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Noise at Work: Using Sound to Stay Focused

December 20, 2019

If you have trouble focusing at work, you know that anything and everything can turn into a distraction. Bosses talking at the water cooler yank you out of your zone, while coworkers pounding away on keyboards throw a wrench in your focus. You probably want to avoid noise at all costs, but you can use it to your advantage — just not this kind. What offers the most benefits is peaceful background noise, not cacophony that makes you want to pull your hair out.

A study from researchers at Edith Cowan University found that a phenomenon called stochastic resonance explains why many experience better concentration in the presence of background noise. Onno van der Groen’s team found that study participants displayed faster, more accurate decision-making skills when they experienced random noise stimulation. In addition to this, past studies have found that stochastic resonance helps balance and muscle function — and improves hunting skills in marine animals.

All sounds possess different characteristics and purposes, however. Generally, white noise is better for focus and productivity, while ambient noise fosters creativity. Ambient sounds can range from flowing waterfalls to the steady hum of life in a coffee shop. The noise level depends as well — too loud, and it becomes distracting all over again.

However, the differences in sound effectiveness largely depend on one factor — you. Every person likes a different type and level of background noise. Humans are wildly diverse — brain variability determines whether or not a specific method will work for you. These variations open the door to a world of sound experimentation. Try different kinds and discover what works for you.

General Tips for Background Noise

Location matters when you’re trying to improve your focus. Working in an open-plan office, for example, subjects you to countless distractions from whirring office equipment and talking colleagues. The human ear is naturally tuned to pick up on speech intonations. High-pitched tones or sudden laughter abruptly pull your attention away from your task, making it hard to refocus.

However, when the surrounding conversation reaches certain volumes, it eventually fades into the background and restores your concentration. Loud areas where voices blend — like malls or subway stations — can be useful for retaining focus because you can’t pick out individual sounds. If your work environment isn’t at that volume level, though, you can tune out the racket with a pair of noise-canceling headphones and a relaxing playlist.

The content you add to your productivity playlist matters. A 2012 study found that medium-level ambient noise can enhance creativity through moderate distraction, which benefits abstract thinking. Low, generic sounds are often better than loud crescendos or lyrical music, but this also depends on the work you’re doing. Whichever music you choose, select tunes that encourage positive emotions. If you don’t like hearing cars zooming past, listening to a compilation of busy roadways will only stress you out.

If possible, do your high-performance tasks in quiet areas to reduce the amount of noise pollution you encounter while working. You’ll experience the effects of your chosen playlist more acutely if fewer background noises are present.

Play your music at a medium level — around 70 to 90 decibels (dB). One study found that anything at 110 dB or above diminishes performance and increases one’s error rate. High noise levels affected both manual and mental tasks for the study participants — a double whammy to productivity levels. In contrast, anything from 70 to 90 dB had no significant effects on performance.

Matching the Best Sounds and Songs to Your Tasks

Here’s a ray of hope — you don’t have to toss out your favorite lyrical songs during work hours. This kind of music can be great for repetitive, simple tasks like filling out data sheets or setting calendar reminders. You’re already familiar with these activities and don’t need to exert much concentration to accomplish them. Upbeat songs, like pop or hip-pop, set a stimulating rhythm and can give you the motivation to knock out duties like clockwork.

Instrumental music, like classic Tchaikovsky or movie soundtracks, can boost your focus when dealing with complex jobs. Writing reports and reading contracts require conscious thought — choose background music that won’t pull your attention away. Any non-lyrical tunes can work, whether you love electronica or gothic folk. Video game soundtracks might be especially useful since they’re designed to sustain engagement and help gamers focus. It’s no wonder they often suit office work, too.

Binaural beats can help reduce stress and anxiety — two factors that often impact one’s job performance. Binaural beats occur in several different wave patterns, including delta, beta and alpha. The human brain naturally functions within the beta, which keeps you alert, but lower waves promote relaxation. When you hear binaural beats, each ear picks up a different frequency — such as 300 Hz in one and 320 Hz in the other. The beat is the 20 Hz difference between these frequencies, which the brain interprets as a single tone.

YouTube offers numerous videos featuring these beats, and they also provide 50 to 80 BPM song playlists. Spotify worked with cognitive-behavioral therapist Dr. Emma Gray to discover what kinds of music can provide cognitive benefits to the listener. They found that songs within the 50 to 80 BPM range tend to induce that relaxation you get from experiencing alpha waves. Quieting the racing thoughts in your mind can open up new levels of creativity, enabling you to excel with simple or complicated tasks.

If binaural beats aren’t your thing, you can try other peaceful sound options like pink or white noise. They might seem similar at first, but their core composition distinguishes them. Choose the sounds that provide the most enjoyment and promote concentration. Spending hours on playlists you don’t enjoy won’t boost your productivity — don’t hesitate to try something new.

White Noise and Other Noise Colors

Let’s take an in-depth look at white noise and its close cousins to see what they’re about. There are quite a few noise types, including:

  • White noise
  • Pink noise
  • Brown noise
  • Blue noise

White noise is the combination of all sound frequencies — low, high and mid-range. It creates a masking effect that blocks out other distracting sounds and leaves your mind free to think. If you’ve heard it before, you might compare it to TV static or a waterfall hitting rocks. It’s an excellent starting point for those who aren’t familiar with noise-based productivity methods.

A white noise playlist can help you see improved results when studying information and performing high-level tasks. Its masking effect covers surrounding noise pollution, allowing you to dive into your work with full concentration. Previous research shows that children with ADHD who listened to white noise performed better on cognitive tests due to improvements in vigilance.

Pink noise is louder at low frequencies and softer at high ones. It’s like turning up the bass on white noise and quieting some of its higher wavelengths. You might compare it to light rainfall or wind, which makes it easier on the ears for those who don’t enjoy white noise.

Pink noise is recommended for open-plan offices and other noisy environments because it balances pitches and evenly spreads out frequencies. Background noise gets tuned out, permitting better focus and efficiency. It’s also great for sleeping if you struggle to get enough winks at night.

Brown noise emphasizes low frequencies more powerfully than white or pink noise. It’s comparable to hearing ocean waves or strong gusts from a thunderstorm. People who take comfort in these kinds of deep bass sounds might enjoy listening to brown noise recordings.

A fourth type — blue noise — also exists, and you can think of it as the opposite of brown noise. Because of its high frequencies and lack of bass, it sounds like a steady hiss.

Nature Sounds for Improved Focus

Nature sounds exist all around you and can be a quick solution for soothing a distracted mind. However, maybe you don’t have the opportunity to crack a window or step outside while at the office. A playlist of nature sounds can serve as a convenient substitute for the comforting effects of the great outdoors.

When searching for playlists, consider what types of noises impede or benefit your productivity. Birds chirping or animals chittering can be akin to the distracting effects of human speech. Neutral, steady sounds like rain or flowing rivers are generally better for sustaining focus, but some people might work better with animal sounds. That’s the beauty of brain variability — everyone’s preferred background noise is different.

A 2015 study showed that participants performed better on a test when listening to recordings of a babbling stream. They also reported feeling more positive about their work environment, which likely provided an additional boost. An encouraging, calm environment can make you feel good about yourself and others, and nature is the epitome of tranquility for some.

Use nostalgic, joyful moments to your advantage by listening to sounds that recreate those feelings. If you have fond childhood memories of the ocean, a collection of beach sounds could help you unwind. Melting the stress away can free up cognitive space for current tasks and disperse past or future worries.

Five Great Apps and Websites to Try

If you don’t know where to start when it comes to curating background noise playlists, you don’t have to search too far. The internet is chock-full of free solutions on various platforms. Pick your favorite sounds and mix and match them to create the ideal playlist. Here are some resources you can try to get a feel for which sounds benefit you:

Coffitivity

Coffitivity is both a website and an app, and it provides looping ambient sounds of cafes, coffee shops or libraries. You’ll hear coffee machines whirring, students talking and dishware clanking — all staples of traditional public settings. The voices merge and prevent you from picking up words so you can enjoy the sound without becoming distracted. With their premium version, you can experience the ambiance of bustling cafes in Brazil, Paris or Texas.

Noisli

This app allows you to create sound combinations depending on what goals you want to accomplish. For example, they suggest listening to a chugging train mixed with wind if you strive to improve your focus at work. Of course, if you’re not into trains, you can always pick some of their other sounds, such as a forest, campfire or stream. Combine the distant chatter of a coffee shop with pounding ocean waves — no combination is too far out to try.

You can access Noisli through their website or app. And if you’re fond of visuals, their platform displays a pastel, color-changing background for increased serenity.

Raining FM

Raining FM offers precisely what it says — rain. You can adjust the settings as you like to experience a drizzle or raging downpour. Their options include heavy and rolling thunder, and you can set a timer to dictate how long your session lasts. There’s also a sleep timer available if you prefer to drift off to dreamland with rain sounds. They offer an app and a website — enhance your concentration while you’re on the go or at your desk.

White Noise Lite

White Noise Lite supplies a wide variety of free and unique sounds, such as rain on a car roof, Tibetan singing bowls and cats purring. The diversity gives you plenty of room to experiment with your preferred sounds while blocking out unwanted outside noise. They also have a collection of sleep sounds available on Spotify.

The Pro version of White Noise offers access to user-created sound loops and even lets you make your own. If there’s a particular sound you love to hear, make a loop of it and use it to improve your focus at work. The sound of the wind blowing through trees in your backyard can become your new motivational soundtrack.

Brain.fm

The researchers at Brain.fm develop their tunes by using a science-based approach that supports neural phase locking. This concept means that one’s brain neurons engage with tasks through a coordinated system. Studying this methodology helps the team at Brain.fm create “functional music,” which affects your brain differently than a regular instrumental or lyrical song.

They create their music by employing human composers to create melodies. They then use a patented algorithm to add the musical elements that make their tunes so stimulating to the ear. The result culminates in background music that’s productivity-friendly without being dull or distracting. The Brain.fm app offers five sessions you can try for free.

Alternatively, you can always visit YouTube for a plethora of free playlists and videos. From binaural beats to stormy seas, you can find virtually anything you want in the wondrous world of online streaming. Explore what works for you and see how your efficiency levels fare.

Discover Quality Soundproofing Solutions for Your Office From the Soundproof Cow

Trying some of the techniques above could make a difference in your productivity levels. Give them a spin and see if working with background noise can make your days a touch brighter. Establishing peace within your office enables you to make the most of your work. Help your day embody productivity and contentment rather than distraction and frustration.

Visit us at Soundproof Cow if you need more information on blocking out unwanted noise in your work environment. We can help you soundproof a variety of spaces, whether it’s your company building or your bedroom at home. No situation is too complex, and we approach every project with enthusiasm and expert knowledge.

We’ve been dedicated to providing high-quality soundproofing and acoustics since the 1990s — everyone deserves a relaxing place to work and play.