Why You Focus Better in a Coffee Shop Than in Your Office

Employees’ primary complaint around the workplace is unwanted noise. However, according to new research from Harvard Business Review, it may not be the sound itself, but who is making the sound that makes working in an office so distracting.

In the last decade, research has shown that ambient noise has a positive impact on the creative process. Compared to total silence, participants who were exposed to 70 decibels of sound (i.e. like moderate white noise or indistinct chatter) significantly outperformed their counterparts in a creative thinking test. Researchers believe that “the right level of background noise may disrupt our normal patterns of thinking just enough to allow our imaginations to wander, without making it impossible to focus.”

So why can you focus better at a noisy coffee shop than in your open office? The problem lies in our relationship to the noise in each setting. In our offices, we can’t help but get drawn into others’ conversations – on topics relating to our own work, a larger organizational goal, or even interpersonal discussions amongst friends. Indeed, research shows that face-to-face interactions, conversations and other disruptions negatively affect the creative process.

The lesson here? “The ideal space for focused work is not about freedom from noise, but about freedom from interruption.”

Here’s what you can do to boost your focus and creativity in your workspace this week:

  • Request a weekly offsite day: Ask your boss for permission to work from a nearby coffee shop or co-working space on a regular basis. Save more creative tasks for these offsite workdays that are conducive to focus.
  • Listen to ambient background noise: Try listening to white noise (or brown noise) or “binaural beats.” Binaural beats work by simultaneously sending a marginally different sound frequency to each ear through headphones. They have been shown to help treat ADHD, anxiety, depression, and phobias by physiologically triggering and changing the brain.
  • Take a field trip: While working remotely may not be the norm in your office, you may be able to request permission to work offsite on a case-by-case basis. Have a project in mind, and arrive to the conversation with data about working offsite and examples of when working at the office is distracting for you. If approved, be sure to let your boss know how much you appreciated and benefitted from the experience. Maybe it will become the new norm!

April 21, 2020

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