Why We Need Silence for Productive Work and Well-Being

Have you ever been conscious of the absolute silence around you?

If you said “no” that’s common for most of us. We can almost always hear something 24/7: A siren, the hum of a fan, or background conversations, the ticking of a clock, traffic on the street, or deafening noise in a restaurant. It’s seldom our modern world is fully silent. So seldom that complete silence can be a shock and even feel uncomfortable.

Our modern world is a noisy place, particularly in large cities, where most people live in Western countries. Silence is rare, yet, is of great value to the quality of our lives, and a fundamental part of the power of solitude.

We may welcome sound into our lives, not realizing it can be to our detriment. Yet, silence can be our most under-appreciated productivity tool.

The Problems with Noise

We know, backed by science, that the jarring sound of a jackhammer — or the loud blasts of a rock concert — can damage our hearing, but that’s not the only type of harmful noise.

Two other kinds of everyday noise can be damaging. One is excessive noise, such as the prolonged loud noise of living near an airport or busy road. The other is the general noise around us, such as conversations or interruptions from colleagues in the workplace.

Both can be detrimental to our productivity and well-being.

Noise Is Bad for Well-Being

Studies show that noise has a powerful physical effect on our brains, causing elevated levels of stress hormones. Sound travels to the brain as electrical signals via the ear. Even when we are sleeping these sound waves cause the body to react and activate the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with memory and emotion, leading to the release of stress hormones. So, living in a consistently noisy environment will cause you to experience extremely high levels of these harmful hormones.

Being around excessive noise has been found to have a serious detrimental effect on our physical health. Epidemiologists have found correlations between chronic noise sources such as highways and airports and high blood pressure, something that in turn can lead to other health risks, including damage to our brains and kidneys.

Other studies have found links between noise and sleep loss, heart disease, and tinnitus. People who live in consistently noisy places also commonly have elevated levels of stress hormones.

Ahead of her time, Florence Nightingale reportedly considered quiet an important part of patient care. Yet today, modern hospitals have become far noisier than they were in the past. As more technology is added to wards, the average noise level in hospitals is well above the World Health Organization’s hospital noise guidelines for patient rooms, something that is detrimental to patient health and recovery. Such a noisy environment can even cause doctors to confuse similar-sounding drugs — a potentially deadly mistake caused by excess noise.

High-noise environments are dangerous for our mental health as well. A study by Professor Gary W. Evans from Cornell University, published in Psychological Science, examined children who went to school near the Munich airport before and after the airport was relocated. The researchers found that students attending that school performed worse on long-term memory and reading comprehension tests when the airport was near their school. Going to school near the airport had also led to higher blood pressure and higher levels of stress hormones, as well as trouble with speech perception, problems that didn’t improve after the airport was moved.

When the airport was moved, the researchers followed up with the nearby schools and found reading comprehension and long-term memory had improved among students at the school near the old airport site.

Constant Interruptions and Loss of Focus

For most workers daily noise tends to involve interruptions and distractions. Many conversations, meetings, phone calls, bustling lunchrooms or cafés, street noise, and our phone’s and computer’s various notification sounds all vie for our attention as we try to work.

Open plan offices make the problem worse. Ollie Campbell, CEO of Milanote , which provides organizational tools, says open plan offices come with their own implicit values. They make team members feel that disruption is acceptable, collaboration is the key priority, and serendipity is worth the interruptions it requires. According to Campbell: “In most workplaces, focused work is left to chance. If nobody’s called you for a meeting that day, you might get an afternoon to yourself.”

Campbell reported how he reorganized work at Milanote to recognize the importance of uninterrupted silence: “Over the past four years we’ve been experimenting with a solution called ‘quiet time’. We divide each day in half, and we spend the first half in silence. No phone, no emails, no meetings. And most of all, no talking. Quiet time is about bringing the balance back. It’s about drawing a line around a few hours a week and saying These hours are mine. I’ll choose how to spend them, not anybody else . . . To make this work we needed to quarantine our meetings. We cancelled any that were booked during quiet time, and declined any new ones which came in. Eventually, Thursday became our ‘meeting day’ to avoid scattering them throughout the week. This meant our entire team could start the week with three uninterrupted days . . . Suddenly we had an amazing sense of freedom to explore and experiment. We quickly settled into a rhythm of design, discuss, improve, repeat. During quiet time, we disconnect. Close down email, sign out of Slack, and put our phones in a drawer. These tools were designed for interruption. They’re incompatible with quiet time . . . We’ve been doing this for four years, and the benefits have been huge. We compared months of data on our team’s velocity, and it showed we’re 23% more productive. Because of this, we don’t work on Friday afternoons any more. We’re less stressed. And we think our work is better, too. But the biggest change is deeper. People have stopped avoiding the office when they have something important to do. Work has become the best place to get things done.”

Distractions and interruptions are such a common part of workdays, we don’t even think of them as excessive noise anymore. It’s often more obvious when we don’t hear the noise of distractions around us at work than when we do.. A study at the University of California, Irvine by Gloria Mark, found that knowledge workers have focus periods of just eleven minutes on average, in-between interruptions, while it takes an average of 25 minutes to return to the original task after an interruption. As Campbell said, “if you need to focus, ‘work’ is pretty much the worst place you could be.”

Collaboration is important, but so is focus — particularly for creativity. For knowledge workers, work often happens between us and the task in front of us. Disruptions and noise only interrupt that process.

Between interruptions, distractions, background noise, and general lack of calm and quiet, the noise of the office can be harmful. With a buzzing office around you, a bustling street out the window, and something distracting you every three minutes, it can be almost impossible to be creative.

But what constitutes distraction? Does the mere possibility that a phone call or e-mail will soon arrive drain your brain power? And does distraction matter — do interruptions make us dumber? Quite a bit, according to new research by Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Lab.

The Benefits of Silence

Shutting off literal and excessive sound can improve our ability to focus and create our best work.

For a long time, researchers used silence as a control in experiments testing the effects of sound or noise. After realizing silence was fascinating in itself, researchers started focusing more on the effects of silence than relegating it to control status.

According to Attention Restoration Theory, when you are in an environment with lower levels of sensory input, the brain can “recover” some of its cognitive abilities. With our digital world, our brains get less time to switch off. We are constantly processing enormous amounts of information. Research has shown the constant attention demands of modern life is placing a lot of stress on our prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain responsible for making decisions, solving problems and more. When we spend time alone in silence, our brains are able to relax and release this constant focus.

Researchers found that while noise creates stress, silence relieves stress and tension in the brain and body. Noise makes us lose our concentration, cognitive powers and causes decreased motivation and brain functioning, but studies show that spending some time in silence can amazingly restore what was lost through exposure to excessive noise. The ancient spiritual masters have known this all along; silence heals, silence takes us deeply into ourselves, and silence balances the body and mind. Now science is saying the same thing.

According to a 2006 study in Heart, by L. Bernardi and colleagues two minutes of silence relieves tension in the body and brain and is more relaxing than listening to music. This was attributed to changes in blood pressure and blood circulation in the brain.

A 2013 study published in the journal Brain Structure and Function found two hours of silence could create new cells in the hippocampus region. This is essential since the hippocampus is linked to our ability to learn, remember things, and even our emotions.

In one experiment testing how the brain reacts to different types of music, silence was used as a control between the different music clips. The researchers found that silence produced one of the most interesting effects. When compared with so-called “relaxing” music — or even long silence before the experiment began — short, two-minute silent pauses between the music actually proved more relaxing on the brain. It seems the effect of silence is heightened by contrasting it with noise.

Perhaps our strong reaction to silence’s relaxing effects is related to how our brains work when they’re not bombarded by the outside world. Research suggests our brains are never really quiet — instead, they’re always working, even when we’re not actively engaged in a conscious activity. In fact, science suggests when we do engage our brain in a conscious effort, it actually overrides the brain’s “default mode,” temporarily diverting resources to what we want to do.

Complete silence, then, allows the brain to return to its normal default state and continue its processing.

Our brain’s ongoing background processing seems to be responsible for the sounds our brain makes, too. For instance, when a song you know well is stopped in the middle of the chorus, your brain will often fill in the gap by creating the sound of the next line of the song. You’re not actually hearing anything, but rather creating that sound inside your mind, according Robert Zatorre, an expert on the neurology of sound. “In the absence of sound, the brain often tends to produce internal representations of sound,” says Zatorre.

The ability to shut out the world around us can be beneficial, beyond the pure benefits of silence. Both thinking creatively and considering long-term decisions are skills that, according to psychologist Jonathan Smallwood, “allow us to generate novel solutions to problems,” and to stick to our plans long enough to reach our goals.

“It seems that the capacity to disengage from the outside world when the external environment is sufficiently benign reflects a skill set that is important to almost every human endeavor,” says Smallwood. Put simply, these skills help us achieve success.

Smallwood isn’t the only one who thinks getting away from the noise of the world is a useful habit to build. French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal believed humans should learn to be quiet more often, as expressed in his famous quote: “All the unhappiness of men arises from one simple fact: that they cannot sit quietly in their chamber.”

Final Thoughts

Leaders are constantly looking for ways for their workers to be more productive and efficient. Most often the go-to strategy is more collaboration, meetings and conversations. Which means more interruptions and less quiet and silence for working. It may be time to examine the use of silence and restricting interruptions as a better strategy.

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Author/Retired Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others

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Ray Williams

Ray Williams

Author/Retired Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others

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