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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Break Room

Science Says Silence Makes You Smarter, Here's How to Find That in a Noisy Office

Throughout college and grad school, I did my best work in utter silence. In the former that often meant escaping to a quiet corner of the library, and in the case of the latter, my one-bedroom apartment provided the peace I sought.

It wasn’t until I started working professionally, in open-office environments, that I started listening to music when I worked. I reach for my headphones when I want to focus, when I want to drown out the myriad noises around me—a co-worker on the phone, a car alarm going off outside, an impromptu desk meeting next to me. It’s a startup office so there’s always a good amount of activity going on, and none of it is silent. So, I pick a playlist and attempt to shut down what’s going on around me as I write this article or edit that one.

But after reading a recent Inc. article that points to research suggesting the benefit of silence on our minds, I realize I may be doing myself—my brain—a disservice by always seeking out sound, and never silence, to get through the day.

Total, utter silence—not white noise that sort of masks itself as a type of quiet, not ambient noise—helps lead to the growth of new brain cells, aids in memory, and enhances self-reflection.

In theory, this all sounds great, but what the heck are you supposed to do if you work in a loud, bustling place? (And then go home to loud, bustling place?) Even if your office isn’t particularly noisy, there’s still the sound of typing, people walking about, doors opening and closing, coffee brewing, and chairs scraping to contend with. It’s not easy to escape. So what can you do? How can you find the seemingly elusive peace and quiet that your brain apparently needs to thrive?

1. Buy Earplugs

They’re cheap, reliable, and they work. Of course, if your co-workers play music sans headphones and the general vibe of your workspace is the furthest thing from chill, you’re going to have to take your earplugs and go one step further—maybe it’s to a quiet corner of the office or a no-phones-allowed closed-door area.

Perhaps it’s outside the office doors. Why not head to your car for a few reflective minutes in the early afternoon? Don’t drive to work? Find a bench or a patch of grass that’s away from the main walkway. And don’t go out at prime lunch hour. Let yourself relish in the oddly silent moment(s) before you tackle the rest of the day.

2. Begin a Meditation Practice

Several of my colleagues and friends have developed meditation practices, and they seem better for it. Although it can be hard to settle into—our brains are zany, wandering things—all you’re really looking for is peace, calm, quiet. As Inc.’s Betsy Mikel points out, “Without stimulation and distraction, your brain need not focus and goes into a default mode of sorts.” It’s not that your brain is going to turn off while you’re meditating, but it will have an opportunity to work with what it has in the quiet space you’ve given it, and that’s something that you don’t get to do when you’re impacted by music and other noises.

3. Find a Window

No, I’m not talking about a real window; rather, find a window of time in which to sit without the intrusion of sound to give your brain a chance to reset, rest, and sort the information it has. Maybe this is first thing in the morning as you sit with your cup of coffee. Maybe it’s late at night before you attempt to completely shut down for seven or eight hours.

If you work remotely or from home one day a week, carve out time when no outside noise is allowed. That may mean powering off your phone, giving your keyboard a rest, closing the door to the quietest room in your house for a few minutes with your dog on the other side—whatever and whenever makes sense so that you’re not constantly subjected to sounds.

Although you supposedly need two hours of silence a day to produce new brain cells, there’s a good chance that an hour or even a half an hour will provide some brain benefits. And, who knows, if you begin to enjoy the absence of sound, you’ll probably figure out a way to make it happen more frequently.

Photo of woman sitting in silence courtesy of Westend61/Getty Images