Is it better or worse to listen to music while you work? What about white noise? Sometimes we don’t want to work but have to, so we decide to work in front of the TV in order to make ourselves feel a little better about it. Are we just fooling ourselves into thinking we can still be productive that way? Well, it depends.
First, the bad news: Researchers have found that environmental noise—background music, city sounds, people’s conversations—leads to a decrease in performance for most people. But the good news is that many of those sounds are easy to tune out, making even small reductions likely to improve our effectiveness.
One source of noise, though, is harder to tune out: intermittent speech. That’s when you hear a few words or sentences here and there, with pauses in between. And in fact, intermittent speech is one of the most common sounds in an office. You’ll hear it when colleagues sitting behind you turn and ask each other questions, or when someone else is on a phone call listening for a while and only chimes in periodically.
One meta-analysis examined 242 studies of the ways noise affects performance, and found that when it came to performing cognitive tasks—like staying attentive, reading and processing text, and working with numbers—performance was more affected by intermittent speech than by either continuous speech (which would have little variation in volume and rhythm) or non-speech noise.
That doesn’t mean other types of noise (continuous speech, music, or white noise) are totally fine, though. A second meta-analysis looked at the effects of listening to background music on performance. Results varied depending on the task at hand. While it tended to improve positive emotions, increase performance in sports, and make people complete tasks a little faster, it also had disruptive consequences on reading.
If you can’t avoid a noisy environment, should you play white noise in order to drown out the rest? White noise is a nondescript background hum, kind of like the noise of a fan or of someone saying “Shhhh!” continuously. Listening to white noise may turn out to be better than listening to intermittent speech if it successfully drowns out the speech, but that doesn’t mean it’s ideal.
For most people, quiet might be preferable to white noise. In one study, the majority of kids (except those whom teachers said had severe attention problems) in a middle-school setting had worse memory in the presence of white noise as compared to no noise. But the students who struggled to pay attention actually did better with the white noise.
So are all those people working or doing homework in busy, loud coffee shops fooling themselves into thinking they’re being productive? For the most part, yes–but with a couple exceptions.
A lab in Glasgow conducted research on whether noise affects cognitive performance in introverts and extroverts differently. And it turns out it does. Participants were exposed to different types of noise (everyday noise, music they categorized as having “high arousal potential and negative affect,” and music they categorized as having “low arousal potential and positive affect”) as well as to silence while the participants completed a battery of cognitive tests.
Everyone did worse when there was any kind of noise in the background compared to when they performed those tasks in silence. But the researchers found that participants who were introverts had even more performance problems than extroverts did. They theorized that introverts, who are generally more easily overwhelmed by stimuli, are more sensitive to noise distractions.
What’s more, extroverts aren’t the only ones who have an apparent advantage when it comes to fighting off noisy distractions. There’s also evidence that people with strong working memories—those who are more capable, for instance, of remembering a phone number before they dial it or following the thrust of a conversation while they’re talking—can also withstand background noise better than others.
So if you are an extrovert or have a good working memory, you might be able to work better with background noise. Perhaps you can get that document drafted while listening to music or put your presentation together as your coworkers talk on the phone or finish that financial report to the whirring of the copier machine right beside your desk. But make no mistake: you’d be even more productive if everything just went quiet.
Still, noise isn’t always bad, and it may provide some benefits to certain kinds of work challenges under the right circumstances. In a study at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, participants were asked to work on a creative challenge while listening to one of several levels of noise loudness. They were told to come up with as many unique uses for a brick as they could imagine (doorstop, hammer, table centerpiece, and so on). When they had to brainstorm while listening to low noise (at 50 decibels—about the noise of a typical large office), they tended to be less creative than when they worked on the challenge while listening to moderate noise (at 70 decibels—a little quieter than the sound of a vacuum cleaner 10 feet away).
As the noise level increased, participants had more difficulty thinking. And the harder it was to think, the more abstract and “big picture”—in short, creative—their ideas became. But at even higher noise levels (at 85 decibels—like a diesel truck driving by), thinking got so difficult that the creativity boost went away. So it could be that a moderate amount of noise may actually propel creativity. And, by contrast, too much or too little noise may hurt it.
Broadly speaking, though, the research on the consequences of noise on productivity is pretty straightforward: for the bulk of the tasks performed in the knowledge economy, quiet is almost always the best bet.
This article is adapted from Two Awesome Hours: Science-Based Strategies to Harness Your Best Time and Get Your Most Important Work Done by Josh Davis. It is reprinted with permission.