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I'm here to post this question and know more about your thoughts on it:

Can you work with noise?

Sometimes, when you're developing something really tricky, your deadline is getting close, and someone enters your room talking to your colleagues, with loud talking, suddenly... your logic is gone! :-)

About me, it's really funny and ironic this: when it comes to music, I can think better, maybe because I'm focused in my solution avoiding distractions and chit-chat.

But I know people who told me that they can't work in silence.

I just can't work with too much noise. How about you?

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18 Answers 18

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Between the blabbering about Lady Gaga to how much someone had to drink the night before, much of the noise at work drives me nuts. I had a chance to try out an open house event at a coworking location. In the 'quiet' room, the other person in there slurped their coffee, allowed their nose to run and managed to make noise eating oatmeal (I know HTF do you do that?).

So I went into the room where they allow talking and open cell phone conversations. There were two programmers in there who worked for the same company and were in discussion often;didn't bother me at all.

Was it the difference in my level of respect for the person and no matter what they did would have irritated me or maybe the types of distractions are the same I make and don't even know it? One man's noise is another man's background music.

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I think I have to agree on this. Getting angry at a person is a big distraction. You don't get angry at people you like/respect and filter out the noise easily (register it but dismiss it as not important). –  n1ckp Oct 23 '10 at 15:52

Noise, yes. Talking, no.

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I find music better than "silence". Maybe that's because real silence is so rare .. there are always snatches of distant conversation, the ticking of a machine somewhere, a car horn in the distance, a bird outside -- something to activate that part of your brain that probably was designed to let you sleep in a jungle and wake up when something is trying to sneak up on you.

I find that music gives that watchful, alert part of the mind something to listen to and keeps it just busy enough that it doesn't keep interrupting me. But it does have to be the right music, and what that is seems to vary from week to week. Something I keep coming back to is ambient drone or wall-of-static type music. Try the last.fm stream for Aix Em Klemm or PanAmerican for examples.

That said, occasionally if I really get into it I can sit in a room full of shouting kids and a TV and work, suddenly realising that my wife has been talking to me for 30 seconds without my noticing and is now really pissed off.

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For me it really depends on what kind of noise. I find absolute silence is the best. Ironically, familiar wall-of-sound punk rock played loud enough to drown out all other noise is a close second and is generally my preferred auditory environment when absolute silence is not an option. The wall of sound guitar and drums effect energizes me and drowns out more distracting sounds, and the lyrics aren't distracting because I already have them memorized.

Miscellaneous background noises aren't much of a problem either because they don't garner that much attention from my brain. People's conversations are what I really can't stand.

The absolute worst, though, is when people have conversations in a language other than English. (English is the only language I understand, and conversations in other languages happen frequently in my workplace, as I'm in grad school and there are several international students.) I think the reason is that non-English conversation still sounds like speech, so my brain keeps trying extra hard to process it and make sense of the individual words before realizing it can't. With English, the low-level processing of understanding individual words (which I find difficult to voluntarily turn off) doesn't consume too much processing power, and the task of higher level understanding is something I find easy to turn off when needed.

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My wall-of-sound is metal... with mainly non-English lyrics (because I don't try to listen to the words then!) –  Frank Shearar Oct 23 '10 at 7:00
In my case Pixies and Ramones do the job! ;-) –  Junior Mayhé Oct 23 '10 at 15:07

If I'm doing something at the edge of my abilities then any noise is bad, but speech is 1000x worse than anything else. Plain hearing (not actively listening to) speech activates certain parts of your brain, want it or not, and those parts also seem to be necessary for serious concentration. The funny thing is that the less the number of talking people, the more distracting is the talk. If there's just one person talking, it's virtually impossible to not get your attention drawn by that. If there are ten or hundred talkers, then it's not that bad because their words mask each other, even if the total physical noise level is higher.

Also, continuous exposure to background noise, even if relatively quiet, has been proved to be bad to health in the long term. Apparently it increases stress hormone release (again: want it or not), and while temporarily harmless, prolonged raised cortisol levels are disastrous to cardiovascular health.

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I can work with noise until about 2am, when something I've been trying to fix for 3 hours still isn't working, and I've pulled out half my hair. At that moment I want complete silence.

That being said I don't like people trying to talk to me while I'm concentrating. I probably come across as rude because I ignore them, but it's a huge distraction for me.

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Personally I never had a problem with noise.

The big killer is stress and you should probably look at that before trying to put the fault on other.

Not saying noise cannot be the cause of your distraction but I'd bet on stress (read: incoming deadline).

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+1 stress indeed is also a big cause! –  Junior Mayhé Oct 23 '10 at 1:41

Most full-time positions I've had have been in open plan working environments, which I find to be a very distracting situation. I can zone out background conversation, but when it's about the same project I'm working on it's too easy to start focussing on it, or even joining in. Similarly I find I get distracted by my colleagues' phones ringing, or people entering the room to see someone else. After all, they're entering "my office".

Like other people I don't find music to be a problem. Interestingly I can listen to radio comedy and technical podcasts without being interrupted, too. I suppose it might be because those are happening on my terms.

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I heard a line somewhere which goes like the following:

The city never sleeps, you should learn to tune out the noise.

After working in a noisy environment for a while, I have learned to convert the noise into background sound. If that doesn't work, you can still hang out at stackoverflow or programmers stackexchange until the noise subsides.

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I agree with most of what's been written here. Routine/easy work - doesn't matter what I hear, hard/logical/memory-intensive coding - everything pisses me off and distracts.

But music is special. I can't listen to music AT ALL when I need to concentrate. I cannot help it, believe me, I've tried, but when I hear music, I'm completely drawn into it. Any music. My brain follows all the melodies and I can "see" them in my mind all of a sudden and can't help but "sing-along" inside my head.

For me, music is the most distracting noise ever. I can not listen to it at work, it instantly takes me away.

I guess that's why I listen to it so little nowadays. Before I started working I used to listen to music all the time. Now I only listen when I have the time for it and want to relax, simply because it completely captures my attention. In a car, I cannot help myself but actually sing/hum along.

And it gets worse! When I hear even the tiniest piece of music at work (like somebody watching a youtube vid), I "get infected" as I call it (and my colleagues well know). Short while after the music stops I start humming it, at first completely unaware that I do so. It takes some effort to let go and stop humming it aloud and in my head. My dear coworkers know this and often intentionally infect me with some awful melody that is particularly annoying and hard to forget. Needless to say, it's a double-edged sword, because until I finally rid myself of the melody, they know they'll have to listen to occasional outbreaks of my humming winning a round over me and my self-control. :)

Yet worse is that sometimes I infect myself. Simply by remembering something, not just a song/melody, but some place or past actions, which triggers a completely internal infection process and starts me off anew with an associated melody.

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For me its just mainly blocking out distracting conversations from others. I work in an open plan office, so I use earphones and trance music (which is not my preferred type of music but it provides a nice background noise that I don't get too caught up in) to block conversations out.

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Yes. I can work alongside pretty much all kinds of noises (notable exceptions are jackhammers and Eurovision winner songs) - it's just that it isn't much as effective as working in a quiet environment.

That being said, I also know people who, almost never work in silence (giant headphones on head, volume to a jackhammer level). But from what I figured, it's not so much the content of the music that interests them - it's more of their way to filter the other sources of noise in the background. Probably those Eurovision songs playing on the radio.

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Its actually nearly impossible for me to work in silence. At home, when writing code, I'll ALWAYS leave the TV on as a rule. It'll generally be a re-run, something I know I wont' be interested in, but without background noise or maybe a short 5 second distraction once in awhile, I just can't think straight.

At work, I almost always listen to music while writing code. And its typically something you would consider very distracting, not calm music at all. I mainly listen to Speed Metal or Baroque Classical while working; very fast, very technical, very complicated and busy music. But it doesn't distract me, it actually energizes me and empowers me to keep pushing.

Now, anything new or novel could be highly distracting. If you put a tv-show on I've never seen, I'm going to be tempted to turn away and watch it, and then I'll forget what I was working on. Similarly, if people are trying to talk to me frequently, it will force me to stop what I'm doing, respond, and then try to remember where I was.

But things like radio are actually more conductive to production than hampering. :)

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Background noise that I have no interest in is actually helpful: something like sittin in a cafe. Office talk is distracting because it's easy to pick out individual conversations and they may be relevant.

Silence can be great if I'm really thinking through a problem, but I usually "get into the flow" better with music.

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I can only work with noise from simplynoise or nature sounds like rainshowers.

If there's someone talking or music is on loud speaker inside the office...I just can't focus.

That's why most of the time I wear earphones when working.

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very rarely; I sometimes need some house/techno music for short "active relaxation" but I prefer quiet environment while coding, most of the time.

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I have found that music with in-ear earplugs put away distracting sounds and give me familiar sounds that does not distract me.

I am, however, strongly considering buying good noise canceling headphones to see if that is as useful to get rid of the distracting sounds as the "give me music instead" approach.

I have tried the Bose QuietComfort 3 shortly, and even if expensive, the benefit might be big enough over the years to warrant the price. (Much like a good chair).

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It depends on the type of noise, the source of the noise, your brain's reaction to the noise, and your ability, or lack thereof, to tune out a noise that can break your focus.

I work in a cube farm next to three other programmers. The cube walls are low, and offer no barrier at all to noise. One worker occasionally has outbursts where he either becomes excited or agitated and semi-yells at his screen. It's not that frequent, and though I'm over-sensitive, I can deal with it.

Another co-worker, while she has a softer voice than the agitated one, likes to softly talk to herself as she works on a problem. When she pronounces "s" or soft "c" words, the sound is similar to a squeaking chipmunk. I have good hearing, am only 5 feet away from her head, and the other guys don't even notice (at least one has poor hearing).

To me, the "s" sounds this coworker makes are like nails on a chalkboard. What's more, the noise is un-predictable, because she goes through stretches where she doesn't talk to herself at all. When she does start talking, it's pretty much impossible to have consistent focus.

What's funny/sad, too, is if I try to be subtle and say "Shhhhhhhhh...", she doesn't hear me, because her hearing isn't great.

The situation is very awkward: I don't want to tell her directly to be quiet, because her whole modus operandi seems to be based on talking to herself, and she might take serious offense. And this, in turn, makes the noise even more frustrating - kink of like your fingers getting stuck in a Chinese finger trap. So I guess that means I better find a quiet cube in a different location, or find a work environment where noise is not an issue (if there even is such a thing).

If you read this and you are one who talks to yourself, take a moment to consider your coworkers!

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