How to find the silence you need to focus at work

Achieving a balance of sounds can be challenging— especially if you work in an open office. That’s why some people have a tougher time focusing on tasks. But there are ways to get the silence you crave to get work done.

Are you a ‘highly sensitive person’?

People have varying tolerances to sound, but some are more sensitive to it than others.

Psychologist Elaine Aron’s research has shown that one of the characteristics of a “highly-sensitive person” is an extreme reaction to loud noises — or in fact, any noises. The personality profile of the highly sensitive person is that of someone who is creative, needs a lot of time alone to recharge, and reacts very strongly to any strong sensory input, from caffeine to powerful smells to hunger.

If you fall into this category, don’t worry— it’s not a bad thing, it just means you have to work harder to preserve your peace and seek balance at work. Seeking out silence is a healthy practice to start with.

According to a 2017 Harvard Business Review article, “recent studies are showing that taking time for silence restores the nervous system, helps sustain energy, and conditions our minds to be more adaptive and responsive to the complex environments in which so many of us now live, work, and lead.”

What to do if you’re sensitive to sound

A little quiet time can go a long way. Here’s how to achieve it at work.

Move to a quieter space

Office conference rooms can be such a gift as long as there aren’t many people mingling and talking outside.

To be clear: quiet office spaces for individual work are a necessity, not an option. An article from the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University highlighted the impact noise can have on the quality of our work. Noise distracts us and reduces our memory and comprehension.

It said that “performance studies indicate that tasks requiring reading comprehension and memory are the most sensitive to noise, especially noise sources related to co-workers’ speech,” citing a specific study, and that “research indicates that prolonged exposure to noise reduces office workers’ motivation to persist at a difficult task,” citing other research.

Practice meditation

Because noise can be so unsettling, it’s important to have a strategy to counter it or calm it down. Here’s how to practice “breath meditation.”

According to Harvard Men’s Health Watch, “simple breathing meditation requires only that you find a comfortable position in a place with minimal distractions. You may sit, stand, or walk—whichever you prefer. Many people find the sitting position to be best. Two ingredients are required to make breath meditation work,” which the article lists as “a sustained focus for your mind such as the repetition of a sound, word, phrase, or movement” and “allowing everyday thoughts to come and go as you focus on the repetition.”

But if you’d rather use an app, consider trying out Calm, Headspace, or Aura. You can also listen to “binaural beats,” or sounds set to helpful frequencies for relaxation, which are available on apps or on YouTube.

Invest in headphones

A pair of giant noise-cancelling headphones, which can cost anywhere from $50 to $300 for an upscale pair, are the saviors of many people at work — not only do they drown out sounds around your desk so you can focus, but their giant size also visually signals to people that you’re occupied.

But headphones that fit in your ear might actually be more effective, according to Berkeley Wellness: “earphones that fit in the ear (like earplugs) are better at blocking background noises than are those that sit on top of the ear canal opening—as are any type of active noise-canceling headphones—so you are more likely to keep the music at a lower, safer level.”

For the highly-sensitive among us, moving to a quieter setting, meditation and headphones are ways to get “in the zone” at work. Then just watch your work improve.