4 Easy Ways to Be More Productive at Work by Harnessing Noise

Last Updated Oct 10, 2011 10:54 AM EDT

On The Office, Dwight and Jim's cubicle shenanigans are arguably the most entertaining scenes of the series (stapler in Jello, anyone?). In real life, loud and distracting cubemates aren't comic relief -- they are irritating productivity destroyers.

Since I work from home, I control my background noise. I keep it quiet for writing, and listen to music to pass the time when I'm doing mindless tasks like invoicing. But I've done my time in a cubicle, and I know that people in offices don't have that volume control. And noise that goes unharnessed can not only be a nuisance but also a health hazard, according to Alex Doman, who co-authored the new book Healing At The Speed Of Sound. "Noise is our most pervasive pollutant and is second only to air pollution as an environmental cause of ill health," says Doman.

Previous research from Cornell University found that even low-level noise in an open office can increase stress hormones and lower task motivation. Doman agrees: constant stress can demoralize an office. "Noise has a dramatic effect on productivity. Stress caused by noise can even lead to burnout," says Doman. But strategic sounds can have the opposite effect. Here are 4 ways to increase your office's productivity, starting with sound:

1. Choose Music With Care Doman and his co-author Don Campbell place music into three categories, which they call "gears." First gear is made up of bass tones, played at slower tempos (under 60 beats per minute) and includes new age or classical music. Second gear refers to mid to high-range tones, medium tempos (50-90 beats per minute) and includes Baroque music such as Vivaldi or Bach. Third gear is made up of faster paced tempos (90-100 beats per minute) and can include any variety of spirited, upbeat tunes. And as with most things in life, there's a time and place for each. First gear can be used after or before stressful meetings for relaxation, second gear helps you focus, and third gear gets you and your team pumped up, says Doman: "If you're looking for motivation, you can also choose a song with lyrics that are inspirational." Managers should keep music in mind for their teams (for example, a burst of psych-up music before a sales meeting or other team-wide event), and individuals can use it to self-motivate (for example, with headphones at your desk before a performance review or big presentation).

2. Savor Some Absolute Silence Noise-canceling headphones can be a blessing when you need to reflect, calm your mind or merely zone out your annoying cube-mate. But headphones can be anti-social and offensive, depending on your office environment, so you might have to get creative. "I recommend finding five minutes in the morning and in the afternoon to take a silence break -- get outside, sit in your car, find a quiet space in your office or even a bathroom stall, and give [your ears] a rest," says Doman.

3. Tackle Tough Tasks When It's Quiet Working on your most challenging assignments should be done when your office is conducive to it -- which may very well be when your co-workers are gone at lunch or have left for the night. "Even in my own office, where I have a private office, it's a flurry. So I come in a couple hours early and that's my most productive time," says Doman. Not an early bird and have lunch meetings? Once or twice a week, plan to stay a bit after your colleagues leave for happy hour.

4. Be Aware Of Your Own Noise Pollution Contributions
It's important to be self-aware: Are you contributing to the noise problem? Doman suggests downloading a decibel meter app on your smartphone. Normal conversation is 50-55 decibels, but anything over 40 is distracting. Having a measure in front of you can help you take it down a notch if you get over-zealous on the phone. (It'll also help you monitor how loud you're speaking if you are going the headphone route to listen to music.)

Do these suggestions sound good to you? Please share yours in the comments section below.

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    Amy Levin-Epstein is a freelance writer who has been published in dozens of magazines (including Glamour, Self and Redbook), websites (including AOLHealth.com, Babble.com and Details.com) and newspapers (including The New York Post and the Boston Globe). To read more of her writing, visit AmyLevinEpstein.com.

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