We’ve all been there. You’re trying to do some deep work and there’s something going on in the background. A co-worker having a conversation, a child watching TV, a very hungry cat who *needs* to be fed. Right. Now. When we’re trying to focus, one of the most disruptive things within our work environment are the sounds we hear. The wrong sound can pull us out of a deep focus while the right sounds can help us enter that elusive flow state where we can rapidly churn through our work.
Sally Augustin, PhD, is a practicing environmental design psychologist and the principal at Design With Science, who also has an MBA from Northwestern. I spoke to her about designing soundscapes for the ideal workspace, which is no easy task whether we’re working from home during a global pandemic or from an office with colleagues.
The wrong sound can pull us out of a deep focus while the right sounds can help us enter that elusive flow state where we can rapidly churn through our work.
Danger: sounds that interrupt focus
How we react to sound is a combination of what’s programmed into the most primitive part of our brains and sound-triggers we’ve developed over our lifetime. If you’ve ever been startled out of a deep focus, you know there are sounds that can instantly send your cortisol levels through the roof.
“Because of the type of animals that we are, we can’t help but pay attention to sounds around us that may involve us or may indicate some sort of danger,” says Augustin. “Those sorts of sounds degrade our performance.”
These may include:
If you’ve ever been driving your car around with the radio on in the background letting your thoughts wander and daydream about life and been startled by the sound of a siren only to realize it’s coming from the radio, you know exactly how quickly we’re programmed to react to an emergency sound.
Humans have adapted over eons to react when approached by danger. Sounds that we consider a signal for danger include a scream, someone yelling, a siren, or a baby crying. Cats have even learned how to use this programming to their advantage.
Any sound that could signal an emergency will hinder performance in a work environment.
Our own name
“We’re particularly attuned to mentions of our name,” says Augustin. Known as “the cocktail party effect,” Augustin says that we really can hear someone say our name over the din, even from a fair distance. “At one point we needed to coordinate and protect ourselves. We’re very tuned into our name.”
(Take it from a kid named Page, daydreaming in school was a startling affair anytime the teacher called out a page number.)
We are social creatures. As social creatures, we’re dependent upon those around us to ensure our survival. Part of our sociability is gossip. We have to listen as part of our “self-preservation, you never know when that conversation will get around to something that’s really important to you,” says Augustin. “If people are talking near you, you may be clued in to what they’re saying... Our jobs are very important to us today. You’ll be tuned into the conversation because you never know what might come up that might matter to you.” People may be inadvertently listening for conversations around lay-offs or changes in organizational structure. You could even say that we’re programmed to eavesdrop. And this is especially true when our colleagues speak at full volume.
[Related read: Music we relate to: volume 5]
Soundscapes for the ideal work environment
While there are a lot of different sounds that humans will find distracting or annoying, there are also sounds that can decrease cortisol levels, bring on a sense of calmness, and increase productivity.
Study after study has found that the sounds humans find most calming are from nature. Think: a meadow on a sunny spring day with birds chirping and a light breeze. In contrast, sounds that would be unfamiliar to our ancestors, such as engine or machinery noise, have been found to be highly distracting.
When choosing nature sounds to create a workplace soundscape, remember that “we’re still working with the same sensory processing systems today that we had when we were a young species,” says Augustin. If a small animal would be scared or startled by the sound, then it’s not good for a workplace.
By bringing on a sense of calm, nature sounds can help to increase focus and productivity during work hours. And unfortunately, just as we’re realizing the benefit of nature sounds, nature is getting quieter because humans are getting louder.
By bringing on a sense of calm, nature sounds can help to increase focus and productivity during work hours.
Coffee shop or background soundscapes
Another soundscape that’s been found to improve productivity is coffee shop or background noise. Just imagine: low-level music, background chatter, computer keys tapping, and the periodic sound of the coffee grinder.
Augustin notes one caveat to the coffeeshop soundscape—it needs to be a coffee shop where you’re certain you won’t run into someone you know. If you’re in a coffee shop that’s frequented by your boss, you’ll be looking to the door each time it opens, and listening in on conversations around you, to make sure your name isn’t mentioned.
Just imagine: low-level music, background chatter, computer keys tapping, and the periodic sound of the coffee grinder.
Because our brains are acutely aware of language, especially if it’s one we speak, lyric-free music is best for work soundscapes where people are trying to focus. We’re always listening for words, so it’s best to just get rid of them.
Spotify offers a number of lyric-free playlists that are specifically designed for working or studying. My personal favorite is Productive Morning. For even more lyric-free, work music, sign-up for Flow State, a free, daily newsletter with a suggested lyric-free music selection. On Fridays, they always send something upbeat.
[Related read: One-minute meditations to help you reset]
Sound design for shared spaces
If you’re designing a soundscape for a shared office space, there are a few things that are important to keep in mind.
The volume level of a soundscape is key to its success. In a shared space, you want the soundscape to be audible but not overpowering. Both too loud and too quiet can be detrimental to focus.
Because our brains are acutely aware of language, especially if it’s one we speak, lyric-free music is best for work soundscapes where people are trying to focus.
The soundscape should be loud enough to cover up small background noises such as low-volume conversation, coughs, and the sound of people shifting in their chairs. If the soundscape is too quiet, the space becomes like a library, where the soft sound of a book closing can be a distraction.
“If a sound is repetitive or not significant to our lives, we may not focus on it and may stop realizing it’s there, or at least stop responding to it in the same way that others might,” says Augustin.
For anyone living in Tornado Alley, the sound of a tornado being tested each Tuesday morning is routine and easily ignored. For someone new to the area, the sound is frightening. The same sound at night signals danger. Our familiarity with a sound, and the timing of a repetitive sound, plays a big role in whether or not we find that sound distracting or disconcerting. If a sound is familiar, we simply block it out and don’t consciously hear it.
In a shared space, you want the soundscape to be audible but not overpowering. Both too loud and too quiet can be detrimental to focus.
For your ears only: individual preferences
Humans are all unique, and with that individuality comes a number of preferences and dislikes. Sounds can trigger past memories and experiences. A certain sound can take you back to a traumatic moment in the past. If you’re choosing the soundscape for a shared workspace, make sure to pick things that won’t feature emergency sounds such as gunshots, screams or sirens, as these will be distracting for everyone and may trigger traumatic memories for some.
While sound is important to focus and deep work, we’re collecting information about the world around us with multiple senses at all times. We’re listening, seeing, touching, and smelling. Nature sounds create an ideal soundscape for productivity, but this can be enhanced even further with the presence of plants, trees, and flowers.
[Related read: Work-from-home productivity tips for the long haul]
Not just hearsay
Whether we’re working from home, a co-working space, or an office, background noise can be a major distraction. Investing in a good pair of headphones might be the key to your troubles, but what you listen to is also important for finding your work zen and increasing productivity.
Photo credit: Jorge Fakhouri Filho