% effective. You’ll probably still hear alarms (not a bad thing for obvious safety purposes), sudden noises, and even muffled office sounds depending on how loud your music is. And, of course, they do nothing to eliminate visual distractions. But they offer some concrete, physical help getting you into the zone mentally.

2. You Can Signal You’re Serious About Focusing

The headphones aren’t just for you, though. They’re a visible signal to the people around you that yes, you’re in the zone, and no, you don’t want to chat. Sure, that’s technically true of any headphones, even the most rinky-dink ones that are barely holding together.

However, I like to think that the visual cue of giant headphones or even just the knowledge that a colleague’s more understated headphones are in fact noise-canceling ones sends a stronger signal. It says: “I’m trying to get something done. I literally can’t hear you. If you really need me, you’ll have to consciously decide it’s worth interrupting me by waving your hands in my face.”

3. You Won’t Bother Your Neighbors With Your Music

It also isn’t all about you. Those cheap headphones I was using with the volume turned up were most likely leaking my music out and polluting my environs. Oh, you didn’t want to listen to my favorite Croatian cello duo’s rousing cover of “With or Without You”? Sorry about that.

I make no claims of a one-to-one correlation between price and sound containment, but I’m pretty sure the new pair allows me to keep my let’s-call-them-quirky Pandora stations to myself.

4. They’re Not Just Good for Work

Remember those teetering stacks of books I mentioned earlier when it wasn’t totally called for? Well they’re actually kind of relevant here. Noise-canceling headphones are great for work, but they’ve also come in quite handy in other contexts. Like when I want to dive into one of those volumes and really read.

Not only do the headphones drown out noise at my favorite coffee shops (where, yes, I go to read sometimes because I’m a huge nerd), they also help drown out the to-do list running through my brain. This expensive accessory I once rolled my eyes at has helped me read almost as deeply as I did when I was just a wee bookworm who didn’t have to worry about adulting.

To me, that makes the price more than worth it. Whether you’re open officing, reading, crafting, running, or anything else, it might be worth it to you, too.