Noising up your productivity

Open space offices are an antipattern and a widespread one at that. You can find relevant articles and studies easily. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain can be a good starting point:

Open-plan offices have been found to reduce productivity and impair memory. They're associated with high staff turnover. They make people sick, hostile, unmotivated, and insecure.

This post is not about bashing open-space. The world outside of the office is not much better at promoting focus and deep work. Significant others, neighbors, cars, trains, birds, animals, generally humans and non-humans tend to make noises. Setting up your environment for success is hard and sometimes outside of our circle of control. This post is about doing damage control where we can.

Spacing out

Headphones - the international sign of a focused developer. Some buy 900$ active noise-canceling headphones, some just blast 80's power metal full volume. I'm not that keen on expensive tech gadgets, but there is nothing new in saying that music can easily tune out external distractions. The problem shows up when you notice the words in the song, or emotions in the music - that's just substituting one distraction for another.

A few years ago though, the Interstellar movie (yes, Interstellar came out 4 years ago!) inspired me to take a look at nature noises. Remember how they used to listen to a thunderstorm with crickets on the spaceship? So that's how I found...

MyNoise.net

tl;dr: check out that site, use it to nullify distractions, better than any 'programming playlist'.

On mynoise you can find noise generators that let you relax, meditate, sleep or not go mad during a 23 year long solitary recluse in a spaceship. Moreover, some of them are marked as noise-canceling - put on your headphones and hear what happens when someone talks next to you. White noise is the secret sauce that drowns the world outside of your headphones.

White noise

If you look up white noise, you are most likely going to find thousands of videos and applications designed to help babies sleep. Instead of running a hair drier or vacuum for 6 hours you can just play it on your computer, pretty convenient I guess. But what is white noise?

In the simplest terms, white noise is a random signal with equal intensity at different frequencies. If you look at the power spectrum of synthetic white noise you can see something like this:

White noise spectrum

If we merge it with a human speech the result is not always perfect; if you listen carefully, you can still understand some of the words. However it's usually good enough to prevent distractions. Consider someone talking directly in front of you:

Human speechHuman speech spectrogram

And the same with applied white noise:

Human speech with applied white noiseSpectrogram of human speech with white noise

If the voice was generated two meters away - it would be utterly indescribable.

The topic is quite complicated, but the key takeaway is that white noise is excellent in masking other sounds. Moreover, some of the natural sounds are very close to white noise in the audible spectrum - rain, waterfalls, hair dryers.

I've been using mynoise.net for years already. Listening to actual synthetic white noise isn't the most pleasant experience, but natural noises that are 'close enough' are great for my productivity - they helped me work or think even in the most annoying conditions. My favorite? Tropical rain, Irish Coast, and Cafe Restaurant

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