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Noise and Productivity in Remote Work

29th Apr 2019 –

As a remote worker, you already know that maximizing your productivity is essential. That means you’re going to need high amounts of focus and concentration.

However, that focus and concentration doesn’t come easily. Working outside of a traditional office setup leaves you vulnerable to all sorts of distractions, some of them being in the form of noise.

Who am I to talk about noise and distraction?

Hi, my name’s Madison Perry and I’ve spent the last couple of years as the Marketing Manager for a start-up in Dallas called NoiseAware. We are the world’s first “privacy safe noise monitoring solution”, a technology that keeps short-term rentals (and the communities that they’re in) noise free.

I’m also a graduate from the University of Oklahoma (Boomer Sooner), so I’m used to spending time in environments with lots of people and as a result – lots of noise.

During my time at Oklahoma (and working in a startup environment), I came up with some ways on how to be productive in areas with tons of noise and distractions.

I hope you get as much value from this article as I did when making it!

Why Distraction Costs You More Than You Think

As I said earlier, there is no shortage of distractions in the world of today. Internet, TV, other people talking, random noises, the list goes on and on. It can all seem pretty overbearing at times.

Beyond being overbearing, there’s a price (mentally) that you pay when you get distracted and fail to focus on completing tasks.

As human beings, our natural default mode is to focus on whatever we’re doing single-mindedly. Our physiology and psychology are designed to take the most effective route from point A to point B. This saves our brain a lot of energy and uses it for what is most important.

When you focus on a source of distraction, you are essentially “switching tasks” and as a result, you incur a what is known as a “cognitive switching penalty”. This is the price that your brain pays for having to “load” different aspects of a certain task.

It takes the human brain, on average 25 minutes to refocus on a certain task after an interruption. Over the course of a day, you can easily see how this can add up and make a task take much longer than it reasonably should have.

As of 2012, distractions cost corporate America at least $10,375 per employee.That’s a lot of time and a lot of money that’s not coming back.

What does all of this mean?

It means multi-tasking is largely a myth. You can’t have the main focus on two different things at the same time. For example, you cannot text and drive (effectively) at the same time. When you do both, your overall ability to do both effectively is compromised.

So now that you know why distractions are so bad, let me give you some of my best tips to minimizing them and even avoiding them.

Strategy # 1: Noise canceling headphones (with optional white noise)

As a remote worker, you may find that you’ll want to work out in public to prevent the creeping sense of isolation that affects so many people. You may like working somewhere like a coffee shop or some other area where there’s a lot of traffic around.

If you do, then you’ll definitely need to invest in some noise-canceling headphones. There’s a lot of them out there – but check out this list from TechRadar for some of the best.

Strategy # 2: Places designated for quiet

If you still find that you just can’t really focus in an area with a ton of people coming in and out frequently, I recommend that you find a co-working space or a library. The former is a bit tricky because there’s no real law against talking at a somewhat loud volume. It’s up to the person to be courteous. The latter is more likely to yield better results for quiet because it’s…well… a library.

Experiment with both and see which one works for you.

Strategy # 3: Make a schedule + plan breaks

Throughout the day, as your mind gets fatigued, you’ll find it tempting to reach for distractions.

You just want anything to break the tedium of working on a project, especially one that’s really hard. What ends up happening? Thirty minutes on Facebook there, some minutes watching YouTube here, some games…a couple of hours later – you find that you got sucked into the black hole of doing nothing.

How do you prevent this? You need to create a schedule. You need to create structure. Plan your day out in advance the night before and schedule breaks in the form of 10 minutes.

That will give your mind some time to reset itself after you’ve been working hard for stretches of 30 minutes or an hour.

If you don’t give yourself breaks, you’ll find yourself having unplanned distractions and falling victim to wasting time.

Strategy # 4: Have designated “work” clothes

When you work remotely, it is very easy to fall into the trap of working during “non-work hours”. I don’t even mean working during odd times, I mean having your work unnecessary spill over into the realm of personal time or “me time”.

How do you prevent this from happening?

One strategy is to wear different clothes for work and different clothes for when you’re just “hanging out”.

The distinction between work clothes and non-work clothes is intended to signal to your mind “hey, now we’re working. It’s time to get serious.”

When people work in an office, they obviously get dressed up for work. That time between getting ready for work and commuting puts the brain in a mental shift to “work mode”.

You should be doing the same.

Strategy 5: Get an Internet blocker

This is easily one of the most effective strategies to increase your productivity. Since the Internet remains an omnipresent distraction, what’s the best way to stop that distraction? Simple. Block the Internet.

But you’ll most likely need the Internet for things like group chat, research, and viewing specific sites. Well, there’s a way you can block specific sites.

There are applications like Freedom and Cold Turkey, that filter out sites you choose from specific times – or even altogether.

There’s a lot more, but those two are basic blockers that meet the majority of people’s needs.

Strategy 6: Go with the Flow

My final strategy for reducing distractions and producing creative work is to just accept it.

What do I mean by that?

When people look for distractions or purposefully allow themselves to get distracted, they are looking for a way out of their current situation – that situation being work.

As I said before, the brain doesn’t like to use energy and will do whatever it can to not do so. This means wasting time online.

My best advice is to fully focus on work and do your best at it. Cal Newport touches on this in his book Deep Work, where he tells “knowledge workers” (that’s us!) that focusing on specific tasks for specific periods of time will make us healthier, happier, and most importantly of all – more productive in the long-run.

I’d recommend following his advice because you’ll find that over time, it’ll be worth it.

Wrapping Up

Being a remote worker is tough because you’ll find that you’ll face challenges that the normal person who works in an office doesn’t.

You may be in different time zones than the rest of your teammates and that can drastically shift your plans and even overall time you get started during work.

You may not even have a dedicated office, which can make structuring your day and tasks very difficult.

But with a little creative insight, a little planning, and a lot of desire and willpower, you’ll find that you can end up being much more productive than you may have been in an ordinary office environment.

I hope you enjoyed my tips and that you’re able to use them to the fullest in your journey to be a better remote worker!

Originally published April 29, 2019 - Updated November 09, 2020

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